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Sun Don't Shine

By Corinne Asturias

THE RESIDENTS OF WILLOW GLEN this week witnessed the bulldozing of Maryott's Iris Gardens on Bird Avenue, and the area lost one of its few remaining agricultural outposts, not to mention a place to drink in a dazzling display of spring color. Owner Bill Maryott chose to sell his property to a developer for a tidy sum and move his operation to more profitable pastures in Corralitos. What goes on between private property owners and their buyers can be a pity, fodder for rueful coffeeshop conversations and lamentations in the park. But when a historical sacrifice occurs with the sale of publicly owned land to private interests, it's an outrage. And such is the case with two prime pieces of historic real estate, the Montgomery Hotel and the Agnews site, both on the chopping block and both sweetheart deals between government and private business.

IN THE CASE OF THE 86-YEAR-OLD Montgomery Hotel, the Redevelopment Agency wants to sell the elegant turn-of-the-century landmark to the Fairmont Hotel for razing and replacement with a new tower. The Fairmont's willingness to expand is admirable, but there are three other potential sites within a few blocks. Destroying a historic hotel with the unique assets of the Montgomery seems folly, especially with the burgeoning popularity of boutique hotels up the peninsula and to the north. Even the agency can't plead ignorance about the Montgomery's charms, having already spent $600,000 toward restoration. The $4 million deal seems to be another instance of the agency bowing to development pressure and giving away the store. But in this case (as with the Jose Theatre), it's a public store, otherwise known as history.

In the debate over the Montgomery it's tempting to heap blame on the Redevelopment Agency and its director, Frank Taylor, who, if left to his own devices, might well function like a one-man El Niño on San Jose's historic inventory. The fact is, Taylor reports to the members of the council; they are elected to guard the city's assets and treasures even when tossed their respective redevelopment bones. If the Montgomery goes down, it is under the watch of the 11 elected people sitting behind the dais.

IMAGINE A LITTLE LEAGUER stepping into the batter's box at Candlestick park to hit a 90 mph fastball. That's what it's been like watching the Santa Clara City Council contemplate the general plan change that would ultimately allow Sun Microsystems to mushroom onto the 82.5-acre grounds known as the Agnews site and demolish the lion's share of the facilities there.

Agnews, of course, has never enjoyed much in the way of good public relations. The unfortunately named site, which was created as a neuropsychiatric facility in the late 1800s, still evokes images of Cuckoo's Nest for many valley dwellers. The fact is, the parcel is 82.5 acres of parklike landscaping and mature trees (one from each state in the union), plus 49 mission-style, turn-of-the-century buildings. Wandering the grounds, it is hard to imagine how this gem has remained a secret.

The Santa Clara City Council has so far held onto its municipal power like a tiny batter gripping the bat (some of its members no doubt longing for the dugout). But despite the council's vote for a weeklong stay of execution, it appears unlikely that preservation interests can withstand the tag team of the State of California and Sun Microsystems, who hammered out this stellar deal months ago. The public/private partners are proud of their alliance (the relationship between Gov. Pete Wilson and Sun CEO Scott McNealy notwithstanding), touting the sale as a boon for taxpayers.

The deal itself may go down as one of the sweetest of the latter half of this century. Sun picks up prime land for a paltry $400,000 an acre, while nearby acreage goes for several times as much. The state wipes the dust off its hands, and maybe in five or 10 years people won't even remember what was there.

WHILE LAMENTING these events with a colleague last week, he shook his head, then smiled and commented: "Maybe we're getting old." This is entirely possible, of course, but I reflect that we grew up in an era of voracious stucco malls and checkerboards of suburban tract housing. As a child in this valley, I watched countless orchards plowed under and Victorians mowed down. I learned that once pieces of the past are destroyed, they can never be taken back. In the rush toward stylish stucco boxes and shingled mansard rooftops, the '60s and '70s saved little. Those once edgy structures were, within a decade, distinctly unstylish (possibly the way a pastel-colored neoclassical mini-mall will look in about 10 years). In terms of old to new, we are now facing an imbalance of enormous proportions. Century-old buildings--which have weathered two world wars, two major earthquakes and the development urges of 25 city councils--can hardly be viewed as a nuisance.

Today, people happily spend their disposable income visiting quaint towns to journey back into the world of their grandparents and great-grandparents, to feel the spaces, shapes and materials that framed a now-extinct world. There are so few remaining places for future generations to see polished wood from old-growth forests, to view the sky through rippled glass or to feel the elegance of a ceiling crafted before urban sprawl. Visitors bureaus around the country understand this. Why don't our leaders get it?

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

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