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The Year Downtown San Jose Could Change All the Rules

san jose, spur, silicon valley, san jose downtown association, silicon valley leadership group, bay area news

After several years of watching its neighbors to the north bask in the glow of economic recovery, downtown San Jose is poised to make 2014 the year when the tireless efforts of its leaders could finally bear fruit. There seems to be a lot of momentum behind the largest city in the Bay Area’s ability to realize the promise of its vibrant urban core, and yesterday’s Future of Downtown San Jose event at SPUR San Jose’s offices provided a glimpse into the way its dreams could be realized.

San Jose in its totality spans roughly 180 square miles. It is California’s third largest city, behind Los Angeles and San Diego, and the nation’s tenth largest. When California gained its statehood in 1850, San Jose was its first capital. But it wasn’t until after World War II that the small agricultural community started to gain in its prominence as a city and technology center. Today, San Jose is the most urban place in Silicon Valley, and the place where all the transit systems come together, says Egon Terplan, the regional planning director at SPUR, who served as the event’s co-host and moderator.

“But downtown San Jose is small. It’s one of the smaller job centers within Silicon Valley,” he said. Yet “we know that downtown San Jose has more amenities, in terms of entertainment overall, than any other place in the South Bay,” Terplan added.

And it is precisely this appeal that offers the most opportunity in the heart of Silicon Valley. However, realizing the full potential of that opportunity will take some time, energy and guidance, which SPUR and its panel presented on Wednesday to a packed room at SPUR San Jose’s offices in downtown San Jose.

The event was organized around a six-step program that SPUR San Jose has put forward for the city and its civic leaders to consider. Joining the organizers in support of this program were Garrett Herbert, partner of merger and acquisition transaction services at Deloitte, Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, Lee Wilcox, assistant to the city manager & downtown San Jose manager, and Jessica Zenk, senior director for transportation policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

The event kicked off with a discussion about welcoming diverse users into the downtown core, but holding certain transit-centric locations open for job growth opportunities. “Quite simply, if we want to get a lot of people taking transit, we need a lot of jobs right at the other end when you get off the train,” says Terplan. He added that the city should be agnostic what gets built in its downtown core but reserve enough sites within a quarter of a mile distance from present and future stations for employment growth.

“It sounds a lot like spot-zoning. We’re going to preserve some properties, and we’re going to tell those property owners that ‘your property right now is going to be held off, reserved for commercial uses,’” says Knies. “What we’re trying to do here is activate the entire downtown with people.”

Current development activity in downtown San Jose’s core is focused primarily on residential building. But, added Garrett, “We want to have diversity in terms of what we’re offering downtown. We want it to be a central business district, we want it to be a central social district.”

The panelists also discussed engaging the urban core by focusing on active uses of buildings, as well as embracing the diversity of the city’s fabric—from Santana Row to the early 20th century Victorian architecture, the city has a lot to offer. “It always comes into an amenity conversation,” which tends to ignore the wonderful and historic neighborhoods right around downtown, says Wilcox.

As a near-downtown resident, Zenk agreed. “The interest and the passion and the market for downtown is largely right outside downtown, with a growing residential base in it, as well,” she said. Zenk sees the most opportunity in harnessing that interest with the very people who live within the city’s borders and engaging them in such a way that they see San Jose as something more than a collection of disparate neighborhoods.

Making the city more accessible and discoverable was the focus of the last three points. If somehow downtown San Jose was easier to get through without a car that goal would be achieved, according to Terplan. “We should be thinking about some of the investments we’re going to make in the future and make sure they don’t undermine that experience and don’t reinforce the automobile as being the primary mode [of transportation],” he says.

He added that bus rapid transit could make a significant impact on that, as well as possibly reconfiguring its light rail network, which runs through downtown, albeit very slowly. Reducing the number of stations and moving transit away from sidewalks and onto dedicated thoroughfares (designating certain streets to carry mass transit in both directions, for instance) could cut transit times significantly.

Yet, perhaps the most dramatic suggestion was to retrofit downtown to be more pedestrian-oriented. Some streets in the city were designed decades ago for more effective car use, making crossing lanes for pedestrians longer and in some cases even prohibiting pedestrian access. A relatively unique feature of San Jose, its network of paseos, could serve as a natural, walkable way to connect one part of the city to the next without impacting automobile traffic.

“Downtown should focus on the pedestrian environment,” says Knies. The San Jose Downtown Association, which he helps run, just published a comprehensive street light plan for downtown San Jose in February. The 40-point plan laid out a number of ambitious goals that focus on bringing that spontaneous activity to the downtown core, making public spaces more vital, visible and discoverable. By using lighting, signage and decorative pieces, the city could provide visibility to what is going on in the proximity of the pedestrian.

Which of these initiatives the city is able to execute remains to be seen. The political landscape is set for a transition later this year as San Jose elects its new mayor and a number of other civic leaders. The panel concluded that the city of San Jose has excelled as a center of entertainment and cultural activity in the region. The challenge now is to engage the business district on par with the social experiences the city has to offer. Achieving that, they agreed, will reinforce the idea that downtown San Jose is a place where people go to do things.

Image courtesy of dpreview.com

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