SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - posted on bay area.com on JUNE 29, 2002

"Tropicana store owner seeks refuge"

- Joe Rodriguez

Jose Mendoza is a man on the run in the Capital of Redevelopment.

“They keep following me.”

We met this week at his store, San Jose Men’s Wear, in the Tropicana shopping center on the East Side. With deep brown skin and a leathery face, everything about him reflects three generations of a Mexican family in the Western wear business. Mendoza had just ended a three-day hunger strike in protest against the city’s effort to seize the Tropicana for redevelopment.

“I was trying to send these people a message,” Mendoza said. “But they don’t listen. They never listen.”

Roots downtown

Until 1987, Mendoza’s store was on South First Street downtown. We drove there for a look with his daughter, Lucy.

Half of the storefronts on the block have remained vacant for years. “I remember being 5 years old and helping my Dad choose clothes for children,” Lucy said as she peeked through the windows of a padlocked store. “This store was a great place to grow up. So was this whole block.”

What happened?

“The city never did anything to help the small businesses in downtown survive,” Mendoza said. “They never provided enough free parking.”

Lucy added: “Light rail is what did it.”

Back in the 1980s, the redevelopment agency and transportation bureaucracies pushed light rail through First Street and the heart of downtown’s retail district, hoping it would jump-start downtown shopping. Not only did light rail fail to do that, its lengthy construction and obstacles killed more than a few businesses.

“I finally asked myself, what am I doing here?” Mendoza recalled.

Betting on name brands

“If you look at what (the City) did to the immigrant businesses downtown, you can even call it institutional racism.”

-Dennis P. Fong,
Tropicana owner

Today, Mendoza has 16 employees and grosses $1.5 million a year, and the principal owners of the Tropicana since 1992 gradually have been upgrading the center. The only problem is that the redevelopment agency has followed Mendoza to the Tropicana.

Nobody except the council’s selected developer knows what the center will become. I’d bet on a bunch of mission-style buildings with non-Latino businesses like Starbucks and Blockbuster Video. I don’t think many, if any, of the Tropicana’s existing businesses could afford the new rents.

I called Dennis P. Fong, a principal Tropicana owner. He’s thinking of suing the city to stop it from seizing the shopping center, even though city officials have hinted against using their power of eminent domain.

“It’s a power play by the city,” Fong said. “If you look at what they did to the immigrant businesses downtown, you can even call it institutional racism.”

Institutional racism? I rarely use the R-word, but when I look at San Jose’s new downtown, I see white, corporate America. I don’t see many Latino or Asian businesses, restaurants or theaters. I don’t see the rich ethnic and racial landscape I see outside of downtown.

The city council and redevelopment agency ought to leave Tropicana alone, because they’d only destroy its diversity and replace it with corporate brands.

But Mendoza is right. The redevelopment mob isn’t listening. So I asked if he’d move his store to another part of the city.

“I don’t want to move,” he said. “But if I do, I’ll want a lease that says the redevelopment agency can never follow me again.”