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Up Against City Hall

If the shock of the project's price tag wasn't enough, the aftershock is being felt in the streets next to the new building

By Najeeb Hasan

THESE DAYS, Rev. Jim Crawford is more than comfortable in a construction zone. He's standing on the sidewalk adjacent to the front door of his church, First United Methodist, on the corner of Fifth and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose. He greets a few of the construction workers milling about by name, then stops to peer out toward the new City Hall.

"Yep, this neighborhood is going to be very different in five years," he reflects, his gaze fixed on the dome of the new building.

Very different, indeed—a $400 million civic investment will do that. Not to mention Pacific Car Wash and the old Victorian that houses an EHC-run center for homeless youth, both standing on city property on the opposite side of Fifth Street, that will be relocated to make way for a possible performing center. Changes are definitely in the works. But for better or worse?

For Crawford, it's a tough question. He remembers Charlie's Liquors, a liquor store that was the center of everything that was wrong with downtown—crime, drugs, violence, prostitution. His church partnered with the neighborhood activists who helped shut it down. He remembers when two police officers were gunned to death over a drug bust gone wrong at the spot where the plaza of the new City Hall now stands. It was a rough neighborhood. Rough enough that he would wear a coat and tie every day to work (he opts for a more casual style nowadays) with the hope that his dress would impress the hoodlums outside his church and give him some much-needed authority when there was trouble.

And so, Crawford says, he doesn't feel too bad about his own not insignificant contribution to San Jose's rapidly changing downtown block.

Indeed, Crawford's church seems finally to have an optimistic outlook. Burned down in 1991 in a five-alarm fire that made the cover of Firefighter magazine, the church—a beautiful white Spanish-style structure complete with arches, a dome and more than a half-million-dollars' worth of stained glass windows before the fire—has owned a patch of vacant property on the corner opposite from the new City Hall for as long as Crawford has been there.

He was asked to interview for his pastor position a day after the fire and immediately found himself staring at what would become a five-year battle with the insurance company, which accused the church of arson. The church finally won in an out-of-court settlement just before the trial and looked toward rebuilding. Almost a decade and a few tossed-aside plans later, First United Methodist hopes to open its doors again on the corner of Fifth and Santa Clara in July of 2008.

The catch is that there will be 21 stories of luxury condominiums just above it. "I teach Bible classes; I preside over funerals; I do marriage counseling—and I develop high-rise condominiums." He breaks into laughter."What a wonderful life."

Making Room for 'Monstrosity'

Jim Crawford's neighborhood is also Sandy Perry's neighborhood. Perry, a maverick activist in a maverick organization—downtown's Community Homeless Alliance Ministry—operates just a long football heave away from Crawford's First United. Crawford's church on Fifth Street faces the new City Hall from the north; Perry's ministry, also on Fifth Street, faces it from the south.

Perry has had a busy week. But, it seems every week for Perry tends to be busy; he's had his hands full for the last 10 years. More so now, in fact, after the county published its first comprehensive homeless survey early in February. The survey's conclusions were shocking: More than 7,100 people in Santa Clara County—men, women and children—have no homes, the report concluded. The county's homeless problem, brushed aside for so long amid the euphoria of waiting for Silicon Valley's next overnight millionaire, now surpasses even San Francisco's. Meanwhile, the county has only about 3,000 shelter beds to accommodate the 7,100 homeless. Furthermore, San Jose's affordable housing plan for the next five years intends to meet only 5 percent of the need for housing for people in the Extremely Low Income (ELI) category, in other words, the people who need affordable housing the most.

And so Perry has things on his mind. His ministry, housed in First Christian Church on Fifth Street, is slammed up against the back of San Jose's new City Hall. And people who know Perry know better than to get him started on the new building—or the "monstrosity," as he likes to call it. For the cost of erecting the structure, about $400 million, Perry dryly notes that the city could have housed 10,000 families in a two-year rental subsidy program or built 4,000 permanent housing units for those in the ELI category.

When Perry walks around his neighborhood, he doesn't see growth; he sees the needy getting flushed out. His own ministry famously fought the city for the right to shelter the homeless some years back, and it won that battle. But the city seems to be winning the war. An unofficial Sunday-morning service for the poor organized by the community and faith-based groups in nearby St. James Park has already been shut down by the city.

"I got a visit from the city of San Jose's homeless manager," recalls Claire Madriz-Soto, who used to provide clothes, furniture, knickknacks and other items to about 100 people every Sunday for seven years at St. James Park. "He was very nice about it, but he was really encouraging me to stop being at the park. He said because we were having between 80 and 120 people a week and because we were using tables and because [others were] providing food that what we were doing constituted an event. In other words, it would cost $500 a week to provide services for poor."

These are the stories that Perry hears, not the ones about a glittering new downtown. "It started with Tom McEnery. It's the whole purpose of downtown redevelopment," Perry says. "They want to replace the people who are here with upscale people. They're going to raise the property values, and some of low-income housing stops being affordable. I'm not against new stuff, but it should be planned in such a way that it meets people's needs, not in a way that it exacerbates the problem. On Judgment Day, we're not going to be judged by how many high rises we can build or about City Hall, but we are going to be asked about the homeless."

Gentrification's Blessings

After First United's plan to develop the property into a high-rise commercial space stalled once the high-tech bubble burst, and San Jose office space became space with no offices, Crawford kept pursuing his options—by now, he's known more as a developer rather than a pastor around the city—and entered into negotiations with Barry Swenson Builder, the developer who is, somewhat controversially, building what will be the city's first high-rise condominium near St. James Park. Luxury condos in San Jose are selling, as Crawford puts it, like "hot cakes" for $650,000 a pop for the average two-bedroom, and what better way to use the space if office space is out?

Many of the details of the project are still under wraps; the deal with Swenson hasn't been finalized, but Crawford finally felt comfortable enough to present the project publicly one Wednesday in May at a small Horace Mann Neighborhood Association meeting, where he wowed the neighborhood with a sparkling PowerPoint. Crawford will say that the project will cost about $80 million dollars, that's he's getting no money from the city (even though he wants it), and that Swenson is taking all the risk. First United will provide the dirt, own the church (through investing their insurance proceeds), which will take up most of the first three floors, and take a cut from the profits.

The high rise will feature a residential lobby and a white tablecloth restaurant on the ground floor, but the rest of the ground floor, as well as the two floors above, will be taken up by the church. The church, which will have a sanctuary that will be able to accommodate up to 800 people, will face Fifth Street, and the restaurant will face City Hall. The condos—and the pastor tends to get giddy when he talks about them—will be completely urban (the designer, he proudly notes, is also working on a project south of Mission in San Francisco), with the utilities and amenities lined up against the back wall, and the bedrooms and living rooms looking out at the valley through wall-to-wall French windows. There will be a rooftop green space, shared balconies that will be made up of two stories cut out of various portions of the building and 220 mostly one- and two-bedroom units, though the top few floors will be reserved for even more expensive penthouses.

Crawford claims he would have been content building just another church. Even when First United acquired Vintage Tower in 2003, on Sixth and Santa Clara, the first intention was only to buy the Vintage parking lot. But, one thing led to another, and now Crawford plays landlord to the residents of 59 low-income units. The sale, spurred on after Vintage Tower's previous owner defaulted on a multimillion-dollar city loan, was made possible by a $5.2 million tax-credit financing deal, and the church borrowed an additional $2.2 million from the city to renovate the venerable art deco building. And while the conditions of the deal (tax increment money was used for the loan) stipulate that 41 percent of the units be reserved for very-low-income individuals or families and 59 percent be reserved for the low income, people in the extremely low-income group—those in most need of affordable housing in San Jose—are excluded from Vintage Tower.

Meanwhile, before the Vintage deal was struck—the city, unusually, would only negotiate with the church—Crawford says the city was urging the church to build a building that was, in the pastor's words, "big" on the vacant Fifth and Santa Clara corner. The first idea was the high-rise office building and the second was the current mixed-use residential building. Crawford says both the Redevelopment Agency and city planners have been involved in advising the church, but wouldn't name the officials on the project.

Crawford has been a vocal supporter of the new City Hall, not always a popular position in a neighborhood where City Hall and the city's gentrification policy have often been derided. But Crawford sees no contradiction in being a community pastor in a diverse neighborhood on one hand and hawking luxury condos on the other.

"I love downtown," Crawford asserts. "I think downtown needs to grow. I had a chance to visit San Jose [before I was hired] for conferences, and there were vacant lots, prostitutions, drugs. I wouldn't say I'm a proponent of development above all, but the city needs to grow. You need things like Vintage Tower and these condos. Low-income housing sharing a block with market rate housing. People earning $40,000 and $400,000 will be neighbors."

Crawford notes that First United had a job-development program from 1999 to 2004 that was 80 percent successful. "You know why we stopped it?" he asks. "Because we could not get any funding. If the condo deal works, we won't need any funding."


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From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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