Downtown San Jose is in the middle of a transformation. Cranes are changing the skyline from its once low-rise persona to towers of steel and glass.
CityView Plaza will reshape the landscape across from Cesar Chavez Plaza and the Icon and Echo Towers will rise kitty-corner from San Jose City Hall, as the downtown core marches ahead with its 21st century makeover. But what’s the plan for the community corridors that branch out into the neighborhoods? The hidden streets that defy time and create interlocking links along the Alum Rock Avenue Corridor or Calle Willow or Antique Row on West San Carlos Street. Cookie-cutter urban villages can’t be the solution.
Each of these neighborhoods is a nod to a past that defines why San Jose is not a one-size-fits-all city. These streets are community anchors, where small business owners know their customers beyond the cash register. Whether it’s providing tax services, selling antiques or gathering for a meal in a favorite taqueria, these sections of the city carry generational history. Yet they could all disappear with the swing of a wrecking ball.
To be fair, some sections of San Jose are in dire need of redevelopment, such as the dilapidated strip of fenced-off buildings along the east side of Bascom Avenue between Interstate 280 and West San Carlos Street. That block-long eyesore appears to be in limbo. But turn the corner onto West San Carlos Street, and businesses along weathered Antique Row beckon for you to forget about eBay.
A developer wants to change that. Knock it all down and replace this small section that’s a throwback to Saturday treasure hunts with a seven-story building—retail space on the ground floor, a senior care facility and 61 residences.
It’s hard to argue with housing the elderly and the need for more homes, but it will also displace older merchants who count on their businesses to survive. None of them believe the developer who said they will be welcomed back. Rents will likely double or perhaps even triple, making it unaffordable. Even if they wanted to return, how would they endure the wait? These projects can take years before coming online.
Those shops may look timeworn on the outside, but inside there is history and someone’s livelihood at stake. West San Carlos Street is definitely a patchwork of businesses, with opportunities to add housing and retail, but there are speciality shops on the street as well, and residents don’t want everything swept away.
Smart and thoughtful urban planning can be integrated with existing neighborhoods. Calle Willow is one such example. San Jose created a symbiotic relationship between this small section of Willow Street and planned development.
The merchants in this predominantly Latino business district cater to the surrounding Spanish-speaking community. If councilmembers hadn’t taken a step back and listened to the business owners, these storefronts would have disappeared. Instead, the San Jose City Council voted in 2021 to exempt the businesses in the area from being displaced and preserved it within a larger redevelopment plan.
“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the heart and soul of our community, and we must continue to work together with small business owners—particularly those in our most vulnerable and underserved communities—to build a San Jose where everyone can thrive,” former downtown Councilmember Raul Peralez said at the time.
Just because a section of town looks outdated or doesn’t fit into a development plan doesn’t mean it should be replaced by the next best high-tech shiny building. Carbon-copy urban village planning will take the soul out of San Jose.
There are ways to redevelop and preserve at the same time if the city is willing to do so. San Jose can integrate historic facades into projects and protect swatches of neighborhoods that are essential to surrounding communities. The city has already shown it can be done.
And yes, it’s all about everything penciling out, but these are people who have lived and worked in the same neighborhoods for years. These communities are the veins that pump life into San Jose. Let’s not bleed them dry.
Moryt Milo is San José Spotlight’s editorial advisor. Contact Moryt at [email protected] or follow her at @morytmilo on Twitter. Catch up on her monthly editorials here.
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