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A Closed Side Entrance at the San Jose Fairmont Prompts
 Comments About the Transients in Downtown San Jose

By Scott Herhold, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 31, 2010 ---Years ago, as a security guard at downtown's Fairmont Hotel, ex-San Jose police spokesman Bobby Burroughs had a frontal way of keeping out the riffraff.

When a transient walked in to use the bathroom from the First Street side, Burroughs would snap his picture and advise him against returning.

Today, Burrough's tactics aren't needed: The public can't enter through the eastern side of the Fairmont. A sign says, "This entrance is accessible only with a valid guest room key." In effect, the hotel has turned its back on the city.

Indifference from some

Most folks pass with a shrug. If they're veterans of downtown, they might wonder why a door that was open for years is closed. People who work at the Fairmont say the sign has been up for about a year -- though the door has been closed during the night for much longer.

Even city officials more or less shrug. Redevelopment Agency Director Harry Mavrogenes told me the door was closed for security -- and that the front door, after all, is still open.

Me? I confess to irritation and sadness. With other reporters, I toured the Fairmont with then-operator Mel Swig before it opened in 1987.

And I remember how the Redevelopment Agency and the Swig family stressed how important public access was to circulation -- from all four sides.

<>The city had a reason for its insistence. It put up $28 million in public money to build "public improvements," like shop space, in the $110 million hotel. The bathrooms were intended to be open to the public.

Avoiding foreclosure

But in a 1996 deal with an investor group headed by developer Lew Wolff, then-redevelopment director Frank Taylor gave up the ground underneath the hotel to avoid an embarrassing foreclosure. As a consequence, the city lost important leverage to enforce its wishes.

There are two lessons here. The first is that downtown, despite adding new buildings, has suffered in important ways in the last decade.

The second is that if the city deals with Wolff, or anyone else, on a new baseball stadium, it ought to pay attention to every comma. I guarantee you the developer does.

When the Fairmont was built, the language of the ground lease said public improvements should be managed for the "nonexclusive" use of the general public.

The hotel, alas, offered luxury that folks in San Jose weren't ready to pay for. And after the Swigs had lost millions, the Wolff group stepped in to buy the hotel and take control of the land.

The city's pact with Wolff said public access should be provided "subject to reasonable rules and regulations, established by the owner."

Tom Klein, the Fairmont's regional vice president, says the back door was closed to the public because of low traffic.

"It provided for better security for the hotel and our local guests," he told me, noting that the side doors of the hotel -- on the paseo and the plaza -- are open until at least 6 p.m.

Even Taylor told me he is sympathetic with the hotel's plight. "Things have changed downtown," he said.

That's what makes me the saddest. Downtown always had a sprinkling of the homeless. Now I see a rougher crowd. "They don't want people to enter from the bus stop," ex-Redevelopment Agency architectural guru Tom Aidala told me.

Sadly, we can't call Burroughs back for the door duty. He died in 2005 at the age of 74.

Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or 408-275-0917.

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Copyright (c) 2010, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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