Monday, October 29, 2007

Stadium Follies

After the Oct. 23 City Council meeting, I can only assume the Santa Clara Plays Fair advocacy group intends the word 'play' in its theatrical sense. In which case, its troupe might do better to tour its act on the comedy club circuit rather than at City Hall.

Its show bombed when the anti-49ers stadium group flung its fanfold computer paper petition across the width of the Council Chambers in streamer after streamer. It reminded me of the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera when Groucho, Chico and Harpo all try to get through customs with Maurice Chevalier's passport.

The performance wasn't improved by a spontaneous encore from the city's reigning municipal rage-monger, a guy with comedian Lewis Black's psycho delivery but none of Black's cleverness or wit.

Perhaps you shouldn't judge the message by the messenger. On the other hand, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium is the message.

Belligerence, confrontation, adolescent antics, clumsy sarcasm, and snide -- and not-so-snide – insults all telegraph a clear message, although probably not the one SCPF intended.

The message that came through is a zero-sum power play: I win, you lose. It denies compromise and consensus. It's the Bush-Cheney modus operandi. It leads to waterboarding, not fair play.

And tactically, it makes no sense to alienate people right out of the box. Take me, for example.

I have no opinion about the proposed 49ers stadium project. I'm not a football fan. I will probably never set foot in the stadium. If anyone has no horse in this race, it's me.

But after last week's meeting, although I remain undecided about the stadium, I sure do have an opinion about SCPF.

And that's a lose-lose. I didn't gain any more insight into the question and they lost the opportunity to gain a vote.

There are other ways to do things. In fact, there's someone right here in town whose name is synonymous with win-win politics: retired State Senator John Vasconcellos.

The senator was a master at finding consensus with people of widely disparate views. In the process he racked up significant legislative achievements. Since retiring, he's been actively advancing his approach through his non-profit Politics of Trust foundation.

Its guiding principal is simple: "Human beings are innately inclined toward becoming affirming and constructive, responsible and trustworthy." So far the organization has launched three projects to coach and mentor elected officials and advocacy groups in the art of influencing and governing through building common ground.

What does that have to do with the price of a 21st century sports stadium?

Vasconcellos' approach suggests, for a start, assuming that those who disagree with us are honest and want the best for Santa Clara, just as we do. That precludes last week's sideshow.

Second, let's keep the discussion on the issue facing us: Is it a prudent investment for the City? Asking why the Yorks don't ante up to fill the $200 million funding gap is specious. Cities have revenue streams that private businesses don't – taxes.

How does tax revenue look 10, 20, 50 years into the future? Can the stadium help the City reduce its vulnerability to the boom and bust cycles of technology and real estate? Because this would be a regional asset – and a regional sales tax generator -- shouldn't the rest of the region contribute?

These are some of the questions I look forward to hearing answers to as analysis goes forward. However, I'm not likely to tune in to reruns of the Santa Clara Plays Fair show any time soon. Maybe TV Land will air them, right after All in the Family.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Carmelite Convent - Santa Clara's Oasis of Tranquility

A few days ago, someone told our Weekly photographer Christy Kinney that he was delighted to read this week's cover story about the Carmelite Monastery on Benton St. The reason was that he had just visited it for the first time and found a wonderful tranquility in the grounds and the church.

That's what makes our efforts worthwhile.

The convent is one of my favorite spots around Santa Clara. I discovered it shortly after moving here in 1983 and often went there on Sunday afternoon for vespers. It was very healing for me at a time when I often felt disoriented after moving from upstate New York to work for a now long-defunct Silicon Valley startup.

The Carmelite convent was also a favorite of my mother's. When she visited, we often walked in the olive orchard and sat by the shady, secluded shrine of Virgin Mary. Afterwards we would ride out to Alviso for a light supper at Val's and a walk past the now "high and dry" early 20th century yacht club.

As soon as we crossed the border into Alviso, my mother would announce, "Well now we're in John Steinbeck's California." She liked that California better than Silicon Valley. She would be sad to see relentless gentrification pushing ever deeper into the faded, sleepy little town at the tip of the Bay.

Alviso has a close connection with Santa Clara history.

Santa Clara pioneer Harry Wade built a wharf in Alviso to accommodate freight shipping from South Bay locations to San Francisco. Harry's son Charles married Estafina Alviso, daughter of Ygnacio Alviso, majordomo fo the Santa Clara Mission and grantee of the Rancho Rincon de los Estros — where today's Alviso stands.

We don't do the best job in Santa Clara of promoting the historic charms of our city. One of the few times they get in the spotlight is the Historic Home Tour in December. I'd love to see a Santa Clara history and neighborhood tour. What are your favorite spots around town? Maybe we can talk it over some time over a cup of coffee at Val's.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Getting Connected

Let's face it -- City Council meetings are pretty dull most of the time.

You've got to hand it to Council Members, whatever you think of them or their politics. It takes a special dedication to plough through those meetings every two weeks -- not to mention enduring verbal rotten tomatos thrown on a regular basis by Santa Clara's unhinged and perennially malcontent. Like I once read about the Queen of England: She attends more boring events in a month than most people do in a lifetime.

However, for those of us who find it necessary on occasion to be physically present at a meeting -- instead of watching it on TV -- things have gotten better recently.

I'm referring to the free WiFI Internet access that the City provides as a courtesy in the Chambers. Now while you're waiting for your agenda item to come up, you can handle your email, IM your buddies, post to your blog, do your Christmas shopping or Google your ex-husband.

Also worthy of mention is that the City recently added an electrical outlet for the press table so members of the fourth estate can charge up their laptops during marathon meetings.

Now if we could just click "close" on some people's mouths....

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I got an email this morning urging SaveBAREC supporters to turn out for tonight's City Council meeting, where Council Members will have to vote to either rescind the zoning changes that enable the Santa Clara Gardens project to go forward or refer the question to voters in a special February election.

My first thought, was Not another marathon. I mean, give it a rest, guys. At this juncture, either way SaveBAREC has won this battle. Save your breath for the election.

Then I happened to scan the distribution list. Among the familiar local media names there was this one:

Neil Cavuto?

The guy who said last week that Karl Rove's departure from Washington was going to be a "loss for Wall Street" despite the evidence of ongoing panic from some of the administration's financial policy highlights like the unfolding mortgage loan catastrophe? That Cavuto?

It's said that politics makes strange bedfellows. But what could SaveBAREC possibly hope to gain from attention from Fox News' "premier business reporter" and Bush administration water carrier? If anything, I would expect Cavuto to come out strong for blanketing the BAREC site with $2 million zero-lot McMansions -- the hell with granny -- and skipping the cleanup -- after all, a little arsenic never hurt anyone.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Santa Clara Politics Deja Vu

I was amused to hear the Santa Clara Gardens [BAREC] project described as "the Summerhill Gillmor development project" by an opponent at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

That's what a large footprint Gary Gillmor, mayor in the 1960s, has in Santa Clara. People blame him for everything, things that happened a decade before he was mayor and things that happened long after he left office.

When I interviewed Gillmor in 2005, when I asked about the downtown redevelopment debacle, he told me," I get blamed for the urban renewal – or the wrecking of the downtown. I hate to tell them that was in 1958, I wasn’t even in office then. But people still think that I did it. [they say] 'Look what he did to the downtown.' "

Sort of a local pro-development boogeyman: You better behave or Gary Gillmor will develop the backyard.

It's a reflection of his importance to the City's history.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the City very likely wouldn't be the place it is today without Gillmor, who was Santa Clara's first elected mayor. Certainly, Santa Clara's municipal power company owes a significant part of its enormous success to his personal charisma and outsize confidence in his own vision.

"We were in a constant struggle with PG&E," he told me in our 2005 interview. "I was elected chairman of the Northern California Power Agency, which was the benefit of having a mayor with continuity because.. our power agency was a new agency at the time. We were in a constant struggle with PG&E who wanted us not to be successful. I would go all the time, representing 15 cities. I was their chairperson for five, six, seven years. And Donald Von Raesfield was key to our successes. We were a team.

"In government you have to have knowledge. Knowledge is power. We went into geothermal power, hydro plants. It wasn’t a new utility, but we expanded it.

At one point Gillmor had the audacity to advise the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that they should create a municipal power company. No doubt today they regret not listening to the brash young mayor from the cow town to the south.

"Another thing was the planning. We had a lot of pressure on us for north of the Bayshore at that time to allow housing. All the housing developers were after us, but we said ‘no’ and we kept that area for our industrial base. Why even during one of my years in office we lowered taxes, which was unheard of."

He's an interesting guy to talk to, with a kind of free-wheeling style that you don't see in politicians any more – for good or bad.

In 2004 there was a lot of talk about contributions from Gillmor and his family to candidates in local races. The Mercury News weighed in with a highly critical editorial. I asked him if he thought his political contributions have influenced races in Santa Clara.

"Well, sure. Your paper influences it. The unions influence it, environmental groups influence it. All these things influence. Does money talk in politics? Sure."

When was the last time you heard a politician speak that directly? Compared to today's focus-group-tested, homogenized politicians, talking to Gillmor is refreshing.

"I know what the Mercury calls me – old guard, kingmaker, whatever they want to call me. I can’t remember the last time I asked anything from the city council. I probably haven’t talked to them in a decade but I’m blamed."

No doubt Gillmor did things in his time that might not pass muster these days. But I don't know that today's politicians could do what he did. His bold opposition to the trends of his time — refusing to sell utility assets to PG&E and develop housing on the north side — took a larger-than-life personality.

"This is great city. You can’t find a better run city. I think Santa Clara is one of the finest cities around. Every city has its own personality. The personality of Santa Clara is a true middle class community. [We created] the transportation, Central Expressway. Lawrence expressway. We created jobs. We created a tax base."

It’s something to think about it the next time you turn the lights on.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Only the Names Change

I usually read the New York Daily News to hone my writing skills – it's the gold standard of tight, pithy journalism. But today this headline caught my eye: Factory fight turning bitter - Housing vs. preservation for Domino Sugar plant.

Sound familiar? Check out the rest of the story.

At the heart of the controversy is a closed sugar factory in the northern part of Brooklyn that includes buildings dating from the 1880s. The oldest buildings are likely to be preserved in some form – possibly only the facades.

A development plan, put forward by a builder and affordable housing advocates, proposes to build 2,200 apartments on the site, one third of which will be set aside as affordable housing.

Change the words and you have the BAREC dispute, right down to the Save Domino signs.

A representative of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance says that development is "destroying the fabric of our community. It is important to recognize that Domino is not a relic of Brooklyn's ancient past but a real and vibrant part of its recent past."

As a native Brooklynite, I certainly share their nostalgia. During my childhood, Ebbets Field and Penn Station were demolished. It would have been great for the new Brooklyn Cyclones to have that historic stadium to play in. And New York is still trying to redeem the Penn Station debacle.

But on the other side of the question, there are some interesting things here worth noting.

First, 2,000 apartments are not high density in New York – it's how people live in the most vibrant, exciting city in the United States. (And contrary to what some say, it's a great place to grow up).

Silicon Valley isn't a rural town, so please, let's ditch the boogeyman talk about high density housing. (Well, perhaps you really don't want your children living next door to me – I might encourage them to organize their own un-adult-supervised stickball and Ring-o-levio games.)

Second, note that parking doesn't come into it. When you have high-density population you can have public transportation. With gas headed for $4 a gallon, that's a definite plus.

We're far from this here in Silicon Valley, but it's a great goal to aim for.

Third, note the people that this housing is aiming to serve: Families with less than $25,000. This is a project that’s takes on the hard job of housing very low income families -- unlike much of our "affordable" housing in Silicon Valley which takes the easy route of uncontroversial senior housing.

I would pose the question to groups like the Housing Trust: Why aren't they advocating for family housing and very low income housing at BAREC?

Back here at home in Santa Clara, what I would love to see something truly new.

One of the new approaches is co-housing – developments designed to build community by combining private living space with shared common facilities. Instead of being designed by developers for faceless future residents, these communities are designed by residents together with builders.

OK, the name is unfortunate – it sounds like cohabiting or possibly something even worse. But let's try not to let that get in the way.

Here's a description of one:

North central Arizona's only cohousing community is actively seeking families with children. Manzanita Villagers range in age from less than a year to 80+. Our 13-acre village situated on a hillside (5,000+ feet high) with spectacular views is one mile from downtown in a wonderful, moderate, four-season climate. There are three colleges and many fine public schools, including Montessori and Waldorf schools. Phoenix is only two hours southeast and good skiing can be found in Flagstaff, two hours north. We have 36 households and a 3,000 sq. foot common house with a kids room, laundry, guest accommodations and more. We have two lots left for building your home and some finished houses and rentals available. Check us out on the Internet or call us at 928-445-3015. Better yet, come for a visit, and stay for dinner!

Sounds nice. Sure there will be problems. But then, I was taught in church that only God is perfect, so by definition looking for perfection is a kind of sin and accepting good-enough is grace.

So perhaps instead of perfection at BAREC how about the graceful imperfection of compromise?

Monday, June 25, 2007

BAREC Grows Legs

Far from being old news after last week's Council vote, the BAREC story has legs.

Save BAREC appears to be looking to hire the lawyer that represented the groups behind last year's binding arbitration ballot initiative. A blizzard of emails has been flying through cyberspace about the proposed ballot initiative and various lines of attack.

But even more interesting is the survey that's being taken in Santa Clara.

I got called at about 6:30 this evening by some outfit called Parker Consulting out of Tucson, AZ asking me if I would participate in a political survey. After a few general questions about how likely I was to vote in a special election (very, in case you were wondering) we got down to business.

Did I know about the City Council's unanimous vote to develop the former UC Agricultural station, BAREC. (My interviewer had a pleasant German accent and pronounced it to rhyme with the German city of Beyreuth.) I told him that not only did I, but I was a journalist and had written at length about the subject. Further, I suggested that this might disqualify me for purposes of the survey.

It seems no one had any objections. So we forged ahead.

It was a very sophisticated survey. No leading questions like If you knew that Mr. Smith molested children and murdered his mother would you vote for him?

The questions — the appetizer, so to speak — first asked me to rate which information was more or less likely to make me approve or disapprove the development.

Then we got to the main course, which was apparently to market test a variety of angles of persuasion.

First I was asked to rate the amount of trust I would put in the decisions of each Council Member. Then I was asked to rate how persuasive or unpersuasive I found statements made by both the opponents and proponents of the Santa Clara Gardens project.

I tried to be objective — really. But it's kind of hard to evaluate the persuasiveness of something you know to be utterly untrue. I guess you could say it's "extremely unpersuasive."

So who was behind this survey? My interviewer couldn't tell me that. He had his job to do and at this point the lady reporter was keeping him from meeting — or beating — his survey quota. So I didn't learn much.

But I do know a couple of things. Surveys like this don't spring full-blown from the forehead of God. It takes time and very expensive professionals to design them. And it takes even more money to deploy the crew making all those phone calls.

Who has this kind of money and sophisitication? Summerhill Homes comes to mind. Was Summerhill getting ready to fight a ballot initiative all along?

Save BAREC has been talking about a ballot initiative but they appear to be just mobillizing for it. Do they have some deep-pocketed allies that we haven't seen yet?

Stay tuned.

Postscript: BTW, the most persuasive statement in the survey was "Affordable senior housing is good, but why not affordable family housing? Why not indeed? Could it have something to do with the required number of bedrooms and parking spots (fewer) that lets everybody get credit for more affordable housing units on the same footprint?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Just the Facts

When someone says "we report - you decide" most of us are naturally suspicious that the speaker is anything but impartial. If I'm truly impartial, I don't have to tell you. It'll be evident.

In the 25 years I've lived here, I've always thought that the San Jose Mercury News was professional in its news coverage. Not, for example, the New York Post or Fox News. They didn't have to say so - it was evident. Or so I thought.

The Merc's headline last Wednesday about the BAREC vote last Tuesday was surprising given my prior understanding: "Santa Clara council approves housing project for its last farmland." That's not a news report. It's an editorial. They might as well have said, "Santa Clara council proves once again that it's in developer's pocket."

Now an editorial can construe the facts any way the writer wants. And we know that it's the opinion of the Merc's editorial board that Santa Clara Council Members are tools of development interests. But regardless, a news story should have the facts correct.

And the fact is, regardless of the merits of the decision, BAREC isn't and never was farmland. It was a place where among other types of research, insecticides were studied in the 1950s when a cornucopia of new synthetic pesticides were called modern miracles for fighting pests and weeds.

Funny, I didn't notice any such headlines about the new Kaiser Hospital development on another "last" piece of farmland on Lawrence Expressway. Could that be because Kaiser is a rich potential source of advertising?

Monday, June 18, 2007

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

You've doubtless heard it said that some people are their own worst enemies. It could be said with considerable justification about Save BAREC after the group's blundering performance last week.

First, a Save BAREC representative called the Weekly's office to complain about a perceived lack of coverage of the question that forms the core of Save BAREC's mission – the disposition of the 17 acre former UC Agricultural Station on Winchester Blvd.

In fact, the Weekly has covered the BAREC question, including regular reports on City Council discussions as well as an in-depth Q&A in April 2006. Nothing is substantially different than it was a year ago and you can find that report at

But the piece de resistance of what should be included in any activist's handbook as a sterling how-not-to-do-it example was the "legislative summit" called by Save BAREC late last week for Saturday morning.

I was notified about this on Thursday afternoon, via a much-forwarded email.

The (as I later found out) by-invitation-only meeting was set up with the Office of Human Relations as a "mediation." On the guest list were members of the San Jose City Council, San Jose City agencies, Santa Clara County and California state government, the entire Santa Clara City Council, and select residents of Santa Clara and San Jose.

The topic to be "mediated" was the upcoming vote on the Santa Clara Gardens development plan for the BAREC site on the agenda for the June 19 Santa Clara City Council meeting.

Because this was "mediation," if you weren't on the guest list, you couldn't come in. (This is the law).

The "lock-out" list included the press; not just the Weekly, but the Metro as well, a paper that has done some fine investigative reporting on BAREC over the years, including reporting on the "backroom" deal in 2000 that opened this pandora's box.

Also locked out was Lilyanne Brannon, an active longtime proponent of an open space disposition for BAREC.

Go figure.

Now, if you are not in government you may not smell the skunk in this setup, so let me spell it out for you.

California's Brown act requires that meetings of public bodies must be open to the public — a "meeting" being "any gathering of a majority of the members of a covered board to hear, discuss, or deliberate on matters within the agency's or board's jurisdiction." Further, the meeting must be posted with an agenda at least three days before and the media notified.

A few people on the guest list did smell the skunk: San Jose City Council Members Pete Constant and Pierluigi Oliverio, as well as Santa Clara Citizen's Advisory Commission member Brian Lowery. Constant and Oliverio refused to stay if the meeting was not open. Brian Lowery backed them up and spoke (I am told) forcefully to the point.

The group then agreed unanimously to open the meeting. Among the attendees, the Santa Clara City Council was conspicuously absent.

Why? Well, there was the little problem of state law that I mentioned before. Or were they dismissing a "mediation" that they had never signed up for? Maybe they never got the notice. Maybe they had schedule conflicts. Maybe all of the above.

Dominic Caserta was out of town, spending Father's Day with family.

Pat Kolstad didn't receive the email until Monday morning. "If they really need people there [at a meeting], they should call or write well in advance," he says. "I have meetings scheduled four and five months in advance."

Joe Kornder received the invitation but chose not to attend. "I make a practice of receiving all the information about items under [Council] consideration in an open forum."

None of them found the email invitation at all clear. When the meeting was described to them, they all brought up the Brown Act.

OK, so maybe Save BAREC doesn't have a good handle on process. But what about the stated purpose of the meeting, you may be asking? Isn't it a good idea to have all the stakeholders in one room to talk things out?

If so, it was a curious group of stakeholders. It looked like a mediation between Santa Clara City officials and…San Jose City officials. Of Saturday's attendees, about two thirds were from San Jose, including Save BAREC's president.

To even the least cynical observer (which I do not claim to be) that looks awfully like an attempt to use pressure from the City of San Jose as a club to influence development decisions in Santa Clara. It's strategy that has obvious potential for blowback when it comes to, say, North San Jose development or the Valley Fair expansion.

San Jose Council Members Constant and Oliverio appreciated this and pointed out that the City of San Jose has no jurisdiction to be interfering Santa Clara's development decisions.

And that, I'm afraid is what this all comes down to.

Now I'm not saying there aren't valid arguments to be made on both sides.

Open space is intrinsically valuable because, as Will Rogers famously said, "they're not making any more of it." Historically, agriculture has almost disappeared from the Santa Clara Valley although the community's roots are there. Further, traffic is already congested in that area. What will 165 more homes add to it?

On the other hand, housing is a critical issue in Santa Clara Country and 165 senior housing units would not only provide needed housing for the fastest growing segment of the population, they would also, potentially, put 165 single family homes on the market for growing families.

To boot, the Santa Clara Gardens proposal currently under consideration includes 2.5 acres of gardens and a one-acre park. That's a total of 3.5 acres of open space in a 17-acre area — about 25 percent.

If the City of San Jose wants more parks, it can dedicate its own land to them; for example, a park could have been developed on the Town and Country site instead of Santana Row.

So far, none of the groups that have gone on record for an open space disposition – not Save BAREC, not the Sierra Club, not the Preservation Action Council, not the San Jose Parks Commission, not the Silicon Valley Water District, not the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County, not the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems – have been ready to put their money where their mouths are and buy the land from the state at fair market price as required by law. And they've had seven years to do it.

In the meantime, however, Save BAREC would do well to heed the words of retired Senator John Vasconcellos, a virtuoso in the art of win-win politics.

"As you may recall," he wrote to then-governor Gray Davis in 2000 concerning the decision to revert the property to the State, "this decision was made singularly between your administration and the University of California, and slipped into the budget without any advance notification to either the public or us. This is an abominable process. We hope that you, your administration and the UC, will pledge never again to undertake such a surreptitious action."

Remember Gray Davis? There's a guy who learned about blowback the hard way.