Can San Jose create a downtown entertainment district?
An aerial view of downtown San Jose. Photo courtesy of The 111th Photography.

    Providing a fun and safe experience for visitors coming to downtown San Jose are top priorities in a new proposal for an entertainment district in the city’s urban core.

    Leading this development effort is real estate mogul Gary Dillabough, who believes as safety improves in San Jose it will soon be ready for a central entertainment area for locals and visitors to congregate. City leaders hope that by increasing visitors to the area it will help revitalize struggling local businesses.

    “It first starts with having things like the great weather, having the physical infrastructure, having a million people on the periphery… Given its size and its buying power, San Jose can do a lot of different things pretty well,” Dillabough told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think we’re that far away from doing that.”

    Dillabough, who is the founder of Urban Community, a real estate development firm with numerous downtown projects, said with the combined forces of the more than 25 venues in downtown, San Jose could host 54,000 visitors on any given night.

    In looking ahead to the planning phase of the proposed entertainment district, Frances Wong, spokesperson for visitors bureau Team San Jose, said city-owned facilities can provide an initial foundation for a future thriving city center.

    “We already have the city layout needed for a designated entertainment and convention district,” Wong told San José Spotlight. “With such a proposed district, it would better integrate the visitor experience and spending into the downtown economy.”

    The desire for an entertainment district comes at a time when downtown San Jose is facing an uphill battle in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses have seen a dramatic drop in profits and others that closed during the pandemic never reopened. The Tabard Theatre recently shuttered its doors after being in operation for more than 20 years.

    Derrick Seaver, CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, has lived in downtown for more than a decade and is an advocate for refreshing the area. Seaver said he enjoys the numerous events, such as the First Friday art walks and the SoFa Street Fair, but he’d like to see events happen more frequently across the year.

    “The big change we want to see is just that consistency piece,” Seaver told San José Spotlight. “People have come to expect the brand, like First Fridays, but what is being activated on a Tuesday in August?”

    A downtown for everyone

    Elizabeth Chien-Hale, a downtown resident who serves on the boards of both the San Jose Downtown Residents Association and the San Jose Downtown Association, said she often visits local venues like 3Below Theater and attends events like San Jose Jazz Festival and Cinequest. Like Seaver, she said the lack of promotion for events happening in downtown San Jose is limiting the number of attendees.

    “We already have a diverse range of entertainment options in downtown. However, I think what will build loyal fan base will be persistent delivery of quality performances in any one area of entertainment,” Chien-Hale told San José Spotlight. “Furthermore, we need the supporting infrastructures, such as easy—and hopefully free—parking and good dining options for before or after the performance. I think we sell the package.”

    An entertainment district is more of an idea rather than a formal structure set up by cities, according to Nanci Klein, San Jose’s director of economic development and cultural affairs.

    It’s unlikely the city would enact any policy or zoning changes to help bring Dillabough’s idea to life. For example, years ago the city allowed for much larger night clubs, which attracted hundreds of young adults downtown on some nights, she said. But those individuals would sometimes engage in disruptive and less-than-fully-legal activities, she recalled.

    “We wanted to be a different downtown,” Klein told San José Spotlight. “Not just a downtown specifically for 20-year-olds, but a downtown for everybody.”

    To bring “world-class” talent to downtown San Jose as part of the entertainment district Dillabough envisions, he said venues will need to smooth the lumps out of the city’s events calendar. Venues like SAP Center already attract top acts, but Dillabough said the Sharks arena can’t carry downtown all by itself.

    “We have this lumpiness of great experiences,” Dillabough said. “So first we make it a little safer, and then we take this lumpiness out.”

    Klein said this year, San Jose has 120 events over 300 days, which is almost at pre-pandemic levels. But there’s always room for more visitors, she added.

    “The entertainment district itself is here, the foundation, the great elements,” Klein said. “We need to add to it and interconnect it, and look for opportunities to attract yet more.”

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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