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Sep 20

The Fate of Mount Umunhum

After decades of waiting and years of planning, the future of Mt. Umunhum and its iconic Cube is about to be determined.

The Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), the mountaintop’s current owner, has completed the planning process. They have solicited public feedback, analyzed various options, and determined their costs.

At their October meeting the MROSD Board is scheduled to decide the fate of the Cube atop Mt. Umunhum. Should it be torn down or left standing? Three options are up for consideration:

1. Demolish the Cube and return the site to a natural state
2. Demolish most of the Cube, leaving some walls from the first floor to represent where the Cube once was, or
3. Seal the Cube and leave it in place.

I think it is in MROSD’s best interests – and those of Santa Clara County residents – for the Board to choose a fourth alternative.

Public feedback as expressed at MROSD’s public meetings is wildly in favor of preserving the Cube. Many of us believe the Cube is important historically, as a legacy of the Cold War, and should be preserved on that basis. Others believe the Cube adds significantly to the South Bay landscape. In South San Jose we are lucky to have two “castles in the air” looking out for us – the Cube on Mt. Umunhum and the Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. For those of us in San Jose who live our lives under their gaze, for either to disappear would be a huge loss.

Yet the MROSD is reluctant to keep the Cube. While Mt. Umunhum is owned by their District, it is a distant outpost. The District stretches from Los Gatos to Pacifica. Most members of their Board don’t live under the gaze of the Cube, and don’t “get” it’s importance. Worse, since San Jose isn’t part of the District, the people that would be most impacted by the loss of the Cube have no voice in the decision. The Board represents many locations … but not San Jose.

Even more fundamentally, it is becoming clear that the goals of the Open Space District – to preserve Open Space, of course – are incompatible with the needs of Mt. Umunhum. The summit is a historic site and could be an attraction on par with Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tamalpais. The site begs for amenities – a Visitor’s Center, the Cube itself, historic interpretation, perhaps even Hang Gliding and Backpacking camps. This beautiful and historic site deserves to be treated as the gem it is.

But these buildings and amenities would be the antithesis of Open Space. MROSD is, after all, an Open Space District. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. And so MROSD sees the structures and immediately their mindset is “tear those down”.

It’s becoming clear that the choice before the MROSD Board – keep the Cube or tear it down – asks the wrong question.

The real question is: should MROSD own Mt. Umunhum? I’ve become convinced that the answer is “no”. MROSD does a wonderful job at managing Open Space. But Umunhum’s summit should not be Open Space. It wants to be much more.

A more natural steward for the summit of Umunhum is the Santa Clara County Parks (SCCP). While MROSD’s charter is to preserve Open Space, the County Parks charter more strongly embraces educational and historic goals. County Parks has great experience providing historic interpretation, and Visitor’s Centers, and Camping, and even Hang Gliding.

Compared with any other comparable local District, SCCP is well positioned for this mission. SCCP is blessed with a dedicated Park Charter Fund providing it funding directly, outside of the County’s general revenues. And as it turns out, just a month ago the County Board of Supervisors re-confirmed that SCCP should focus its land acquisition efforts on sites of “County Wide Significance”. Umunhum clearly fits that definition. Even better, County Parks would be a local steward for the summit…not an absentee one.

I believe that MROSD should transfer control of the summit to SCCP. SCCP could manage the Cube and amenities at the top; MROSD could continue to administer the open spaces of the mountain. A true win/win situation.

There is ample precedent for this sort of cooperation between the two agencies. For example, at Rancho San Antonio the Open Space itself is owned by MROSD, but the lower parking and restroom developments are provided by SCCP.

If MROSD decides to tear down the Cube to turn the summit into Open Space, they guarantee themselves years of lawsuits and pain. It would be far better for them to admit that the site does not fit their mission, and instead transfer it to a more appropriate steward.

Update on September 24:

Thanks to Scott Herhold from the San Jose Mercury News for helping to promote this idea … and linking to this blog!

Scott’s “Save The Umunhum Tower” page is a great resource.

Also, please take a look at savethecube.org.

13 comments

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  1. Karl

    Bravo! Great idea!

  2. Basim Jaber

    Excellent article, Sam! Your assertions are spot on and nothing less than valid.

  3. David Anonymous

    While I support the mission to keep the cube, I do not believe ‘The District’ would ever release control of the mountain. I strongly believe that Midpen would manage Mt Umnuhum and the retained cube much better than the county parks dept. just look closely at comparable parks/open space and you will find that ‘The District’ is much better at everything from parking lots and their few restrooms than the county parks.

    1. Basim Jaber

      It doesn’t take much to manage a parking lot or a restroom. Your average janitor can do that. We’re talking about a destination attraction for visitors and Midpen knows nothing about how to do that.

  4. Bern

    Thanks for this post, Sam.
    One of the statements at the meeting 2 nights ago that went unresponded to was the idea that if one does not live within the District boundaries one somehow has no stake in the outcome – not the plan, nor the funding, etc…I would suggest that everyone in California will have a stake in this issue, if for no other reason than that at least some of the financial support for whatever developments occur there will be drawn from grants funded by bond sales as approved by statewide votes (eg Proposition 84). Rest assured the District will be looking for that kind of financial support.

    As you know, we at the Ridge Trail Council have not taken a position on the disposition of the Cube; we are eager to get a trail to the summit, and hope for additional features such as backcountry camps, formalized vista points, etc. Those features were approved in concept at Wednesday’s meeting (tho the campsite concept was removed from Mt Um-specific planning and placed in the overall Sierra Azul Master Plan process). So we are pleased to see the District making progress on most of the things we advocated, and setting as first priority the design and construction of the spur trail and Bald Mt staging area.

  5. Matt Hahne

    Hi, I respectfully disagree. I think the cube is an eyesore and should be removed ASAP.
    The Cold War lives on in many history books and monuments in D.C.—that’s good enough for me.

    /s/ Matt Hahne, BARTC

    P. S. The Nike ex-base on Mt. Tamalpais’ West Peak seems to be an adequate local memorial.
    I visited it in 1955 (during AFROTC summer camp at Hamilton AFB)—it was actively used
    by USAF at the time.

  6. sammydee

    Thanks for all the comments, pro and con. Keep ‘em coming! ..Sam

  7. Chris

    I seriously doubt that Santa Clara Parks will be fighting to take over a project like this. In less lean times, perhaps, but everyone is very strapped for cash at the moment.

    I am surprised more people aren’t talking about the businessman who offered up $200k to save the tower. That is a fantastic gesture, and I am a little disappointed it didn’t gain more traction. I was hoping that a “Save the tower” fund would be organized, where people could pledge money to the Open Space Preserve, but *only* if the tower is saved. I would participate in such an initiative (sorry I don’t have the time to organise it myself). At the moment, the only way to give funds to the Open Space Preserve is a general donation, which they would keep whether the tower is saved or not.

    If someone kicked off this initiative (and involved Stephen Schott, who pledged $200k), I would pledge $1k immediately. My company also offers a charitable match program, so thats $2k right away.

    Chris.

    1. sammydee

      EXACTLY. I would be happy to contribute as well, and would be happy to lobby others to do the same. But, like you, I’m not willing today to donate funds to MROSD.

      If MROSD votes to preserve the Cube, I’m sure many others, like you and I, will be willing to step forward to help fund it.

      The decision by the MROSD Board shouldn’t be based on $. The $ will come. The decision needs to be based on doing the Right Thing for the community (which may be different than the Right Thing for MROSD). That’s the hard choice they really need to make.

    2. sammydee

      Oh, and I’m sure County Parks would need some … persuading … to take on this job. And some $. And some political direction. Ultimately the County Supervisors will need to stand up and say “That mountain’s ours.” It won’t happen without their support.

      But County Parks are a much more appropriate steward for the summit of Um than MROSD. It’s a much better “fit” for them. And being local, they are a much better choice for US.

      Perhaps some other steward can be found. State Parks and their under-the-mattress slush fund, who knows.

      But if Umunhum is a far-away and non-strategic distraction and resource sink for MROSD, the first step is for them to admit that they shouldn’t run it. Who SHOULD we can worry about a little bit later. But they need to take that first step…at or before their October meeting.

  8. Basim Jaber

    This just hit the Mercury News’ web site and will be in tomorrow’s print.

    Santa Clara County Parks loves our historical landmark… so much that they booked me for THREE public presentations on the history of Almaden Air Force Station at their historic (and newly renovated) Casa Grande museum in New Almaden over this past summer and every one of them booked out solid. It’s clear to see that County Parks should own and operate Mt. Umunhum.

    County Parks knows how to promote and preserve history as an education tool and entertainment avenue.

    Midpen upper management just wants to mindlessly tear it all down without any regard for history and heritage.

  9. Ed

    I agree with keeping the tower. It should be used for the upper anchor for a cable tramway to take people to the top of the mountain. That would cut the road traffic and provide a signature spot where a restaurant could be built with a fantastic view of both bays. The south bay needs a signature spot to attract visitors and this could do it with well controlled access.

  10. Kendra

    The Cube is a great landmark – I enjoy trying to spot it from various places I hike (Almaden Quicksilver, Mission Peak, Sunol-Ohlone, Coe). The suggestion to preserve and indeed promote it for its historical, educational and recreational value is an excellent one.

  1. The Fate of Mount Umunhum | Save The Cube!

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