Blog note: this article references a grand jury investigation looking into the City of Santa Clara’s Stadium Authority.
Julio Fuentes lost his cool during the holiday break. While other city officials were off for vacation, and fewer still went through the motions at work in the closing days of 2015, the city manager of Santa Clara threw a tantrum.
He cleaned off his desk and stripped his office’s walls of photos, according to sources at City Hall, and a paper shredder’s gears could be heard in the long corridor that bisects the municipal headquarter’s east wing. These were not the actions of a man getting a jump on his spring cleaning as much as an outburst by the city’s highest paid employee. He was letting his colleagues know that he’d had it.
In October, the City Council authorized a pay increase for the city attorney, but not for Fuentes, who in the months prior had quietly handed out 5-percent merit pay increases to the city clerk and police chief without the council’s knowledge. Instead of getting a raise, the city manager of nearly three years was granted the indignity of a stipend, a one-time 5-percent boost to his $290,000 annual salary.
Fuentes refused it outright, and has since declined interview requests until after Super Bowl 50. He also mysteriously disappeared from his office for two days last week in the all-important lead up to the big game, which is being held at Levi’s Stadium. A request to take a view of Fuentes’ office was denied by his executive assistant, who noted such a sneak peek is “not how we do things.”
Two weeks after the meltdown—which elicited chortles at City Hall over the unrequited, hold-me-back chest puffing—Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews admitted he’d heard about the city manager’s unusual office purge.
“I don’t know what that’s about,” the mayor said, adding that he hopes Fuentes decides to stick around.
Other elected in Santa Clara seem less sanguine.
Fuentes, and by extension other top city staff, are suspected of withholding and/or obfuscating information related to the operations of Levi’s Stadium, the two-year home of the San Francisco 49ers. The city manager, in response, is apparently fed up and feeling underappreciated for his efforts, but that isn’t the story he’s selling.
Fuentes has explained his housecleaning by informing colleagues he simply wants to “stay nimble.”
That’s one possibility. Another reason could be the civil grand jury investigation that has been quietly looking into the city’s Stadium Authority—tasked with overseeing all operations at Levi’s Stadium—for the last three months.
Play Past the Whistle
The Big Game is just the beginning.
When the million or so visitors to the Bay Area return home and attention shifts away from pursuits involving genetically engineered cyborgs in shoulder pads—and several kickers—giving each other brain damage, the vision for what Santa Clara intends to become will take shape. Football, in fact, is just one piece of Santa Clara’s bid to become the “Capital of Silicon Valley,” if there is such a thing. It’s a title neighboring San Jose—the Bay Area’s largest city and the seat of Northern California’s biggest county—introduced in the 1980s as a marketing slogan.
The rivalry dates back to 1777, when San Jose was established as a pueblo and Santa Clara became home to a mission. Both remained tiny villages of less than a thousand inhabitants until the Gold Rush, when San Jose became the bigger city, and for a short time, California’s capitol. By the early 1950s, San Jose had 100,000 residents and doubled its population in the decade that followed. Santa Clara was a little more than a tenth the size.
The sprawl San Jose cultivated in the 1960s, as it annexed neighboring towns and cities, took a catastrophic turn in 1978, when Proposition 13 capped property taxes. The city’s past emphasis on housing over jobs has steadily diminished the level of core services in San Jose, and startups and established industrial giants favored the Peninsula and San Francisco, despite San Jose’s aggressive wooing of technology companies.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara has remained lean and independent.
The Mission City has its own electric power utility, bypassing the PG&E monopoly and giving residents and some businesses energy bills as much as 40 percent lower than in San Jose. Companies like Intel, Nvidia, Cisco, Oracle, Ericsson and a host of others have scooped up office space in Santa Clara over the years, building a job base that more than doubles the city’s total population Monday through Friday. And, despite being just four miles wide, it’s home to a highly regarded regional university and a shiny new NFL stadium.
Santa Clara scores high marks in every category except the two that make a city livable: residential capacity and a downtown retail district. This will change very soon, and the winners will be measured not in wins and losses but in millions and billions.
Next door to Levi’s Stadium, Related Companies has announced plans to create a $6.5 billion, 239-acre “entertainment destination” district that will be roughly six times the size of Santana Row, the Mediterranean-influenced mixed-use development that creeps right up to the border of Santa Clara’s southern boundary. An environmental impact report is currently making the rounds, after stalling in part because the project requires a 40-acre concrete “podium” to first be built over the city’s old municipal landfill. That aspect of the project alone is expected to cost $800 million.
Surrounding Levi’s Stadium, a collection of 10 properties up for sale, which include Great America theme park’s 116 acres, as well as a Hilton, a Hyatt, the Techmart Center office building and the property under Irvine Company’s Gateway Project office campus, will go up for sale later this year. The city must sell off the land as required by the state’s mandate to purge all properties obtained through now-defunct redevelopment agencies.
Suitors include Related and the Newport Beach-based Irvine Company. It would stand to reason Irvine owner Donald Bren would want to avoid paying rent on the very office property his buildings sit. The developer’s many other Santa Clara projects include a Whole Foods Market, 1,800 neighboring residential units and a 400-unit project by the city’s Caltrain station.
For a sense of how many big projects are taking place in Santa Clara, this is the same city that rejoiced in 2014 over getting a Target.
“We were very excited when we got our first Target,” Mayor Jamie Matthews said. “Practically, key to the city time.”
The celebration, however, may be short-lived as residents realize their gains could come at a cost.
Irvine Company has an exceptionally close working relationship with the 49ers, and recent efforts by the team to displace a youth soccer league from a parcel adjacent to Levi’s Stadium are apparently part of a much larger plan. City Hall insiders discreetly admit that Great America, which has been in operation since 1976, could be demolished in the very near future to make way for a mix of high-density housing and office space.
In a governance committee meeting near the end of 2015, City Manager Fuentes acknowledged, “Whether you want to believe it or not, we’re becoming a big city.”
February 3, 2016
San Jose Inside
By Josh Koehn