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?