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Drive-In & Cryin'

[whitespace] Winchester Drive-In
Christopher Gardner

Fallen Star: The 24-acre former site of a three-screen drive-in lies fallow in the midst of a fight between open-space advocates and proponents of an R&D park.

Campbell residents fight city hall to make the old Winchester Drive-In a youth park and athletic fields instead of ready-made R&D

By Traci Hukill

CAMPBELL REDEVELOPMENT Agency manager Kirk Heinrichs pulls into an alley off McGlincey Lane, where a hole in the fence provides access to what used to be the Winchester Drive-In. Inside the fence, concrete blocks that once supported speakers still stud the wide, gentle arcs of raised pavement. In the distance, a cluster of palm trees rises, a ragged accent to a crumbling eyesore.

Heinrichs gestures toward the corner we just came through. "The road's going to come through there," he says, and makes a sweeping motion. "The four-acre park will be in the front part of the development." The Winchester Drive-In property, fallow for 15 years, has a long way to go to get there.

The industrial zone huddled between Union Avenue and Highway 17 in Campbell has long proven a little embarrassing to the increasingly upwardly mobile community surrounding it. Officially termed "blighted" by the city's Redevelopment Agency, the area houses a recycling center, warehouses of all kinds, scores of old pickup trucks and lots of aluminum siding.

In the heart of the blight lie these 24 acres of broken asphalt and rampant, scraggly weeds--remnants of the old drive-in movie theater. Last operative 15 years ago, the site has decayed into a wasteland, and since being purchased by the city four years ago for $3.8 million, it has become a political battlefield.

The question of what to do with the old drive-in has polarized the five-member City Council, the seven candidates running for three open council seats and the rest of the community. Prickly questions of land use, representation and interpretation of the city's general plan dominate all political discussions here.

For the past three years, a citizens group called People for Open Space has passionately advocated a plan that would devote the property to recreation, citing a shortfall of parks in the community and a provision in the city's general plan calling for four acres of recreational land per 1,000 people. That ratio now hovers around two acres per 1,000.

Ignoring this small but vocal faction, the Campbell council last year voted 3-2 to build a research park on the property.

Since then, no public meeting has gone on without heated exchanges on the subject. Last Wednesday night, at a candidates forum in the Campbell council chambers, things got suddenly ugly when the subject of the research park came up.

Attending the event were about 40 Campbell citizens--most of them seniors--and six of the seven candidates. The three men on the dais wore somber suits and the equally somber mantles of civic duty. The three women also wore suits, trademark female-candidate hair, and tailored professionalism. All spoke cordially.

But in the midst of this civility a minor outburst erupted in the audience that caused a stunned momentary silence. It came as incumbent Vice Mayor Dan Furtado was delivering his closing comments and responding to several pointed questions concerning the drive-in property. As Furtado reminded his listeners that the open-space supporters had failed to produce funding for their proposal, the vox populi--one of them, anyway--bellowed from the back of the room, "Baloney!"

Every head turned around to discover the speaker, but only composed faces were visible in the chamber's back corner. Moderator Timothy Hinstrom, flustered, requested that the audience please refrain from heckling the candidates. Furtado didn't stick his tongue out, but he did retort, "It hurts to hear the truth, doesn't it?" before finishing his comments.

Three Little Words

AS EVIDENCED BY the city's smart downtown and rising home prices, Campbell is a respectably middle-class city with upper-middle-class aspirations that are becoming a reality. In the frayover the Winchester Drive-In issue, grievances both major and petty have mounted on both sides. Few civic disagreements, however, end up with an appeal to the state Supreme Court, as this one has.

After approval last November of the business park plan, submitted by the Palo Alto-based WTA Technology Park Inc., the open-space coalition called for a public referendum. Its members circulated a petition to put the matter of the parcel's zoning on the ballot and restore the land's "commercial" zoning, which had been changed to "industrial" to allow the development of the park.

More than 3,000 Campbell citizens signed the petition--way more than the 1,900 needed to qualify it for the ballot. It seemed for a brief moment that the old drive-in site might once again be a fun zone. But after a detailed analysis by opponents, it came to light that two different versions of the petition had circulated on volunteers' clipboards. In one version, the text of the title--the part people read before signing on the dotted line--omitted three words: "of four acres."

Some councilmembers objected, saying the omission misled petition-signers. Petition-drive organizers shot back that the issue was so well publicized that signators knew exactly what they were signing.

In January the matter went to the county Superior Court, where Judge John Herlihy ruled the petition invalid based on technical noncompliance. People for Open Space appealed, only to be hit with a July 24 ruling supporting Herlihy's position.

Not yet defeated, the group appealed to the last line of defense in mid-September. Within 100 days they'll know if their case will be heard at the state Supreme Court.

Vice Mayor Furtado and the other councilmembers who voted in favor of the current plan don't believe People for Open Space represents the community's position.

"My personal feeling is that it has not been a major element for the entire community," Furtado says. "It has created in some people's minds a major issue, but I really don't think it was."

But Councilmember Bob Dougherty says the majority flouted the will of the people by sending the petition into the courts.

"So how do you solve it when you have a council majority whose interest is in opposition to a significant portion of the population, who is calling for an election?" Dougherty asks. "Well, I think you put it to the people."

Ironically, the omission of the three words from the petition could only have misled signees into thinking they were calling for the entire property to be dedicated for public use. Asked if the council considered the wealth of signatures, combined with the nature of the error, to be a hint that Campbellites were unhappy with the council's decision to develop, Furtado answers, "If the public wants to put something on referendum, they have to state it correctly. There are procedures to follow."

Ultimately, he points to the bottom line. The youth recreation complex advanced by the petition's authors simply lacked sound funding, he says. Estimated to cost $10 million to build and $350,000 a year to maintain, the idea was easily quashed by WTA's $7.5 million offer to buy the land and the $2 million profit that would proceed from the sale. "After all was said and done, we realized we had nowhere near the money to pay for this thing as a park," Furtado says. "And the people who wanted this had no way of paying for it."

Councilmember Jeanette Watson says that by the time the referendum issue arose, it was too late for the council to reconsider its agreement with WTA, anyway.

"We couldn't reconsider the decision," Watson says. "We had a valid agreement with the purchaser of the property." She goes on to note that monetary issues would have had to go on the ballot, too. "Where would that money come from? Would they be willing to pay more taxes or give up some current programs? That is the issue that would have been discussed, not just open space. Everybody likes open space."

Big-Screen Dream

PEOPLE FOR OPEN SPACE grew out of a group of citizens who called themselves the Sports Mall Task Force. These were people who envisioned for the Winchester Drive-In site not a strip mall selling athletic gear, as the name suggests, but a youth-oriented community complex featuring gymnasiums, counseling centers, recreation areas and sports fields.

By the time the initiative hit the streets, the idea had been pared down from a complex to a big park, complete with several sports fields. The first step in this plan was the zoning change, but supporters had high hopes that they could achieve their bigger goal. Park advocates say they even had an investor lined up in David Mariani of the Griffin Foundation when the council changed the rules. "When we turned in the RFP [request for proposal] the first time, the council listened to all proposals," says council candidate Susanne Waher. "Then they decided, no, we're only going to go for projects which include buying the land."

The council had granted the group an extra six months to secure funding. But at a meeting near the end of the period, in spite of obvious interest in the project from county parks director Paul Romero, the council refused to grant an extra couple of weeks so Romero could approach the board of supervisors with the plan.

Bob Dougherty also notes that in order to pull together grants from charitable foundations like the Griffin or Packard, the funding institutions would need to know that the city--the land's owner--is on board with the plan.

"[Recreation center supporters] came back time after time and told us, 'We can get the money if you get behind us,' " Dougherty recalls. "And the council wouldn't do it." Had the council granted that favor, he says, "this all could have been resolved two or three years ago." He also says that in the spring of 1997 and again in the spring of 1998, the council refused to even discuss putting the issue on its agenda.

"Dan Furtado said it would be 'inappropriate' to put this issue on the ballot," he says. "I think the real question you have to ask is, 'What is the council afraid of?' "

"We keep looking for a hidden agenda," council candidate and open-space supporter Susanne Waher says. "I really don't think there's anything sinister about it." But the "hidden" part of the council majority's agenda may not be anything covert at all. Mayor Jeanette Watson, who calls herself a fiscal conservative, says she's thrilled at the prospect of bringing 750 new jobs to Campbell--and at the revenue those hungry, busy people will generate in her town of 38,000.

"We haven't had a business park that is campuslike, and that's exciting to me because some of the people who live in our city would not have to be driving to North First [Street] or Sunnyvale," Watson says. "They could bike or walk to work."

As far as the general plan's goal of four acres of open space per 1,000 people is concerned, Watson says she sees the plan as a set of guidelines more than strict rules.

"When you do a general plan, you kind of put your dream out there," she says. "What I think people fail to realize is Campbell does have between 20 and 30 acres of open space in its perc ponds."

Dougherty raises his eyebrows at mention of the percolation ponds. "We looked at the perc ponds extensively," he says. "There's significant neighborhood opposition to the perc ponds. They'd be fine for passive recreation space--strolling or running. But not for things like baseball or soccer."

The late longtime politico Gordon Reynolds, who first brought the drive-in land to the public's attention when he couldn't find a place to coach his daughter's softball team, felt that more than any other community in the valley, Campbell has felt the squeeze of overcrowding. Many of the activists who have taken up the recreation-area cause consider parks necessary havens from the relentless hustle of the valley floor.

"One of the best ways to make a slum is to pack people on top of each other like sardines and then give them no space, no place to recreate," says Councilmember Matthew Dean.

Dean is not up for re-election in this race. Of the seven candidates vying for the three open seats, counselor Susanne Waher, retired Lockheed executive Bud Alne and real estate broker Ted McElhone define themselves as open-space advocates. Jeanette Watson, Dan Furtado, Jane Meyer-Kennedy and Jim Martin oppose the open-space idea. That will probably be all that many people need to know come Nov. 3.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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