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Feng City

City Hall
Christopher Gardner

Location, Location, Location: Feng shui practitioner Sidney Bennett says San Jose's new City Hall complex should not face Fifth Street and will need a fountain.

Feng shui expert and relocation task force agree: new City Hall site just feels right, but some say feelings don't outweigh the facts

By Michael Learmonth

FOR A MOMENT, Sidney Bennett seems overcome by her surroundings: the midday heat, a ripe sewer, the smell of blight in summer. Just past Fourth Street, East Santa Clara cuts a wide, litter-strewn swath through the Horace Mann neighborhood in downtown San Jose. A mere five blocks from the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, this strip of vacant storefronts and fast-food joints seems miles, if not worlds, away from the spiffy facades and glittering high rises that stop abruptly a block west.

Bennett, a classically trained practitioner of the 3,000-year-old Chinese art of feng shui, squints up at the noontime sun. Then she surveys the two blocks upon which San Jose is about to stake its grandest ambitions. Amid the graffiti, sickly elms and bird guano, she sees potential.

"It feels good to me as a place," she says, looking at a flock of dirty pigeons roosting on the Video Tek TV sign. "The birds are a nice sign of life. You look for things like that. And the trees help, too."

Most members of the Civic Center Relocation Task Force share Bennett's feelings about the place. For it is here that they recommend building a futuristic symbol fitting of the Capital of Silicon Valley, the biggest city by the bay, the progressive urban multicultural utopia.

By the turn of the century, a glinting 17-story city hall will tower over San Jose's new Main Street. The white-shirt-and-cell-phone lunch crowd, which currently circulates in the heart of downtown, will extend from the Adobe buildings to the west, the Federal Building to the south, St. James Park to the north and the new City Hall to the east.

Bennett walks along East Santa Clara, taking in the landscape. "A 17-story building is very yang, very masculine," she says. "What you will need are some curves to it. That gives it some yin."

Feng shui (pronounced "fung shway") is a traditional Chinese method of studying the natural environment and determining the arrangement of physical surroundings to promote the positive flow of chi, or energy.

"Have you gone to someone's home, store or business or even an office building and felt particularly good there?" Bennett says. "Or maybe you've been to a place that made you feel uneasy. These are places that have either good or bad feng shui."

Bennett's impressions of East Santa Clara Street, admittedly a bit touchy-feely, seem apropos, given that the city of San Jose is relying on a task force report based more on feelings than facts.

If hard numbers were the only consideration, the city would never have recommended moving city hall in the first place.

The San Jose Civic Operations Master Plan, prepared by a consultant in the spring of 1996, shows that the cheapest way to accommodate an expanding city government would be to build a new structure at the current Civic Center site. Yet the report still recommends moving city hall, arguing that the relocation option "would have only slightly higher cost impacts than the building programs focused on the existing Civic Center."

Spending the extra cash to move downtown, the report says, would be "compensated for by numerous qualitative benefits that would accrue to the city."

Bennett agrees. "A city hall is a place for the people," she says. "That it be centrally located is good feng shui."


Downtown's old and new developments
aren't all up to feng shui code.


Shifting Center

FROM HIS OFFICE WINDOW on the 13th floor of 160 W. Santa Clara St., Al Ruffo looks down San Pedro Street to the Civic Center in its soon-to-be-former location. When he came to San Jose in 1927, Ruffo says, the corner of Mission Street and N. First Street was farmland on the edge of a sleepy pueblo. Today, with its proximity to the Guadalupe Parkway and highways 101 and 880, the Civic Center seems to Ruffo to be in the center of town.

Al Ruffo is a San Jose treasure. He served on the City Council from 1944 to 1952, helped found the San Francisco 49ers (and later coached the team) and has represented developers in town for more than 40 years. And in 1958, he was among those who helped move the Civic Center to its current home.

In recommending a move to East Santa Clara Street, Ruffo says, the civic center task force relied on a set of questionable assumptions.

"There are no hard figures," he says. "I know what task forces do. I know how they work. They don't get into anything in depth."

The task force was not asked to study anything in depth. In time, the Department of Public Works will produce reams of analysis on the Santa Clara Street site. But in choosing a site, the task force has set a process in motion that is gathering momentum by the day.

In choosing a site, the task force was instructed to adhere to the following criteria: the city shouldn't take land off the tax rolls likely to receive private investment; the site should be located centrally in an accessible part of town; it should be in an area experiencing blight; it should establish the foundation of private investment; it should be big enough to accommodate future expansion; and it should be "sized and situated to accommodate a project with the quality and stature befitting the 11th largest city in the United States."

Ruffo says the Santa Clara Street location fits almost none of the criteria.

First off, he argues that East Santa Clara Street is a prime location for private investment because it's the last area of downtown suited to a privately built office building outside the noisy airport flight path.

Second, he says, moving at least another 1,500 cars next to a university of 27,000 students and onto a street that already carries 20,000 cars a day will hardly make the new city hall more accessible.

East Santa Clara Street will also gain a share of the 17,300 cars that use Taylor Street, the 66,000 that use Guadalupe and the 11,700 that pass North First and Mission streets.

"If that traffic comes down, it will be a parking lot down there," Ruffo says.

Third, Ruffo takes issue with the premise that public buildings create private investment. According to the theory, a public building on East Santa Clara Street would support private businesses because folks who come downtown to work will also shop there. But Ruffo says all the evidence points to the contrary.

"Government employees are not shoppers," Ruffo says. "They arrive at work a minute before 8am, and at 4pm they're lined up like sprinters ready to head for their cars."

As evidence, he points to the Federal Building on South First Street, which has done little to keep the Pavilion from being "a dismal catastrophe." San Francisco's Civic Center has thwarted commercial development around its Van Ness Street neighborhood and serves as a magnet for the homeless, he says. And San Jose's own Civic Center has managed to support just a sprinkling of restaurants and sandwich shops in its current location.

Civic Center Boosters

AS FOR THE EFFICIENCIES the city would allegedly gain by moving the Civic Center downtown, Ruffo says having the police department stay put while moving the rest of the city government is a mistake. He says the city attorney, planning department and city manager all work closely with the police department. He asks: "How can you build efficiency with that kind of deal?"

Nevertheless, the new city hall is an immensely popular civic undertaking. Bureaucrats want it. Sixty-one percent of city residents want it, according to a November 1996 vote. And the Horace Mann homeowners, who have struggled for years to take East Santa Clara Street back from the pimps and drug dealers, want it.

"I'm personally happy about it," says Sue Cam, president of the Horace Mann Neighborhood Association. "The majority attitude is it will clean up the neighborhood."

With all due respect to the venerable Ruffo, those opposing form a ragtag coalition. Ralph Signorino voices his opposition by planting a sign in front of city hall. And Alice Woody, the only councilmember on the record with reservations, defers to Ruffo on the specifics: "I support what he has to say 100 percent."

To assuage their concerns, the civic center task force offers commentary in their report, such as: "The area needs a big boost. The Civic Center provides an opportunity by which to sculpture virgin territory. Some people may not feel comfortable going to a downtown core site, but will feel comfortable coming to the east side of downtown. This is the diversity site."

The feng shui master says the new city hall could be made appealing to the public with the addition of water elements--fountains, glass and mirrors. "You can do it with lines that undulate," she says. "You don't want paths that lead directly; you want meandering paths. You need curved edges to soften it. And the water element will soften it."

To our knowledge there was no feng shui expertise on the task force.

The city promises traffic studies, economic analysis and a full environmental impact report. Pity the doubting city engineer who produces a depressing traffic study. Until then, this freight train is running.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro.

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