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.