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[whitespace] Milpitas Tower Milpenis: Some say the proposed tower has phallic implications for the soul-searching metropolis to the north. The Century on the side is planned to advertise a new theater complex.

Milpitas' search for municipal identity turns out to be a needle in a haystack--er, hayfield

By Will Harper

AT 337 FEET HIGH, it will rise into the sky with the atmospheric penetration factor of a 26-story building, nearly 100 feet taller than downtown San Jose's Fairmont Hotel and almost 10 times larger than the typical structures on the valley floor.

It will, in fact, be the valley's tallest building (though calling it a "building" is something of a misnomer). Commuters stuck in the Interstate 880/Highway 237 logjam will be able to ponder its futuristic splendor for, say, hours a week, while they soak up the gridlock exhaust. Rush-hour captives can watch thrill-seekers being shot 300 feet up the side of the tower at 45 miles per hour past the (lighted) Century Theater sign, then turbo-dropped back down to the steel-reinforced concrete foundation at the bottom.

Conversely, those lounging at the top of the phallic tower can point and give sympathetic looks to the poor commuters below while they sit on the observation deck and soak in the splendor of nearby cultural landmarks like GolfLand and a 1.5-million-square-foot enchanted consumer kingdom known as the Great Mall.

Ladies and gentleman, behold the Silicon Valley landmark of the next millennium: the Space Needle of Milpitas.

OK, MAYBE that's a stretch, but "Space Needle" is what locals are unofficially calling the suburb to the north's proposed monster high-rise, manmade mega-landmark.

In truth, however, the tower being put forth by the new owner of the Great Mall--the Florida-based Michael Swerdlow Companies--mimics images of Las Vegas' Space Needle rip-off, the Stratosphere, more than the 521-foot Seattle original.

In the spirit of Vegas pastiche, the proposed Milpitas "Theme Tower"--the working title--features an amusement-park ride similar to the Drop Zone at Great America. The architects, however, are likening it to neither the Space Needle nor the Stratosphere, but rather a ride at Knotts Berry Farm in Southern California.

The tower is the centerpiece of an estimated $50 million renovation Swerdlow hopes to complete by early to mid 2000 that will turn the 4-year-old Great Mall into what the southeastern developer envisions as the trend of the 21st century: a theme mall.

Across the country in South Florida, Swerdlow built another mega-mall, dubbed the "Hollywood Mall," that boasts a roller coaster, parachute drop and log ride.

When Swerdlow bought the Great Mall in April, reportedly for more than $130 million, he hinted that big changes were in store.

He told reporters he wanted to make the shopping center even more entertainment-oriented--the mall already supports two arcades, batting cages, an archery range and a climbing wall. However, no one knew exactly what big plans Swerdlow had in mind.

And certainly no one knew about the plans for the tower.

Aside from the tower, Swerdlow and his partners want to add a 20-screen movie theater--a la AMC Mercado in Santa Clara--and a huge sports bar, which would be 33 percent larger than the now-defunct San Jose Live! The visionaries also plan to abandon the mall's inconvenient race-track design and add a cut-through path in the middle.

BUT IT IS the so-called Theme Tower that has Milpitans talking. Councilman-elect Jose Esteves declares that he likes the tower proposal because it will put Milpitas on the map. "I want a landmark for Milpitas," he said at a candidate forum during the campaign.

At that same forum, a man in the audience--the Working Joe type who watches football while drinking twin Budweisers from a beer helmet--told his buddy next to him, "I think that sounds pretty cool."

The hometown paper, the Milpitas Post, also has joined the booster chorus.

"Perhaps the most stunning element among the proposals is a plan for a landmark type of tower," the Post gushed in a recent editorial. "The tower would be easily visible from the three freeways which crisscross Milpitas. It could conceivably provide a reference landmark which characterizes an area--the Seattle Space Needle, the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or London's Big Ben."

Big Ben, eh? Does it have a ride, too?

From the developer's standpoint, the primary purpose of the tower is less lofty than bestowing a cultural landmark on the valley.

The bottom line is that it will increase the visibility of the shopping center from the freeway, prompting thousands of unsuspecting drivers to get a closer look and cough up their cash before they spend it all at Valley Fair, Vallco, Oakridge, Eastridge or Stanford Shopping Center. The Great Mall already provides the city with $143 million in tax revenue each year.

Nevertheless, mall representatives recognize the value of the "landmark" spiel as a persuasive sales pitch to city decision makers who must eventually sign off on the project.

Tim Ridner, a spokesman for the Great Mall, says that the Theme Tower will do more than signal to commuters that they have entered shopping land--it will signal the gateway to Silicon Valley.

"We think there are other benefits [than freeway visibility], like creating an icon for the city of Milpitas and Silicon Valley," Ridner says.

At a time when the valley is losing its truly unique historic architectural wonders--the Jose Theatre and the Montgomery Hotel in downtown San Jose, Agnews Developmental Center in Santa Clara--it's significant that a 337-foot imitation of an imitation designed to lure shoppers is being given the imprimatur of "landmark."

"It must be a cultural thing for reverence of the new and disregard of the old," reasons Tom Simon of the Preservation Action Council, the group now fighting an uphill battle with the city of San Jose to save the Jose Theatre from the wrecking ball.

DESPITE THE ground swell of excitement from a few prominent city opinion leaders, Milpitas' Theme Tower is far from being a fait accompli. Last week the city released the nearly inch-thick environmental impact report detailing a variety of significant impacts posed by the project: noise from the Space Shot ride, loss of privacy for residents of the nearby Parc Metropolitan apartments, glare from the lighting and more congestion on the Montague Expressway.

The EIR consultant, Wagstaff and Associates, suggests that the tower, as proposed, is just too big to fit in with Milpitas' small-scale character. "[T]he 337-foot height of the tower would appear monumental and outsized in contrast to the otherwise generally uniform surrounding urban landscape of the Milpitas valley floor."

The tower will have another obvious consequence sure to annoy some of its flatland neighbors: an obstructed view of the hillsides. This point is not lost on community activist Karen Serpa.

Serpa argues that flatlanders voted for Measure Z earlier this month--a measure to limit development of the hillsides--to protect their views. "People living on the valley floor want to enjoy their view of the hillsides," she says. "This tower is going to obstruct a lot of people's views."

Asked what she thinks about the tower being touted as a regional landmark, Serpa just groans. "I just don't think it's an appropriate place for it."

The EIR consultant proposes making the tower less of a visual nuisance by scaling it back from 337 feet to 200 feet or less, eliminating the proposed restaurant from the top and getting rid of the planned rides. In other words, by abandoning all the elements of the proposal that would make the tower a potential tourist attraction.

Because it is still in the early stages of the process, the city has yet to hear gripes from concerned residents not awed about being in the presence of a gigantic theme-mall landmark. (The first public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17.)

But city officials don't expect the silence to last long. "Just the nature of the project is controversial," acknowledges associate planner James Lindsay, "so we anticipate getting lots of comments."

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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