Art installation could bring economic growth to downtown San Jose
With hopes of bolstering the economy, the Serpentine Pavilion will host events in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan and Inexhibit.

San Jose is counting on a new art installation to help spark economic growth downtown.

City officials hope the Serpentine Pavilion, a curvaceous, temporary structure constructed of fiberglass blocks, will revitalize the downtown area by attracting art shows, speaker series and other performances. 

Originally designed by Bjarke Ingels for the annual Serpentine Galleries architecture competition in London, developer Westbank purchased the pavilion and brought it to Toronto. It will arrive in San Jose by the end of October or early November for an eight-month stay.

“The Serpentine Pavilion supports our work to rebuild the local economy,” said Acting City Manager Jennifer Maguire, adding that it will provide outdoor activities where people can gather. 

The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on small businesses throughout the city from restaurants to nail salons. Unemployment rates rose in July, and finding workers is also a struggle for small business owners.

Reyna Lemus, owner of 3 Hermanos Mexican Grill at SoFA Market on South First Street near where the pavilion will be located, is counting on it to buoy her business, which she said barely survived the pandemic.

“Hopefully, this will bring more customers to the SoFA Market,” she told San José Spotlight.

Reyna Lemus, owner of 3 Hermanos Mexican Grill, said she hopes the Serpentine Pavilion will bring more foot traffic. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Councilmember Raul Peralez, who represents downtown, sees the Serpentine Pavilion as a great fit for the SoFA district.

“I think we’ll see a positive impact to the businesses there, like we do with South First Fridays and other events,” Peralez said. “It’s those activities that really drive customers to our local small businesses… and it’s certainly been a struggle this past year. We’ve lost a lot of businesses and we don’t want to lose any more.”

Peralez appreciates the Valley Title lot at 300 South First Street being put to good use by the property owner and developer.

“Rather than having empty lots or vacant parcels… activate sites and make them great community spaces,” Peralez said. “It will cost them several million dollars to do so, but it will bring a great benefit.”

Gary Dillabough, founder of development firm Urban Community which is partnering with Westbank on various city developments, envisions the cavernous 46-foot-high, 88-foot-long pavilion creating more energy downtown.

“Sometimes beautiful art is a way to start that process,” he told San José Spotlight.

Dillabough also founded the Urban Vibrancy Institute, a nonprofit working to make San Jose a clean, safe, collaborative and vibrant community where people want to live, work and play.

“The Serpentine… will be one of the tent poles in all these activities,” Dillabough said. “These are tiny steps in trying to reopen the city and help small businesses who have been struggling. We’re just trying to get people to support these businesses and help them get back on their feet.”

Led by Executive Director Eric Glader, the institute hosts Every Friday, a weekly event series featuring bands playing at four venues downtown. Glader said he sees the art installation as a North star bringing vibrancy to the area. 

“Everyone sees it as this great hopeful opportunity that is going to activate an underutilized space in the city and create a beautiful draw for everyone, including visitors outside the city,” he said.

Derrick Seaver, CEO of the Silicon Valley Organization, said the chamber has heard only positive reactions from its members about the pavilion.

“Everything we’ve heard is a general excitement about more downtown activation after COVID,” Seaver said. “The Serpentine seems to be a part of that, and they’re excited about it.”

The foundation for the Serpentine Pavilion is being constructed at the Valley Title lot on South First Street in San Jose. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Steve Cohen, who owns four properties in the SoFA district, told the City Council during Tuesday’s meeting that he appealed the permit for the Serpentine Pavilion because of the lack of public outreach and a loss of parking, due to the fact that it’s being constructed in a parking lot. But he said he wanted to withdraw it after hearing from Dillabough and other businesses. The City Council voted unanimously to deny the appeal.

Due to the permit challenge, Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, sent a letter of support to the city. He wrote that while recovery from the pandemic is underway, foot traffic and revenue for small businesses is not back to normal. He hopes the Serpentine Pavilion will attract people to surrounding businesses.

“What’s not to like about something so visually interesting that’s going to bring all these different activations to the SoFA district?” Knies told San José Spotlight. “Anything that’s going to bring more people, more attention and more excitement to downtown is additive. The Van Gogh Exhibit and the Serpentine are going to bring customers back.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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