Business leader sees vibrant future for downtown San Jose
San Jose Downtown Association CEO Alex Stettinski stands in front of San Jose City Hall on Jan. 20, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

From Germany, to the City of Angels, to the Biggest Little City in the World and now to the Heart of Silicon Valley, Alex Stettinski has seen a lot of downtowns, and he thinks he can help fix San Jose’s.

The new head of the San Jose Downtown Association has about four months under his belt after taking the helm from Scott Knies, who ran the organization for more than three decades. Knies stepped down last fall.

“I see opportunity at every street corner. I also see the challenges at a lot of street corners,” Stettinski told San José Spotlight.

Many of the problems facing the area aren’t new—the downtown for years has felt the impact of empty storefronts and blight, and has long borne a significant brunt of the region’s homelessness crisis.

But Stettinski says his outsider’s outlook could be a boon for the area as it grapples with its challenges. He isn’t the only newcomer working on the issues, either, as San Jose welcomes new Mayor Matt Mahan and new downtown Councilmember Omar Torres.

“That’s what gives me hope. That fresh start with new people in leadership positions,” Stettinski said. “People who are really interested in making a difference and creating a change for the betterment of the community without having all this political baggage. My hope is that baggage will not creep up on them.”

Stettinski was born in Geneva, Switzerland and raised in Germany. He attended the University of Göttingen before transferring to UC Berkeley around 1990 to finish out his comparative religion and arts degree. He went on to work in teaching, public relations and fundraising for schools before finding his calling—helping improve business districts. He started in West Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles and eventually landed at the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce.

Following a monthslong recruitment and search process for a new CEO, the San Jose Downtown Association nabbed Stettinski from Reno, Nevada, where he worked since 2018 as the charter CEO for the Downtown Reno Partnership, a business improvement district.

Alan “Gumby” Marques, current board president of the San Jose Downtown Association, said Stettinski won over the board with his broad experience in the field and his outsider’s view that highlights downtown San Jose’s potential.

“Someone who kind of has that vision, reminding us of why San Jose is great from a fresh perspective, is extremely important,” Marques told San José Spotlight. “Sometimes when you’ve been around for a while, when you’re in the process, you get stuck in the weeds a little bit.”

Stettinski said he feels downtown San Jose, like other downtowns in cities across the nation, is transitioning from a business center to a mix of housing and businesses, which will help spur improvements, activity and retail as more people begin living in the area.

San Jose Downtown Association CEO Alex Stettinski was hired in October 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Next steps for San Jose

San Jose has thousands of homes already approved for downtown that are in the pipeline, but not yet built. Stettinski is positive those projects will materialize, along with other major catalyst projects like Google’s Downtown West development and BART’s extension into downtown.

“When I go out in the evenings, there’s people on the street, places are full, people go out, they grab drinks and they go to restaurants,” Stettinski said. “But during the day it’s still very quiet. And that’s something I think will (change) over time.”

Another challenge for downtown San Jose will be the culture shift around returning to the office. While workers seem to appreciate the flexibility of remote work, Stettinski doesn’t think companies will abandon in-person work altogether.

“A lot of companies cannot be most effective by having their entire workforce be just remote,” Stettinski said. “The interaction with each other, the dynamic, the teamwork that you create when you sit in one space cannot be replaced in the end.”

But the potential return of workers to offices, BART, Google and thousands of new homes could all be a decade in the making. Stettinski said the San Jose Downtown Association needs to collaborate with leaders and business owners to create vibrancy in the short term.

“We cannot just fill vacancies, that doesn’t happen overnight, that’s a long process,” Stettinski said. “But what we can do is lighting, we can do blight, we can improve the facades, we can just improve the look of our downtown.”

A Groundwerx worker on Santa Clara Street in downtown San Jose. Photo by Joseph Geha.

The association—with its roughly $8 million annual budget funded by assessments levied on downtown businesses and property—has for years helped fund Groundwerx, a team of workers that wear orange and clean up graffiti, trash and pressure wash sidewalks and plazas.

About $40,000 is also being spent by the association to develop a new lighting plan for downtown, which is still under review. The plan could cost millions, but Stettinski said it could be key to making downtown feel safer and more attractive to business owners and visitors.

Stettinski has been named to the mayor’s downtown transition task force, and said he is already seeing strong collaboration from Mahan, Torres, developers and others who want to see the downtown thriving.

“We’re all looking at it with fresh eyes,” he said. “We see things that everyone sees, but we are calling it out. We’re naming things and we say, ‘What can we do that hasn’t been done yet?’ Or if it has been done, maybe we should retry with a fresh energy.”

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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