By Meghan Hall
Silicon Valley is home to many of the most innovative companies in the world, but rarely has that innovation truly seeped at scale into the larger built environment. As the region has grown, it has become an array of segmented neighborhoods, massive office parks and tangle of roadways—an environment that in many ways fails to serve its residents. After jumping feet first into downtown San Jose, Vancouver-based developer Westbank Corporation has unveiled a master vision plan to rethink how modern cities are built. With five projects underway in San Jose, Westbank intends to use its projects there as a test case for future urban development at scale.
“What interests me in San Jose is that there is a canvas where we can make a meaningful impact relatively quickly,” explained Westbank CEO Ian Gillespie. “You can imagine that’s harder to do in a dense city like San Francisco, but in San Jose you have the investments into transportation, San Jose State University, you’ve got some good bones.”
According to Westbank, the formula with which cities have been built is ineffective, and that as the Silicon Valley has developed it has not “focused on its own house.” The result is lengthy commutes, skyrocketing housing costs, a lack of true community and disjointed, suburban office parks. In its growth, Silicon Valley has failed to build a resilient community or infrastructure, and therefore a differing approach to development needs to evolve for the benefit of the community. Failing to innovate, notes Westbank, risks losing the essence of everything that makes Silicon Valley so unique in the first place.
“It is a bit strange to us of how much Silicon Valley is shaping the way everybody lives their lives, and…we just felt that there was a big opportunity for advancement on that front [in creating] an active environment,” said Westbank’s Andrew Jacobson. “It’s really not offered in Silicon Valley.”
For its vision, Westbank settled on San Jose in particular. The tenth largest city in the United States, Westbank believes San Jose is well-poised for this type of disruption. San Jose currently has a population of more than one million, a number that is expected to grow by 400,000, according to Santa Clara County data. 67 percent of population growth in Santa Clara Valley will land in San Jose.
How development has unfolded in the past has been more of a function of a region learning how to navigate its expansive growth than anything else, noted Jacobson and Westbank. The current model revolves around low density offices and parking lots in predominantly commercial or formerly industrial neighborhoods. Major tech and office frequently operate as closed ecosystems, bussing its employees in and out—especially as population growth has outpaced new housing supply.
Westbank’s goal is to create a new urban campus typology that encompasses overlapping activities with higher density workspaces and mixed-use residential development, combined with shared amenities and accessible transportation. Physical spaces will be tied together with new energy and water infrastructure, and an expansion of different types of public transit. Social and community experiences will be created through public art, open spaces and cultural facilities.
“When you see a market like San Jose with as much potential and momentum as it has, there is a normal course,” said Jacobson. “What we are interested in is this monumental shift which aligns with the ideals of Silicon Valley. We want to take the current model and make it a little better.”
In collaboration with Urban Community and local developer Gary Dillabough, Westbank has proposed five projects which will provide a testing ground for its ethos and vision:
- The Bank of Italy: An adaptive reuse of one of San Jose’s most iconic structures, the project will incorporate 130,000 square feet of workplace, retail and education space. Balconies and a new egress spanning the entire height of the building will operate as outdoor breakout, meeting and work spaces. All sides of the building will be activated with entrances, retail, connections and lobbies to provide ground plane activity.
- The Energy Hub: Currently a parking lot, the Energy Hub will bring life to a 1.25-acre lot with 700,000 square feet of mixed-use development. In order to maximize porosity at the ground plane and maintain the network of alleys and walkways surrounding the project site, Westbank and Urban Community will hoist most of the building’s density to the upper levels. The top floors with the largest floorplates will be offices, the middle floors will be residential, and the ground floor will be retail. The building will be pill-shaped to provide space for mini plazas, while an alley arch cut out of the building will create a large public room.
- Park Habitat: Totaling 1.135 million square feet, Park Habitat will combine museum, retail and workspaces. Elevated gardens, terraced lounges, openable spaces and panorama boxes will heavily shape the building and its connection to natural settings. A “Green Lung”—an exterior space part of the floorplate that runs from the ground to the roof—will dampen noise and external factors while providing increased ventilation for the building.
- Arbor: At the center of San Jose’s urbanization will be Arbor, an 800,000 square foot project. Also a mix of office, residential and retail, the building’s offerings are inspired by the original ecology and geology of the Santa Clara Valley prior to urbanization. A series of staggered cores, shaved corners and “vertical ravines” will provide access to light and air, while a mass timber structure will reduce emissions and add to a warm look. The project also includes the adaptive reuse of the 1984 Davidson Building, which will connect to the new building.
- The Orchard: The Orchard entails the redevelopment of two properties at 300 S. 1st Street and 409 S. 2nd St., where 1.75 million square feet of office and retail, and 400,000 square feet of residential will rise, respectively. A “Bar and Dot” architectural scheme will create urban rooms and theatrical spaces. Each floor of the Dot portion is an open system and connects to a plaza via wood infill components and mass timber construction. The Bar will almost literally act as a vertical orchard, with vegetation and trees integrated into the facades.
All projects will incorporate smart building features such as automated blinds, lighting controls, windows and smart sensors, as well as energy storage to increase sustainability. Combined, Westbank’s goal is to create projects that cohesively tackle climate change, the third industrial revolution, concerns over community, working environments and health and well-being.
“We have a very strong vision for each project, how it fits into the community,” said Jacobson. “They’re all a little bit different, and they’re all very unique.”
Westbank and Urban Community have selected Bjarke Ingels Group, Kengo Kuma & Associates, Studio Gang and James K.M. Cheng Architects to help them with their design and development efforts.
Westbank’s pursuits in San Jose kicked off shortly before the rise of the coronavirus. Despite the debate the current pandemic has caused regarding the future of cities, Westbank is confident in its bet on San Jose’s urban core. By 2050, two-thirds of all people will live in urban areas, and cities will play a pivotal role in that evolution.
“Going through COVID-19 really reinforced our beliefs on everything we’re doing,” said Jacobson. “We feel strongly that our focus on design, access to fresh air, outdoor spaces and community will be the drivers of all urban settings going forward.”
As Westbank proceeds with development plans in San Jose, the firm hopes to implement similar strategies in other cities globally. While Westbank has worked on projects in cities such as Vancouver, Seattle and Tokyo, producing a number of new projects in concentration will prove key to changing the larger conversation surrounding the process of urban development.
“We have a lot going on, globally,” said Jacobson. “The execution is in our wheelhouse…I think the first step for us is changing the conversation.”