A proposal to demolish the former city hall in San Jose encountered resistance from the county commission and local governors.
The Santa Clara County Historic Heritage Commission voted unanimously last week against the request to demolish the old town hall at 801 N. to do with the nearly 65-year-old building.
Santa Clara County officials suggested demolishing the building two years ago, arguing that it would be futile to keep it or reuse it for another purpose. But conservationists—worried about the potential loss of a prized historic landmark in San Jose—claim that the county isn’t thinking enough about how to save the building.
“We really think the county hasn’t done enough — it didn’t really try at all,” Ben Lesch, executive director of the San Jose Conservation Action Council, told the San Jose Spotlight. “Demolition without a plan for the site represents a catastrophic missed opportunity.”
Constructed in 1958, Leech said, the former City Hall of San Jose was one of the first modern civic buildings on the West Coast, and one of the city’s most important mid-century buildings to survive. The Old City Council hosted some of San Jose’s first major power brokers, including the first Asian American mayor of a major city, Norm Mineta, as well as Janet Gray Hayes, the first female mayor of a major American city.
After San Jose transferred its management to the current facilities on Santa Clara Avenue in 2005, the former city hall was mostly abandoned, aside from occasionally being used as a storage facility and for law enforcement training. Santa Clara County acquired the site in 2011. Advocates pushed the county to use the former annex as a homeless shelter, but officials dismissed the idea, saying it was unworkable. They voted to demolish the annex and turn it into a temporary parking lot.
County officials told the San Jose Spotlight that it costs about $100,000 a year to maintain the site. While the cost of the demolition is estimated at about $10 million, officials claim it would cost more than $100 million to reuse the building for another purpose.
“We fully agree with the importance of preserving historic and architecturally valuable buildings when possible,” said a county official. However, several in-depth studies have shown that it is not economically feasible for us to reuse this building. As a county administration, it is our responsibility to spend taxpayer money wisely and to maximize the use of all county-owned land so that we have sufficient resources to maintain vital services for our entire community.”
Conservationists claim that county studies do not fairly depict the potential for redevelopment of the former city hall. They are also concerned that the county wants to demolish the building with no plans to replace it with anything.
“We believe that approval of the demolition of the former San Jose City Hall would set a dangerous precedent with regard to the city of San Jose and Santa Clara County’s commitment to historic preservation, including its conservation ordinance…and its commitment to sustainability,” said Hannah Simonson, president of the Northern California Branch of Documentation and Preservation. On the modern movement, in a statement to boycott.
Architectural critic John Pasteur told the San José Spotlight that Old Town Hall exemplifies a spirit of optimism and expansion.
“This is the time when San Jose was adding land to the city limits like crazy, and of course to keep up with that, you had buildings like this,” he said. “I think it represents a progressive self-portrait of San Jose, which (at the time) wasn’t much praised as a sophisticated place.”
Several people who sent letters to the Historic Heritage Committee argued that the building and its surrounding site could be adapted and reused. Some of the options include building residential towers near or on the site and creating mixed-use projects or offices, Leach said.
“Based on our experience, the former City Hall would be an outstanding candidate for housing or even (a) hotel,” Karen Lilligreen, director and founder of Omgivning Architecture and Interiors, said in a statement. “We feel that (the boycott) reports showing that adaptive reuse is not feasible are insufficient and inaccurate.”
Leach said county officials should seriously consider the consequences of removing a historic building in San Jose. He pointed out that people now regret the demolition of the municipal building that preceded the one that was built in 1958.
“Every generation thinks it’s better to knock everything down and start from scratch because that’s new and exciting,” Leech said. “Every generation regrets this decision because they look back with nostalgia or have new eyes on the things that the last generation gave up and think they can be discarded, and we are expected to be in this situation again.”
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