Bramson: How to build a downtown best in San Jose
Renderings of Google's Downtown West project. Image courtesy of SITELAB Urban Studio.

On any given day, try taking a stroll down the main boulevard of Santana Row. There are people dining at expensive restaurants, sipping on decadent drinks, shopping at luxury stores and enjoying a safe, cultivated, undisturbed sunny afternoon. Some people think this carefully manicured Silicon Valley fantasy is the best San Jose has to offer.

The problem is that it was a dream conceived for the few, not the many. And nearly 20 years after this 42-acre “village within a city” was built, it is still a place that – at its very core – is designed to exclude. Affordability, accessibility and inclusion simply weren’t in the blueprints decades ago, and are still conveniently disregarded today.

It’s the primary challenge with privatizing public space: there’s also somebody deciding who gets let in and who gets left out.

With thousands of people on the streets and many more on the brink of losing their homes, we need every square foot of land to best serve the needs of those who have the least first and foremost. The “Live, Work, Play” lifestyle that so much of our urban planning strives for doesn’t mean much if you can’t even afford to pay the rent.

That’s why the current plans around the Diridon Station Area and the vision for Downtown West actually offers some hope. A future hub of transit, parks, jobs and housing, the vast expanse of land has the promise to truly be the center of so much opportunity for San Jose. And, thanks to the work of fierce advocates, committed leaders and neighbors willing to say yes to more for everyone, it won’t be a gated community of privilege.

While the Downtown West numbers are staggering – over 4,000 housing units, 7.3 million square feet of office space, 15 acres of parks, and subsidized spaces for non-profits and other local, small businesses – what stands out most is the commitment to creating some real affordability. The 25% goal for affordable housing in the area exceeds the city’s baseline requirements and opens more doors than it closes for hardworking folks who very well might want to call this place home someday.

Once the ink is dry, it’s possible to fear that goals sometimes fade into memory. But with a dedication of four parcels of land that will yield approximately 800 units, 200 moderate income apartments integrated into new market rate housing developments, $87 million dollars estimated to come from the new commercial linkage fee, and a housing investment policy from the city that calls for 45% investment of all housing funds into the creation of new places to live for extremely low-income households, it’s safe to say that the tracks are laid for affordable housing to arrive at the station.

And with extremely low-income housing developed, we’ll be avoiding the homogenized, unattainable future that so many of us dread. We’ll be creating an inclusive community where the people who power San Jose can grow and thrive without having the threat of homelessness lurking around every dark corner.

But the specter of gentrification, displacement and exacerbated inequality is still very real. We all still need to keep the pressure on to make sure the most deeply affordable housing is built first and that the $200 million in proposed community benefits is used to make a difference in the lives of the people who are struggling to make it today.

There’s still a long road ahead before the dirt really starts to move in this corner of the world. Let’s all keep pushing together to make sure what we have on paper today becomes the Downtown Best we all know it has the potential to be.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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