Revitalizing Downtown San José: Design’s Evolution and Impact

San José, Bay Area, Gensler, Silicon Valley, Apple, Nvidia, Google, Facebook, SPUR, The Knight Foundation, San José Downtown Association, Diridon Station
Downtown San José’s thriving Farmer’s Market is just one example of the City’s increasing efforts to adapt existing public streets and spaces to create a more vibrant downtown. Image © Gensler.

By Kevin Schaeffer

Downtown San José is well positioned to become the next urban destination. An expanding job market, investment in public transit and more affordable real estate than other parts of the Bay Area are drawing in new tech companies and a younger demographic eager to live and work in a city they love. We talked to Kevin Schaeffer, principal and managing director of Gensler’s San José office, located in the heart of Downtown, about the role design has played in the evolution of this city and Silicon Valley. Read below for his reflections on where design has been, where it is now and how it’s shaping the future of Downtown San José.

What prompted Gensler to establish an office in San José?
Gensler’s push for a presence in Silicon Valley was initiated at the height of the “Dot Com Bubble” to serve the design needs of both established and start-up tech companies. However, by the time that Gensler opened an office in Downtown San José in early 2001, the “bubble” was quickly losing air. The market came to a standstill, with little potential for near-term growth. Eventually, the market shifted, the technology sector began reinvesting in their facilities and the San José office grew exponentially.

Describe the design approach that has characterized Silicon Valley’s architecture and office spaces in the past.
Silicon Valley has a long history of “value-based design.” A dozen or more years ago this translated to inexpensive, no-frills work environments that were strictly focused on maximizing headcount and providing workplace essentials at a low price point. This was due, in part, to the incubator or “start-up” nature of the tech sector. Most companies felt that it was more important to invest in R&D rather than spend money on the general work environment.

In an effort to minimize risk due to uncertainties around growth, most technology companies leased office space from developers and were generally satisfied with the build-outs that they provided. Land was relatively cheap, by today’s comparisons, and there was not much incentive for developers to provide more than the basics in terms of amenities or the creation of a sense of place that might attract tenants. The result was an inventory of bland architecture, buildings surrounded by enormous parking lots, lack of an interface with the surrounding community and a growing traffic problem.

What are Silicon Valley-based technology clients focusing on today?
Technology companies are still focused on “value-based design,” but their definition has evolved. There continues to be plenty of attention given to cost, but employee happiness has moved to center stage. Talent is the life blood of every company, so attracting and retaining the best talent is essential to their success. This translates to work environments that support user needs and workstyles, provide spaces that instill company pride, create convenient opportunities for community interaction and ease the pain of employee commutes.

Adobe’s renovated downtown San José headquarters was designed to support employee well-being, company culture and community engagement. Image © Gensler.

A number of mature technology companies in Silicon Valley have made architectural statements as a reflection of their brand (Apple, Nvidia), while others have emphasized support of their employee base through amenities and flexible spaces that respond to user needs (Google, Facebook). However, there continues to be limited engagement between these corporate campuses and their surrounding communities. This lack of community interaction is a bi-product of suburban sprawl and the insular approach that many companies have taken with their campuses. In addition, commute times have increased significantly as developments have expanded in areas lacking quality mass transit options.

Where is design headed and what opportunities do you see in Downtown San José?
While Adobe has had a headquarters in Downtown San José since the early ‘90s, the area has been largely ignored by the technology sector, but this is about to change. With easy access to major mass transit lines (VTA, Caltrain, ACE, Amtrak, and eventually BART), walking distance to restaurants and cultural venues, 11 acres of urban park land, and an increasingly younger demographic whose desire is to live where they work, many companies are beginning to take notice of Downtown’s potential. Housing shortages and real estate costs are pushing the workforce further from their workplace, making transit hubs increasingly more attractive to employers and staff.

According to the San José Downtown Association, as of September, there were 10,485 homes proposed, under construction or recently completed for 31 different sites in downtown – most of them high-rises. Image © Gensler.

The potential for Downtown San José is great and Gensler, along with the City and organizations like SPUR and The Knight Foundation, is exploring the possibilities. Last year, with the support of the San José Downtown Association, Gensler initiated a community exhibit entitled, “I Wish Downtown San Jose Had” to seek input on the vision for the future of downtown. The community was invited to write down their ideas for making the Downtown a more vibrant and livable place and Gensler shared sketches of possible design solutions. More recently, Gensler’s design for the proposed Diridon Station development, a mixed-use project that activates an area adjacent to the Guadalupe River, has served as a catalyst for interest in the Downtown area. Currently, the City is in discussions with Google and Adobe regarding possible expansion plans downtown. If approved to move forward, the Google campus could bring 15,000 to 20,000 employees to the city.

Gensler designed Diridon Development, a major mixed-use, transit oriented project by developer Trammell Crow, has helped generate interest in the downtown area. Currently, the City of San José is deciding whether to sell Google 16 parcels in the Diridon Area. Image © Gensler.

SPUR has published several reports and held forums to discuss smart growth in the area and the importance of transit-oriented design. In a recent discussion, Christine Laing, a principal at Gensler and SPUR Policy Board member, addressed what is working and what is changing in the design of campuses in the Silicon Valley.

Seventy three bus routes, two light rail lines and three major rail lines, serve approximately 184,000 riders every weekday. A high-speed rail line from the Central Valley to San José is expected to begin serving passengers by 2025. Image © Gensler.

The City of San José is not only focused on the impact that BART and high-speed rail will have on the downtown area, they are addressing the issues facing downtown and striving to make it a better place to live and work. The City recently hired an urban designer to provide an intentional and connected approach to city design. On a separate front, Gensler is working with the City to help address the homeless crisis through the design of interim housing for homeless individuals until they can find longer term solutions.

“I Wish Downtown San Jose Had,” a participatory exhibit organized by Gensler’s community impact program, collected 300 wishes from the community for ways to enhance Downtown. Findings were shared with the San José Downtown Association. Image © Gensler.

Revitalizing Downtown
A thoughtful, cohesive approach to development will be critical for the downtown area as plans move forward. The success of this renaissance will depend on compelling design solutions that create a positive emotional response to Downtown San José. A recent survey by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network rated San José as the top city in the U.S. (out of 100 cities) based on a range of indicators related to quality-of-life, economic opportunity, and environmental management… just another reason to keep your eyes on the future of Downtown San José.

Originally posted on GenslerOn

Kevin Schaeffer, AIA, LEED AP, is Managing Director of Gensler’s San Jose office where he has built relationships with many of Silicon Valley’s top tech companies. Throughout his tenure, he has focused on using his experience and the profession of architecture as a catalyst for building communities. Contact him at

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