Valley Fair Past and Future

The past is prologue. Here was the center of our valley’s commercial life and tax base—the heart of San Jose. The majority of hotels and department stores, movie theatres and fine restaurants were concentrated here. If you wanted a car, you had only to come to this area. Elite jewelry stores were located here as well as retail outlets for sporting goods, uniforms, ladies’ fine wear, toys, televisions, and just about anything under the sun that the consumer could want. You could even buy a tractor. This was downtown San Jose, circa 1955

Although the “Great Crusade” was won some ten years before and the boys came home, the economic traumas of the postwar era had just begun. Yet, the center was still holding. Car dealerships like Normandin and Coyle; major department stores like Harts, Hales, Pennys , Roos Adkins and Bonds; hotels like the Sainte Claire and the DeAnza; restaurants like the embryonic Original Joe’s and the venerable Oyster Loaf; “everything for the farm and garden” at the Farmers Union; and all our major sports and entertainment venues. They were all there.

And then came Valley Fair.

The vicissitudes of the tectonic national changes of the fifties, with highways and suburbs, and families moving west, changed the world and changed San Jose. It is well known how the Mitchell family broke their word to the new Macy’s store slated for Santa Clara Street and set in motion the beginning of the end for downtown retail. Even the most astute of political and administrative leaders could not have stemmed the flow of taxes, stores and energy from the center city, but the effort to understand and curtail the exodus and abandonment of downtown took on epic speed through sloth and mismanagement. The vitality was sucked away. Downtown soon became the center of card rooms, secondhand stores, and broken dreams.

From that decision in the mid-fifties followed the evolution of the economic juggernaut at Valley Fair. In the early eighties, the mega-shopping center magnate, Ernie Hahn, gave a head-fake of interest to the downtown, and then negotiated an expansion and consolidation of the two separate parts of the old open air mall. It was the beginning of today’s giant enclosed mall. The tiny, 80,000 square foot retail pavilion behind the Fairmont was a feeble effort and about 5 percent the size of the Stevens Creek behemoth. It was no contest.

Then, in 1998, the coup de grace was administered in the guise of Santana Row and a new expansion of the Valley Fair/Westfield Mall—a million square feet more. Santana Row provided quality retail, entertainment, and housing, all in a faux, but, let’s face it, quite beautiful environment, while across the street, more and more retail arrived. To add insult to injury, many leases, reputedly, have an exclusion clause to forbid even the prospect of one of their tenants having the temerity to go downtown.  And now the latest in the saga: there will be a $165 million expansion to Valley Fair with additions such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, totaling four top-of-the-line department stores, 300 stores, and 2 million square feet of space.

And the hopes of downtown?

This is a case of Russia vs. Georgia. From the past to this prologue has been a long and unequal journey full of mistakes and misjudgments. We must try and learn a lesson and garner for the old tax base, the downtown, some wisdom as to what we can be. We must pursue the future, but it must be pursued in a realistic and practical fashion. Learn from the mistakes of the past; don’t repeat them.


  1. I Have been saying much the same thing for a long time, but not as well as you have put it into writing. 
    I, born in San Jose 1939, have liken San Jose to a young woman in the best of shape and as she ages needing a girdle. She begins to pop out here and there and the girdle begins to rip leaving bulges.She,as San Jose, is never able to get back in that great shape again.The bluges are all the big and mini malls,and the housing delvelopements spreading all over the vally.
    I miss down town San Jose as I remember it up until the early ‘60s and here we go again getting rid of the fair that was once a high spot to be never more.
    I also miss the orchards, but time move things on, doesn’t it?

  2. Greg – you miss the point. Re-read,please. It was gigantic societal forces, ones that the corruption and sloth of local government could not channel. that set SJ on the improper path to economic security and destroyed the small businesses of the center. No one understands the downtown, it’s real as opposed to imaginary assets and liabilities, better than one whose has been in the trenches for 40 yrs.  And, yes, I think I did learn from my mistakes. As to Downtown’s worth, Greg, it is a special area of history, culture, and untapped economic assets.  TMcE

  3. San Jose is better and greater for having both Valley Fair AND Downtown San Jose.  Look at successful partnerships, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts:

    William Hewlett and David Packard
    Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
    Sergey Brin and Larry Page
    Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce
    Jerry Yang and David Filo
    John Warnock and Charles Geschke
    Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
    Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz
    Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis
    John Lennon and Paul McCartney
    Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg
    Carole King and Gerry Goffin
    Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
    Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

    On the other hand, I may not know what I’m talking about.

  4. Tom,

    I don’t think I missed the point at all.  Your history of the decline of Downtown struck me as being written from the perspective that it’s somehow wrong to have thriving and vibrant shopping and entertainment venues beyond the Downtown boundaries.

    But it’s done – pleading and whining won’t attract anchor tenants to Downtown. Even RDA subsidies on a scale never before seen can’t incent such behavior.

    Face it, San Jose is what it is in terms of sprawl, neighborhood shopping malls, etc.  And I firmly believe that most of our residents are quite happy with things as they are.

    You note, “Downtown’s worth is a special area of history, culture, and untapped economic assets.”  I agree that it’s special in the sense of history and culture.  I just don’t understand how many more billions of our tax dollars it will take to unleash those untapped economic assets.

  5. I agree downtown has a lot of untapped value and economic assets. But there needs to be some tough choices done about downtown.
    It NEEDS TO NE CLEANED UP! One thing is to get rid of the halfway houses cluttering the neighborhoods. Not just the homeless, but also the folks with mental and emotional needs. Noone wants to have a “nice time downtown” with some crazy guy pissing on the sidewalk. Now I am not one of those “not in my backyard” types. I know that these folks need help. But I feel that one cannot speak on downtown without addressing some difficult issues.
    Also I think that it is way too late for downtown to compete directly with Valley Fair and Santana Row, that train has gone and left.
    Downtown needs to be it’s own thing and offer something that Santana Row can’t offer… more mom and pop shops, eclectic shops, more funky establishments, give people choices.
    Oh yeah and about those annoying nightclubs….

  6. Valley Fair and Santana Row are still relatively central to the valley. They are connected by a rather charming, light urban corridor in West San Carlos. They appeal to different crowds and thus make room for more people to do their thing. I would love it if we could further diversify with similar efforts on the eastside. DTSJ needs to stop lamenting the loss of anything/everything and find its own place in this city.

    What we don’t need are establishments way out in the boondocks like Edenvale and North Valley. Those are the real missed opportunities. They are bland and disconnected. They disrupt flow and keep people away; whereas, not having a mall and “lifestyle center” in downtown proper is merely a superficial regret.

  7. Greg #6 – do you really think that the taxpayer did not pay for Valley Fair, highways, and sprawl – come now.  Redevelopment dollars are a drop in the bucket compared to what SJ – you! – paid to sprawl to 1mil. people.  TMcE

  8. I am going to agree with Greg.  I do not see much culture in our downtown.  Our downtown is mostly a place you have to go to instead of want to go to. 

    Right now people go downtown and are put off by the smell of urine, drunks, hobos, criminals, gang members, rowdy night clubs/patrons, boarded up shops, quetzie, etc. etc.

    Over time people have come to love easy access to 280/880, conglomorations of shopping and everything else that makes Valley Faire/Santana Row great.  Yes, they are great.  If it were not for the Sharks and the arena, alot of (local)people would not come to downtown at all. 

    Perhaps the trend of integration with SJSU that has been happening in the recent past is perhaps the best hope for downtown to become a University Village somewhat like San Luis Obispo.

  9. Downtown San Jose is today is pretty much like that of 1952 because it has the elegant hotels, sleek office buildings, fancy condo highrises, The Tech, California theater, Camera 12, The Improv, and etc.  It’s the focal point for intertainment and nightlife.  Right now it’s the economic, social and transportation center of the valley. It’s the playground for the middle class and socialites of the valley.  The key is not to f’up and overbuild the valleyfair complex to take it away from downtown like the 50’s.

  10. “Face it, San Jose is what it is in terms of sprawl, neighborhood shopping malls, etc.  And I firmly believe that most of our residents are quite happy with things as they are.”

    Most residents are happy with a suburban wasteland that is too dependent on automobiles, and which few people who live here actually take pride in?

  11. The difference now is that people want city experiences. Valley Fair came at the time of white flight. Even Manhattan was not a popular residence in the ‘80s. Right now, it cannot supply all that people want. So long as we continue developing downtown as a city instead of a mall, it will be the preferred choice for the people who seek that atmosphere in a neighborhood.

    Also, the cracks about urine and criminals are such hyperbole, I can’t even take them seriously. Buy some Purell and a can of pepper spray in case the mean world gets you.

  12. Tom,

    I just don’t get it… what on Earth is so damn important about our Downtown area?  Why do you and many others pine away at the thought of pouring yet more billions into Downtown?  What’s wrong with having a vibrant, concentrated shopping area on Stevens Creek?

    I really can’t blame major retail corporations for locating new outlets in Valley Fair.  After all, their objective is return to shareholders – trust me, they’re not charitable institutions, looking to partner with the RDA for the sake of making Downtown what it used to be.  Let it go, you’re living in the past.

  13. 15 – There is a BIG difference between being a naysayer and wanting San Jose to be better than it is. Years of history of failure and injections of massive of amounts of cash with little to show for it, cause many of us to want SJ to stop trying to be something it is not and never will be.
    Wanting to be comfortable with who and what you are is not naysaying.

  14. Talk about adding MORE insult to injury!  You mean to tell me Valley Fair (through its leases) has Giants-like “territorial rights” to downtown San Jose?!!  As for myself Mr. McEnery, I’m a downtown believer who isn’t giving up on our beloved core…but it is getting harder by the day.  Hopefully, one day, the “War” will be won for our downtown!

  15. Jeffery of Seattle #10, are you talking about downtown Seattle or San Jose?  I guess they both have similar problems.  Actually, I was in Seattle last year, and the bloggers there complain the same thing.  However, Seattle has successful shopping downtown and Pike Market Square, but Seattle is very lame with people bashing it just like San Jose.  I guess there will always be naysayers and loonies like many in Inside San Jose in just about every cities.

  16. YO!!

    This past weekend I had some family from Florida come visit me.  They are both younger and hipper than I am.  They wanted to go shopping, and guess where we went.  Haight St. in SF and Telegraph in Berkeley.  Now I’m not talkin about head shops, but the stores in those locations are both trendy and hip.  I bet if we interviewed the shop owners there, and asked if they wanted to open up a shop in SJ, they all would probably jump at the idea.  So instead of trying to lure in a Major retailer downtown such as Macys, the city could probably get more bang for it’s redevelopment buck if they instead created a zone that attracted smaller, local, trendy, hip stores.

    If this shopping zone took off, and became a major shopping destination.  Major retailers would follow.  If you look at Haight street, until recently there was a Gap and on Telegraph there is an Urban Outfitters.  I don’t see why this isn’t an idea that the city wouldn’t want to pursue when considering downtown retail development.

    Instead they want to invest in Pavilion 2, and I think that’s too big of a risk of taxpayers dollars.

  17. I have heard it said that the rise of Valley Fair coincided with the installation of parking meters downtown by a greedy city government.  Although I wasn’t around at the time, I can see this.  I basically won’t go anywhere that charges me to park, except perhaps for my infrequent trips to downtown SF.

    How is it that downtown Mountain View and Palo Alto are still intact and prosperous?  Could it be the free parking?

    I agree with George (5), and I reiterate what I said a couple of threads back—run light rail from downtown to Valley Fair. Better still, make it free like the downtown shuttle.  Run colorful antique streetcars like they do on the Embarcadero in SF (we did that here in the summer for a few years).  Then the entire area along San Carlos can develop into one big destination.

    But keep a lid on chain stores. No one will come here for chain stores that they already have in their own neighborhoods.

    How about encouraging locally owned businesses? (I agree with #7 here.)

    7. Halfway houses went downtown when properties were cheap there.  I have more acquaintance with halfway houses than the average person.  They are located all over the city, and in most cases you would hardly know they are there. I just found out there is one 3 blocks from where I lived for more than a decade without suspecting. Crazy people who are pissing on the sidewalk are much more likely to be the homeless mentally ill, victims of the Reagan-era shutdown of facilities for the mentally ill. These people are frequently found downtown because it is close to their traditional camping grounds, which from my readings date back to the 1930s at least. I don’t think much can be done about this without re-establishing the pre-Reagan system of public mental health care. Otherwise, just consider it part of life in a colorful exotic environment similar to 18th century London.

    Valley Fair and Santana Row fail at one of the crucial functions of a traditional downtown, that of political expression. As private property, anyone expressing politcal opinions can be summarily ejected. From time to time I see a few hardy souls with placards on the corner of Stevens Creek and Winchester, but the amount of space there is limited. The barren windswept shadeless concrete expanse in front of the Gonzaloleum, seemingly designed to make public assembly as uncomfortable as possible, appears to have been chosen by default for this function.

  18. Fed Up:

    My comments in #10 were aimed towards San Jose.  Seattle does not have Quetzie, although instead of sharks, they have pigs.  As an asside the largest shopping center in WA is outside Seattle by 15 minutes in Tukwilla….the subburbs.

  19. Easy to blame others for downtown downfall –

    Past Mayors and San Jose Council did it to downtown – moved City Hall out of downtown, moved County, Frank Taylor’s redevelopment plowed up downtown and closing most of small business during Tom’s years as Mayor plus paid parking, high taxes and fees, homeless, crime and clubs killed downtown

    Downtown lost customers years ago and is doing nothing, nothing to bring them back

    $3-5 billion in redevelopment and city taxes wasted downtown to generate $2 1/2 million in sales taxes tells the story – mostly failure except for downtown schemers to those who got millions in our taxes

    Downtown dreamers and schemers want more billions for BART, Convention Centers and downtown tax subsidies – more wasted billions on downtown while San Jose has worst city services in Silicon Valley, billions in deferred costs and services and few who care to go downtown

  20. Tony D,

    That is the case with leases; landlord have “non complete” type clauses.  But like baseball the territorial rights can be “bought” or negociated off.

    Problem with downtown regarding retail is it just isn’t a good place to do business.  Too much parking fees, parking tickets, and boring bad planning to make a good retail environment for customers and businesses alike.

  21. “Even Manhattan was not a popular residence in the ‘80s.”

    Uh, wrong. You can say that “parts of Manhattan were not a popular residence in the ‘80s” but back in ‘88 I paid $63,000 for a ~450 sqare foot studio on East 30th Street, in a very middle class neighborhood. There were other parts of Manhattan, like the Lower East Side, that had yet to gentrify, but as a whole, Manhattan was attractive even back in the 1980s.

  22. #22 Novice,
    That’s a pretty brutal assessment of downtown, but an interesting one.  So when do we throw in the towel and just accept our downtown for what it is?  As mentioned earlier, as hard as it may be, I’ll continue to be a believer in our core and its potential for greatness.  At one time no one ever thought East Germany/Berlin would be free, and now…




  24. Tom,
        Listen to Greg, he`s said it best and he`s trying to be kind to you.
        The best thing RDA could do for you and the downtown investors is to link downtown to Santana Row/Valley Fair.Develop San Carlos Boulevard, link the two Downtown and Stevenscreek/Winchester.
        Don`t waste anymore RDA money.There is a message in the movie IOUSA for San Jose residents to learn.
          Give it up, they wone.

  25. We need to take stock of and emphasize our attributes.  Let’s take a quick inventory of what we have:

    – East German style downtown look and feel.
    – Self loathing, Marxist, Godless citizenry.
    – Pravda-esque local news media.
    – Lots of Prius’es that resemble Soviet-era autos

    It’s completely obvious that we need to market downtown San Jose as a Soviet-retro tourist destination.

    With just the smallest of effort the old MLK library can be converted into a hotel that Kim Jong-Il would be proud of.

    Just think of all the tourists we could draw from Berkeley, San Francisco, and former eastern bloc satellites nostalgically longing for the old days.

  26. Tony D and Novice,

    Novice’s assessment in spot on.  Go down to First and San Salvadore tonight around 11:30pm.  You will see a paddy wagon, swat team command post, 14 police cars and about 25 officers.

    All to manage one or two clubs that they are afraid of.

    I’m embarrassed to be a tax paying resident of this city!

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