Toward the end of last month, on Wednesday, April 24, the Milpitas Planning Commission arrived unanimously at a historical decision, approving the presence of Legoland Discovery Center at The Great Mall.
Not to be confused with the Legoland theme park, Legoland Discovery Center is still a place of excitement, an immersive learning experience complete with rides, activities, and birthday party rooms. It’s essentially a scaled-down version of the theme park, one that still makes a big statement and — along with Apple’s new manufacturing facility and the almost-ready BART Station — stands to accelerate Milpitas’ transition from a minor player to a major one.
Indeed, the Planning Commissioners were open in their excitement over welcoming Legoland Discovery. Commissioner Bill Chuan cited how positive the Center would be for his 3 daughters. Commissioner Timothy Alcorn was exacting and fastidious when it came to assessing the potential traffic and parking impacts of the Center (neither of which will be minor), but also made space to express his enthusiasm over Legoland on the whole.
More excited still was one David Johnson, the Australian Business Development Director dispatched to the meeting by Legoland Discovery Center’s parent company, Merlin Entertainments, to drive home the point that Milpitas had not been recklessly selected as a prospective host for Legoland. Oh no — Mr. Johnson had conducted a thorough and rigorous investigation of the entire Bay Area, eventually choosing our Southeast Bay home because of its easy access and family-friendly atmosphere. Moreover, Mr. Johnson — his voice booming with authority throughout the hall — shared electrifying data about Merlin Entertainments’ global reach: 130 attractions across the world, spanning 24 different countries and operating 10 distinct brands, the most popular of which is — you guessed it — Legoland. Eight Legoland theme parks are in existence. As for the more compact Discovery Center derivative, there are 23 of those around the globe: 6 in Asia, 5 in Europe, 12 in North America.
Each year, on average, they open 2 or 3 brand new ones.
One’s toes could not help but curl during Johnson’s presentation. Legoland is not only fun, but powerful. Not only a forum for learning and discovery, but an unstoppable, solid gold engine of commerce. It’ll not only prove host to trillions of new Milpitas memories, but it’ll do so while upping the city’s relevance, importance, and, yes, even coolness.
Johnson did add, however, that “Safety of children at all times is our number one goal.”
Yes, yes — of course. Safety of children. And conquering the globe!
One of course does not have to displace the other.
Snark aside, Legoland is beyond impressive. Johnson spelled out their worldwide admittance policy, by which no solo adults are ever granted admission into the parks or discovery centers. More snark aside, I cannot wait to take my own kids there.
But hold on. As the present unfolds, making way for the future, we do find a notable wrinkle in its fabric…
The presence of Legoland at The Great Mall will mean, in turn, the absence of the Milpitas Historical Society.
Before you dislocate your jaw by yawning, note that for over a decade now, the Historical Society has had a proud display on Great Mall property, featuring fascinating relics from Milpitas’ old days as a vast and shimmering sea of farmland: fruit boxes, refrigerator, wedding dress. The mall’s long been nice enough to offer up space for free. But, with the forthcoming appearance of Legoland, that space will be handed over to the corporation.
Such is the flow of the past into the future.
Planning Commissioner Larry Ciardella made firm, clear mention of what was being lost. In a breathtaking exchange, Mr. Ciardella asked Mr. Johnson if Legoland would consider placing the Historical Society’s materials on its newfound property, for the sake of teaching local children about Milpitas history.
I leaned forward. I couldn’t believe my ears. Those who closely follow Milpitas politics have undoubtedly noted a certain aversion to open confrontation on the part of our elected representatives and appointed commissioners. After all, it’s a small city, only 13 square miles — one can’t very well start protesting like a punk.
Ciardella, however, went full punk rock. The old lion’s roar was heard across the hall. And Commissioner Demetress Morris had his back, taking a stand for our city’s history and culture. But Johnson told them the matter was out of Legoland’s hands. And planning Director Ned Thomas interjected, explaining that The Great Mall had been more than generous in offering its space, and was thus more than entitled to take that space away.
Thomas put it to Ciardella this way: You don’t go into someone’s house and start making suggestions as to how to arrange the furniture.
The lion continued roaring, however. He was low in volume yet high in conviction. When told that the historical materials would have a secure home on city property — perhaps spread about places like City Hall, the Community Center, and the library — Ciardella pointed out with a smile that those locations certainly wouldn’t get as much traffic as The Great Mall.
Speaking with me privately after the meeting, Ciardella shared a story of a friend of his, a mother who’d once taken her daughter, 17 years old, on a shopping run at The Great Mall. They just so happened, for the first time, to use the entrance where the historical display was located. They spent easily half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, there, learning all about Milpitas history. For Ciardella, this was striking, as 17-year-old kids have so many other things occupying their minds.
Now, though, where once our history was on display, one finds only a vacant, blackened window.
“It’s kind of a shame that we’re gonna lose it,” Ciardella said.
Which is not to say that Larry Ciardella is only of one mind on the issue. In regard to Legoland, he told me, “Oh, I think it’s gonna be great for kids. I’m so proud that they picked us. That to me is huge.”
At the meeting, he cited his own grandchildren, the youngest of whom is 7 months old, and how much they stood to benefit from this powerful learning tool.
Just the same, whereas Ciardella was mindful about pointing out his own family, he was also mindful about something else. Something sacred, buried in the annals of our past…
Ciardella was there in 1994, sitting on the Planning Commission that approved The Great Mall in the first place.
This memory, this vote — just like the Historical Society’s display — was not something he wished to see receding into nothingness.
Ciardella’s first run on the Planning Commission went on for 5 years, during the 1990s. Amid a commissioner reevaluation, the majority of the Commission’s seats were vacated. Later, though, when another opportunity came up, Ciardella found his way back to a fresh seat. Presently, he’s in the start of his 14th straight year on the Commission. In 2018, the Milpitas City Council voted to cap commissioner terms at 12 years, but until a replacement emerges to take Ciardella’s chair, he’s entitled to keep it.
Regarding the installation of commissioner term limits, Ciardella didn’t mince words: “I’m totally against it.”
Term limits have long been a way to manage government power, allowing for fresh minds and ideas to take the reins. On the other hand, in Milpitas, commission seats are often hard to fill, as they require the presence of engaged and conscious volunteers. In the eyes of some, the newly imposed term limits stand to open vacancies that can’t be filled.
But whether it’s through the Planning Commission, or the Rotary Club, or the Chamber of Commerce, or the Spring Valley Fire Department, Larry Ciardella is firmly committed to the cause of furthering his proud city. “I believe,” he said succinctly, “in giving back.”
Long ago, in the 1980s, he and his wife Chris passed out T-shirts during Milpitas’ 5K 4th of July runs; they’d go pick up the shirts and bring them over to the event. After they did that for 3 or 4 years, their daughter began dating a kid whose father was a Milpitas councilman. At that point, Ciardella started thinking of “giving back” on a more official basis.
Next came a seat on a temporary commission, followed by more permanent ones. But as history proves to anyone who studies it, nothing is ever really permanent…
Though Ciardella knows this, he’s not one to advocate for forgetting. To his mind, the pathway to the future can be paved without neglecting to bring the past along for the ride. He cited a newly approved McCarthy Ranch structure, the Sprig Center, named after Northern Pintail ducks. The name stems from a proud tradition of duck-hunting stretching back into the McCarthy family’s past: “I thought that was preserving history, so to speak. I thought that was kind of cool,” Ciardella said.
Inevitably, history does fade. Such is the natural flow of things. In the case of the Sprig Center, it survives in a name, an echo, a subtle reference. In the case of the Historical Society’s display, its form of survival is less certain. Let the record state, however, that on a warm April evening in 2019, Commissioner Larry Ciardella made a bid for history. The odds were stacked against him. The corporation was indifferent. The gavel was slammed in favor of the future.
And Ciardella voted for Legoland, too. For he’s no fool. He knows what all who live long enough come to learn:
The future is worth it — always, forever.
But it comes at the expense of the past.