Just Starting a Dialogue to Re-Imagine San Jose

San Jose, Swenson Buillders, Silicon Valley, SAP Center, The District, Guadalupe River Walk plan, CMG Landscape Architecture

By Michele Chandler

San Jose development and construction firm Swenson Buillders—a stalwart builder in Silicon Valley—is now envisioning a dramatic redo for San Jose’s Guadalupe River area that could bring 3.8 million square feet of office space, 2,500 residences, 1,000 hotel rooms and nearly a half-million square feet of retail, shops and restaurants to 30 acres near adjacent to the SAP Center in San Jose’s downtown neighborhood.

For now, the extensive development proposed to feature high-rise towers up to 350 feet tall—more than double the current zoning limit—is just a vision that the company expects to be refined and changed by the various groups responsible for overseeing development in the city.

The imaginary effort is attempting to raise awareness of the opportunity and begin a visual discussion about what this neighborhood could accomplish. This comes at time when a number of mega projects in and around the downtown core begins to take shape and gain momentum within City Hall. Tech giant Google is in discussions with the city of San Jose to possibly purchase and develop city-owned property in and around Diridon Station not far from the Guadalupe area that could bring in millions of feet of new office space; Adobe is looking to redevelop and bring in thousands of additional employees to downtown as it expands its footprint in the city; at the same time, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced a plan to build 25,000 homes to stem what he called a deepening housing crisis in city.

Swenson is aiming to get private and nonprofit backers interested in what the company is calling The District at the Guadalupe River Walk plan. Their “visioning” effort—funded by Swenson and completed in partnership over the past several years with CMG Landscape Architecture—features zip-lines to whisk people over leafy park space, river kayaking, an observation tower, an ecological auditorium and waterfront dining and shopping and an expanded Little Italy community, among other features.

Josh Burroughs, senior development director at Swenson, recently called his company’s extremely preliminary vision study “probably step 1 of a 1,000-step process.” Here’s more of what Burroughs discussed with The Registry about The District at the Guadalupe River Walk.

What is the plan?

This vision, [and] it’s just one idea, was to have a new, revitalized, urban retail mall with an expanded Little Italy, if you will, mixed right next to very large and expansive public spaces, whether it be plazas or recreation spaces, lawns, meandering bridges, public art, all mixed in. This is just a vision concept study to get something out to the public to think about. This is just something to get out into the public to chew on. We call it “drawing and dreaming.”

What’s on the land now?

The majority of the 30 acres is the City of San Jose Guadalupe Park land. There’s some private properties in Little Italy, some single family homes that are private today. The rest of Little Italy is on a ground lease with the City of San Jose. That’s where the retail and commercial portions are. In our vision plan, those are being retained but moved and the whole Little Italy concept being expanded by about 30,000 to 40,000 square feet on the ground floor level. Where the tennis courts are now is where we have those office buildings in the plan.

What must happen before an official plan is implemented?

There are huge road blocks to something like this. Multiple agencies would need to be involved. You currently can’t build those building heights in that corridor, due to Federal Aviation Administration and OEI [one-engine inoperative] limits. As a charter city today, there’s no private development of parkland allowed. Just little things like that.

But I think we wanted to bring to light that San Jose has done some great things in the past and worked together as a community and as a political system to move forward big projects. This was back in the days of the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, but we did get an arena built. We got a new convention center, huge amounts of infrastructure built in the downtown. We’ve done pubic-private partnerships with tech companies to install infrastructure, like Facebook’s Terragraph wireless internet going in downtown. We do feel that it’s possible to pull something like this off. It’s just going to take the entire community and political system to come together to do this.

Those are some big challenges. Who’s on board for this idea so far?

This vision study is probably step one of a 1,000-step process. A community group would need to take something like this forward, and it would probably be a mix of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, the San Jose Downtown Association, the San Francisco Planning and Research Association (SPUR), the City of San Jose, the Little Italy San Jose Foundation. There’s probably a ton of other groups in that bucket that would all have to come to the table together.

That’s really what we were hoping to do, is to spur a conversation to get everyone together to think big about what could be possible. And where I think we could help is showing a roadmap of how some of the financials could work to achieve a community vision, whether it’s a kayak run or a zip-line—those are just two examples of some [revenue-raising] ideas. Maybe we can help out showing how the community’s vision could get financed, assuming there are no public dollars available to do that.

Was Google’s proposal the catalyst for this effort?

We started this well before Google was a glimmer in our city’s eye. This is something over the years that we’ve thought about—where and how to get more regional, tourist-level type development going within the downtown area. There have been little, small, organic wins downtown through a variety of things, whether it be the San Pedro Square market or new tech companies coming downtown, or great new restaurants and retail groups coming into old ground floor spaces. We wanted to take a look at a large project and try to figure out a way to fund something like that, given that the city doesn’t have any money to contribute, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency doesn’t exist anymore, and we have very little money available to actually maintain our own park. So, it would have to be a large project for the private development to contribute into a fund to maintain and build something great and amazing.

Where does the visioning study stand if the Google project doesn’t happen?

This vision study is agnostic to Google. I think there are enough tenants out there. The trend is going towards moving to more urban environments next to transit. Even being in an urban cultural center [where] you have access to the cultural district, the arts, food, restaurants, places to meet, to hang out. That’s where the trend’s going over the life of what this project could be.

Is Swenson ready to jump in and build?

We have some land interest in the plan. A portion of Little Italy, we have on a ground lease; that’s probably an acre. We would, of course, throw our hat in the ring and be cooperative with something if it were to move forward.

I would just add a caveat that we’re completely aware that we might have zero involvement if an actual project went forward, and we are totally okay with that. We just wanted to start a dialogue.

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