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Santa Clara leaders approve citizen-led effort to rebuild demolished downtown

Santa Clara leaders approve citizen-led effort to rebuild downtown 60 years after being demolished
Santa Clara leaders approve citizen-led effort to rebuild downtown 60 years after being demolished 03:34

SANTA CLARA -- Last week, the Santa Clara City Council approved a proposal to rebuild its downtown, including new homes, businesses and public space. But the plan didn't come from a developer or city planner. It came from a group of residents who have spent years trying to correct a mistake the city made 60 years ago. 

In 1962, Santa Clara took a wrecking ball to its downtown in the name of "urban renewal." 

Old photos show what looked like a typical quaint town center for Santa Clara.  But it's been a long time since the city was defined by its downtown.

"Where is it?  Where is the city?  They always point to the downtown.  And in Santa Clara, there's nowhere to point," said Dan Ondrasek, Co-chair of a group called Reclaiming Our Downtown.

In the 1960s, space-age design was all the rage, and in a rush to modernize, Santa Clara demolished its entire 8-block downtown. The city wanted a futuristic high-rise development in its place.  But the plan never materialized, and just a few single-story mission style buildings are all that was ever built.

Downtown Santa Clara CBS

Now, all that's left of downtown is a non-descript collection of random buildings and parking lots. There is also a marker commemorating the redevelopment effort, which Mary Grizzle calls "the plaque of sorrow."

"Because when the downtown was demolished, it left huge, huge wounds with the citizens," she said.  "The wounds were so grave and great and deep that they wouldn't talk to anybody about downtown."

But Grizzle has been talking about it--a lot.  She, and the other members of Reclaiming Our Downtown, have spent years badgering and cajoling local officials to restore a city center for Santa Clara.

The group wants to rebuild a 10-block area that will bring life back to the city center and, once again, give the downtown a sense of identity and destination.

"When we go with our Precise Plan, the original street grid comes back," said Ondrasek, "and all that retail that was there--the dining areas, the bowling alleys, the theatres--all of it adds to one another and creates vibrancy."

"We want a thriving downtown," said Rob Mayer, a member of the Downtown Community Task Force.  "You know, the malls took the downtowns away. Now we want the downtowns to take the malls away."

But for Grizzle, at age 81, it's personal, because she was around to actually see it.

"It means more to me because of my mother and my father, who've passed away. It holds memories for me. The old downtown holds memories for me, and how people gathered and spoke," she said.

Grizzle has spent a long time being angry at the city for not making an effort.

"It's the heart of the city. They buried the heart of the city," she said.  "And now with our efforts, they just gave it an electric shock and it's beginning to beat a little bit."

There is still a lot to do, including gathering federal funding to help with the project, and the residents have some ideas about that, as well.

The new plan will add more than a 1,000 new housing units and 700,000 square feet of commercial space, and may take years to accomplish.  But now that the city has given the plan a green light, Grizzle admits it feels pretty good.

"It's an early Christmas for me," she said.  "And I will be alive when shovels are in the ground.  Because I want to be in that lineup, with my foot on that shovel."

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