By Meghan Hall
San Jose is a city of many things: vast population, a major regional economic engine, a mix of diverse cultures. It has an emerging downtown, a growing sports scene and sits close to the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area. But over the course of the last few years, a group of the city’s citizens have noticed something lacking amidst San Jose’s growing importance—and skyline: a venerable landmark that encompasses not just one San Jose is now, but its aspirations, hopes and goals for the future. Together, these citizens have formed the San Jose Light Tower Corporation (SJLTC) in an effort to bring an iconic landmark to the city of San Jose. To bring their goal to fruition, the organization just recently launched Urban Confluence Silicon Valley: an international open ideas competition meant to garner ideas for a new landmark.
“For me, it started personally with an observation that my wife and I made together, that San Jose was kind of a bland landscape, and unlike many other great cities, we don’t have a recognizable icon like a Space Needle or a St. Louis Arch or the Bean in Chicago,” explained Jon Ball, co-founder of the SJLTC. Ball helped to establish the nonprofit organization in 2017 with the help of Steve Borkenhagen and Thomas Wholmut.
The idea to establish a new landmark, as well as the SJLTC’s name, was inspired by San Jose’s first and original landmark, a 237-foot tall electric tower that was originally constructed in 1881 in downtown San Jose. The light tower is said to have inspired Maurice Koechlin in his designs for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was constructed to mark the entrance of the 1889 World’s Fair. The San Jose Light Tower stood until 1915, when it was destroyed by a local storm. Since then, said Ball, attempts to bring a new landmark to San Jose have been limited or failed to get off the ground.
“It’s really hard work,” said Ball. “This is really been quite a journey for us — and I think generally speaking, the business people and the electives in San Jose — everybody has their head down working really hard and trying to survive. You have got to have the passion for what we’re doing, and it would be really easy for someone to take on this venture and throw in their chips and say, ‘This is too hard, I’m out.’ But that’s not our nature…We’re really trying to make a difference in our community, and that’s what’s driving us.”
So far, SJLTC has raised more than one million dollars from donors around the Bay Area to spearhead the project. Ultimately, SJLTC plans to deliver the new landmark to the City of San Jose as a gift. Thus far, the City has shown its support for the initiative, voting twice — most recently in March of this year.
The hope is that upon completion, San Jose will not only have a recognizable landmark, but one that will also contribute to the economic vitality of the city.
“It is impossible to quantify the economic impact from something like this,” stated Borkenhagen. “Suffice to say, if you study any landmark structure, they have a significant economic impact on their communities.”
The future landmark will be located at Arena Green in downtown San Jose, where the Los Gatos Creek and Guadalupe River meet, and will act as a catalyst for the revitalization of the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens, a three-mile-long park. Based on themes of innovation, collaboration, community building and environment, applicants have until January 15, 2020 to enter their ideas. The competition is open to anyone worldwide.
“The open ideas competition has allowed us to not just stay within the city limits of San Jose, but since we are such a community of diversity, it allowed us to go out into the world and see how they perceive Silicon Valley and what they believe an iconic landmark here should look like,” said Vice Chairman of the SJLTC board, Christine Davies.
The submissions will be anonymous, and ideas for the landmark can come in any form, although Davies stated the community will likely want to see something that includes height.
“I think people really want a viewing spot where they can see an abundance of the valley, and the beauty of the valley,” said Davies. “And then, I think they also want something that is high-tech.”
After the submissions deadline, a second phase of the competition will occur in which three finalists will receive $150,000 stipend to refine their project proposals. The three finalists will be announced in March of 2020.
“We’re really trying to do something that is large and important, and really world class, rather than some kind of derivative tower,” said Borkenhagen. “Our intention is to give this as a gift to the city; we’re not doing this to make money.”