‘Street Life’ Plan Seeks to Light Up Downtown San Jose

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By Nancy Amdur

Downtown San Jose will be spruced up over the next 10 years under a plan recently unveiled by the downtown association to beautify the city and make it more pedestrian friendly.

Downtown San Jose real estate The RegistryThe so-called Street Life plan is part of an overall goal of making downtown “more inviting for businesses, residents and tourists,” said Eric Hon, operations manager for the Property-Based Improvement District, which commissioned the plan. “We want to improve downtown and connect districts that are working.”

San Francisco-based landscape architecture firm Conger Moss Guillard spent eight months developing the guide geared toward “improving the public realm in downtown San Jose,” said Calder Gillin, a lead designer on the project for CMG. The firm created a menu of more than 30 district-wide and site-specific improvements that can be implemented over the next decade in no particular order, he said.

The Street Life document includes small projects such as adding murals, bike racks, seating and gardens to bigger projects such as enhancing the plaza around city hall and adding an exercise circuit along Almaden Boulevard. Each piece would “bring social activity and a kind of a human comfort to some of those spaces where it was lacking,” Gillin said.

San Jose’s currently car-friendly downtown featuring wide streets was redeveloped in the 1980s and is outdated, Hon said. “With the sustainability movement, we want to fill the sidewalks,” he said. “You want to slow people down and make the surrounding environment interesting,” added Rick Jensen, a spokesman for the San Jose Downtown Association, which manages the PBID.

As it is, the district has some blocks that are underused, residents said.

“There are a couple areas where it is dense with cafes and restaurants and then a few blocks of nothing,” said James Reber, who lives in the city and is executive director of the San Jose Parks Foundation.

One of the most important pieces is “connecting the anchors—all the little pockets that are successful,” Hon said. “So when people visit areas like San Pedro Market, they won’t get in their cars and leave, they will venture into other areas. We want to engage folks to stay downtown longer.”

“It is mostly focused on pedestrians—trying to promote and make more comfortable pedestrian activity,” Gillin said.

The Street Life plan comes at a time when downtown San Jose is experiencing a growth spurt. Two residential high-rises are under construction and about seven more are in the early planning stages. Office vacancy is below 20 percent for the first time in several years and 42 restaurants opened in the last 18 months, Jensen said. PBID, which comprises district property owners, estimates that its group along with other funding sources, such as grants or partnerships, might spend $30 million over 10 years to execute the projects, Hon said.

Nearly 200 people attended a downtown association meeting last month to hear about the plan. Many residents were anxious to begin projects, according to Hon. “A lot of the reaction was ‘Me first, please,’” he said. But some residents are cautious about cost and question whether the Street Life proposals are the most important pieces to downtown’s evolution. “We want to make sure we spend money wisely,” said Kymberli Brady, a board member of the San Jose Downtown Residents Association. She also points out that with the district’s healthy amount of entertainment and restaurant activity, the missing piece is retail.

“What we lack down here even more than streetscaping is shopping,” said Brady, who opened the Discover San Jose gift shop in the district in June. “We have the potential to have the trifecta—to become a destination. Come down here to eat, and to shop, and to be entertained,” she said.

However, Reber adds that with the increased number of restaurants in the district, people are spending more time there and bettering the pedestrian experience would be helpful. “There are a lot of places nearby filled to the brim on the nights of Sharks games. A lot more [people] stay now, and the easier we can accommodate people moving around [the better],” he said, noting that the projects could “get more people downtown and make the city more vibrant.”

With all the high-rise building, “one reason we are doing this is to make sure that people who are moving down here can share their downtown proudly,” Jensen said. “If we look at the places around the Bay Area that are hopping, they are the ones where you have a lot of people in the street,” said Leah Toeniskoetter, director of urban planning group SPUR San Jose. Enticing people into the city helps businesses survive, “and I definitely think it’s a route to a cycle of growth,” she said.

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