Showing posts with label Gary Gillmor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gary Gillmor. Show all posts

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Santa Clara – A Livable Town

About four years ago, when I interviewed Gary Gillmor for the Weekly, the former mayor described Santa Clara's character this way:

"The personality of Santa Clara is a true middle class community. We cut our city up with the transportation -- Central expressway, Lawrence expressway… We created jobs, we created a tax base. [By contrast] the personality of Los Altos, Saratoga -- they don’t want any industry."

(Cue apoplectic blasts from those who see Gillmor as the evil genie who popped the lid on Pandora's box and let out a swarm of developers.)

Having grown up in one – Brooklyn, NY in the 1950s and 60s -- I'm a big fan of comfortable-for-ordinary-folks communities. And in 2008, what it takes to create or preserve one is different than what it took in 1958.

I've had many conversations on the middle-class-ness of Santa Clara. It comes up whenever you're talking about development – high density or otherwise -- "affordable" housing, or urban planning.

Lots of people pay lip service to this idea, but the pious jaw music is often just a lead in for objecting to whatever project or plan is at hand. I can't help but observe that many who are most hostile to policies and projects that might retain Santa Clara's middle-class quality, wouldn't be here in the first place if it hadn't been that kind of city.

Let me tell you how I came to Santa Clara 25 years ago. (I recognize that some will rest their case against development on this alone.)

It was the tech boom of the 1980s and my new employer, a now-defunct software company, had just moved from pricier real estate in Sunnyvale to brand new – and cheaper -- digs on Mission College Blvd. I rented an apartment 15 minutes away on San Tomas – even in rush hour – and a stone's throw from the Acapulco. My husband and I lived there for three pleasantly affordable years and only moved when we bought our townhouse.

The townhouse was in a new development and within our budget -- unlike the single family detached houses we had looked at. Now, we were hardly struggling at the lower rungs of the Valley economy. My husband was an HR manager for a national retailer and I was a software product manager.

I'm sure there were people then who didn’t want us moving in, as there are people who would prefer not to have my new neighbors moving in. But my new neighbors are the people who make Silicon Valley an exceptionally interesting place.

You know, the kind of place where you might have Dave Packard or the Steves Wozniak and Jobs tinkering in the garage next door, inventing new industries in the process. Way back when ordinary people could still afford to live in Palo Alto and Cupertino.

For example, right next door to me lives Lasandra Brill, author of the Marketing in a Web 2.0 World blog. Brill is not only an evangelist for these new generation ways of bringing things to market, she likely invented some of them, too.

Down the street a bit lives Ivaylo Lenkov, another "Web 2.0" pioneer. You haven't heard his name, but Lenkov is changing the equation for building and operating your website. Lenkov's start-up SiteKreator – also based in Santa Clara -- lets anybody create a professional-looking website by clicking-and-pointing, without any technical knowledge. The price is right, too – the entry level is free.

Another guy you might have found yourself sharing a lunch time walk to the roach coach with is serial entrepreneur Jon Fisher, whose third startup, Internet security company Bharosa, was right next door to the Santa Clara Weekly office. Last year Oracle bought Bharosa and Fisher has gone on to, among other things, teaching the secrets of his success to aspiring entrepreneurs.

They all chose Santa Clara for the same reasons I did – it was a comfortable, affordable town, plus it's easy to do business here.

When I'm having this conversation about livability, I often ask people, "Would you want Santa Clara to be like Los Altos or Woodside?" And sometimes they answer, "What's wrong with Los Altos and Woodside."

Now, I have friends living in both those towns and I don't hold it against them. They made their beds and now they have to lie in them, not to mention paying PG&E and driving 30, 45 minutes to work somewhere else. But by my middle-class barometer, there's plenty wrong with those towns.

First, your neighbors have so much free floating anxiety about the value of their real estate that they will torment you ceaselessly about the color you paint your window frames, the height of your fence or your magnolia tree, your nocturnal escapades in the hot tub, or your kid's friends.

One Los Altos couple I know practically had to put blackout shades on the front of their house to keep the neighbors across the street from spying on their social life to see if they were entertaining "undesirables" -- if you know what I mean and I think you do. My friends, you see, had moved there from San Jose, and you never know about those people.

The deed to their house still has archaic covenants specifying that blacks, Asians and Mexicans will only go to the back door. Santa Clara, on the other hand, was home to one of the county's first black community leaders, William James, and elected him sergeant-at-arms for the volunteer fire department.

Second, those towns are like living in a museum.

Sure your next-door neighbor could be some guy (and it will almost certainly be a guy, and often a shiny new trophy wife) who changed the semiconductor industry, developed the first commercially successful database software or wrote the first online shopping cart program. But these triumphs happened 10, 20, 30 years ago or longer. Learn about it at the Tech or Computer History Museum – it's cheaper.

Right here in Santa Clara I'm next door to people who are doing things today that are changing business and the world now. And that makes it an exceptionally interesting place to be. So my view is, let's make sure that future Brills, Fishers and Lenkovs will always be attracted to this comfortable-for-ordinary-people town.

And for those who disagree? Well there's always Woodside.

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.