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No Way, Jose

Jose Theater
Christopher Gardner

Show Stopper: In its heyday, the Jose Theater in downtown San Jose showcased the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Al Jolson and Harry Houdini. The 92-year-old landmark lies at the center of a modern power play over who should control historical buildings downtown.

Despite the public outcry, the redevelopment agency wants to gut the venerable Jose Theater and control the fate of all historical buildings downtown. But preservationists say the show's not over yet.

By William Harper

The first performance inside the dormant Jose Theater in at least five years went down on a blustery day last August before a small audience.

On center stage: the deteriorating theater itself. The master of ceremonies: the Redevelopment Agency of San Jose. About 40 site-seers--historical preservationists, theater buffs, passersby--poured into the theater at the agency's invitation. One woman working to save the building from demolition, skeptical about the agency's sudden openness, mused beforehand, "Maybe they want us to change our minds about saving it."

The theater, closed since 1991, was predictably a mess. Its wooden floors were chipped; the red seats were worn, stained and turning brown; the screen, which once served as the blank tapestry for films, was torn and useless. Random blotches on the plaster walls revealed the brick structure behind them. One observer theorized they had been removed during seismic testing of the 92-year-old landmark building. Cracks between the bricks didn't instill comfort. Occasional reminders of the former vaudeville house's history surface from time to time, such as a dusty wad of unsold nine-cent tickets lying backstage.

"It would take a lot of money to fix this up," a 70-ish man commented to his wife. "It sure would," she agreed. The Redevelopment Agency, most likely, would have been happy to agree.

BEFORE GOING ANY further, perhaps it's best to set the stage. The agency wants to demolish most of the historic theater, plus two adjacent buildings in the half-block bordered by East San Fernando and South Second and Third streets, and replace them with a $20.8 million, five-story, 107-unit housing and retail project. As a token gesture of historical preservation, the facade and lobby of the former vaudeville house--one of the last remaining in the country--would remain intact. However, plans to gut the theater were not publicly discussed prior to June of this year; the agency buried its proposal within its inches-thick budget and kept negotiations secret. That was fine with the City Council (which doubles as the Redevelopment Agency Board), which privately knew that former hopes to restore the theater had been scrapped in favor of this new proposal. Yes, there was some morning-after remorse expressed by councilmembers about the process. Perhaps it could have been more open, some conceded. Nevertheless, they gave the deal their blessing in June. Since that time, the agency has also tried to wrest control of the city's historic buildings from the city planning department, by proposing a change to the downtown zoning ordinance and supervising token public input. The Jose's days as a theater appeared numbered. But are they?

Preservationists, alerted late to the agency's plans for the historical theater, hope to derail the housing/retail project with a legal challenge about whether the agency adequately considered historical factors in environmental impact. With the threat of a lawsuit looming, agency officials are now publicly downplaying the importance of the redevelopment board's vote in June. At last summer's tour of the theater, the agency's downtown coordinator, Dennis Korabiak, told gatherers that he needed to clear up some "misinformation" in the press. This was not a done deal yet, he assured those present. Demolition of the historic theater hadn't been approved; there were still significant procedural and legal hurdles to clear. All the board did in June, Korabiak explained, was approve the business terms for the deal. Under those terms, the agency will provide $9.8 million to help buy the land and build the $20 million new project, to be called Century Center. Developers Barry Swenson of Swenson Builders and James Fox of Saratoga Capital will handle the rest with a combination of $2 million equity and a conventional $9 million bank loan.

Jose Theater

AGENCY OFFICIALS are right when they say that the redevelopment board only approved the deal's business terms. But that's not an insignificant act. By approving those terms, the board revealed the direction it wants to go. In fact, it chose a totally different direction than previously discussed--a direction decided upon behind closed doors, without public input. Preservationists like Karita Hummer bristled when they heard Korabiak's spin on what happened. "We keep getting different stories," she says. "There's no question a decision was made. Depending on exactly how they define that may leave some room for interpretation. But the project is obviously going forward. I think a decision was made, and they were very far along in the process."

If there was so much "misinformation," the agency did nothing to correct it at first. Officials spoke of the planned housing and retail project as if it were inevitable. "As you are aware," Redevelopment Director Frank Taylor wrote in a July 25 letter to a Jose supporter, "the City Council and Redevelopment Agency Board voted to proceed with the project as put forth. While both are aware of the Jose Theatre's landmark status, they agree that this is the most viable use of the theatre."

TO HUMMER, who co-chairs the Preservation Action Council of San Jose task force trying to save the building, the Jose is a jewel. Designated a city landmark in 1991, it's also a contributing structure to the downtown's historic commercial district. The modest facade, the only part of the original building to be preserved aside from the lobby, is a mixture of California Mission and Spanish colonial architecture designed by prominent local architect William Binder. But it's not only the architecture that gives the building its sense of history. It was one of the first theaters in the country specifically built for vaudeville shows, and performers like Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Al Jolson and Harry Houdini graced its stage. When vaudeville died, the Jose stayed alive as a movie theater until it closed five years ago. Hummer is circulating petitions to block the building's demolition and return it to a theater arts use.

The petitions, however, are not what has redevelopment officials worried. It's the legal saber being rattled by Hummer's counterpart on the Preservation Action Council task force, Tom Simon. Following the board's vote, Simon reminded the agency of a few pesky things like state law and the city's previously stated preservation standards. Demolition of a landmark or historic structure triggers an environmental impact report (EIR) under the the California Environmental Quality Act.

According to Simon, a staff memo that went to the redevelopment board suggested that an environmental impact report done in 1992 for the downtown strategy plan satisfied state law. But the plan, he says, makes preserving and restoring historic structures a high priority.

Simon adds that the planned development proposes to tear down not only the Jose Theater but also two adjacent historic buildings. Such a project threatens the integrity of the entire downtown historic district, he says, and goes well beyond anything contemplated in the 1992 EIR, thus requiring a supplemental report.

The agency, leery of a lawsuit (the Preservation Action Council successfully challenged San Jose State University's plans to demolish the Scheller House a couple of years ago), agreed and acted as if that's what it intended to do all along. But it was only when the threat of litigation arose that redevelopment officials started to backpedal and insist it would do everything by the book. "I think they thought nobody would notice and they'd just go ahead," Simon says.

Theoretically, the updated EIR could conclude that the theater's demolition can't be mitigated. Then it's up to the Redevelopment Agency to decide whether it wants to move forward with its housing and retail project anyway, according to Simon.

Jose Theater

BEFORE JUNE, MOST people had only heard of the agency's on-again, off-again plans to renovate the theater as a high-tech home for El Teatro Campesino, the Latino theater group headed by playwright Luis Valdez. While the agency said restoring the theater was an option, there were doubts about El Teatro Campesino's ability to handle the high operating costs--between $2 million and $3 million, according to a spokesman for the theater company--even if the agency paid for the estimated $13.8 million renovation costs.

Hummer and other preservationists want the agency to revive talks with El Teatro so the Jose can remain a theater. But David Gazek, the agency's assistant director of program development, says no theater group could make the Jose work from a business standpoint in its existing configuration. It's too small and the sightlines are poor, he says. "That's the irony: No theater group can use that theater in its current form." Housing or modernized theater--Gazek says either way, the Jose would have to be demolished. Besides, no theater group was waiting in the wings, redevelopment officials say.

What about El Teatro?

"My understanding is they are no longer interested," Korabiak says. That's not exactly true, says Phil Esperanza, a spokesman for El Teatro. Indeed, the group continues to pursue other projects. It's now busy working out a deal with the new state university in Monterey to become the theater company in residence there. But El Teatro hasn't totally given up on the Jose. "We're ready and willing to fulfill those plans we outlined [in 1994], but we're not going to get into a fight with our sister art organizations and fight over money," Esperanza says, alluding to other publicly supported projects like the one to build a home for the Repertory Theater. "It was unfortunate [that the agency didn't pursue El Teatro's proposal] but the people and leaders of San Jose must deal with what they feel is important." As for the El Teatro's finances, Esperanza says the group is in the black.

PLANS TO RENOVATE the theater were apparently scrapped for good last year when the agency hit hard times. When an unexpected construction boom in the city's industrial areas poured money back into the agency's coffers this year, the Jose was returned to its to-do list, but not as a theater. Housing is the new rallying cry to save the downtown and the agency's five-year spending plan calls for adding 1,000 apartments and condominiums. More downtown residents will mean more shoppers. Consumers are in short supply now in the downtown, as demonstrated by the empty storefronts in the agency-supported retail Pavilion.

Redevelopment staff negotiated a deal behind the scenes for months, keeping the City Council privately abreast of a new housing and retail scheme for the Jose. Kevin Pursglove, one-time radio show host turned spokesman for Hammer, dismissed the suggestion that the deal should have taken anyone by surprise. "That building in and of itself has been talked about since as long as I've worked here for the mayor--about three years now."

There wasn't, however, public discussion of a five-story mixed-use housing development. "From my standpoint," says Simon, himself a downtown resident, "they wake up one morning and say, 'We need to build housing.' The block east of this site is a vacant city block. Why do they have to build this housing right here? It seems kind of arbitrary how they decide these kinds of things."

And who better than Jose co-owners Swenson and Fox, along with their neighbor Chester Wang, to share in the agency's rediscovered wealth and help it fulfill its housing goals? The trio who stand to gain the most from the Jose deal have been generous contributors to the campaigns of several city council members and the mayor. The agency expects to pay Fox, Swenson and Wang, who owns most of the property involved,
$4.6 million for the land--or nearly $70 a square foot. Wang, reportedly paid $45 a square foot in 1984, but later spent a lot of money on improvements. Meanwhile, the trio has poured at least $12,500 into council and mayoral campaigns over the past two years. While that figure is only a small proportion of the total contribution tally, it's nothing to sneeze at in a city with strict contribution limits. Swenson was recently fined $20,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for laundering money into Pat Dando's 1995 council campaign.

WHILE THE Redevelopment Agency publicly downplays its intention to demolish the Jose, it's clear officials want to move forward with the planned housing and retail project. An internal agency memo from August "conservatively" estimates it will take about 26 weeks to clear the various procedural hurdles--determining the scope of the environmental impact report, writing the report itself, and review by the planning and historic landmarks commissions--to have demolition approved.

"The schedule is conservative, and we are working to shorten it since it is the critical path to starting construction," the memo says. Preservationists like Simon remain vigilant, and are keeping a watchful eye on the agency's every move.

Public scrutiny, he believes, is especially critical right now as the Redevelopment Agency fights with the planning department to win control over who issues historical permits in the downtown. Those permits must be obtained in order to demolish or alter a historical landmark. Critics say the agency wants control of the permit process, which includes lengthy public hearings, because more historic buildings possibly stand in the way of future redevelopment deals. Redevelopment officials counter that the agency has pumped in almost $30 million over the last 15 years to to save old buildings like the DeAnza Hotel.

Nevertheless, preservationists want the permit process to remain in the hands of the city planning department.

Putting the Redevelopment Agency in charge of historic permits could result in more historical losses for downtown, they say. And they plan to make their views known at the planning commission meeting Nov. 13. For now, Simon and Hummer hope the agency's recent openness is a sign of things to come and not just a facade.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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