For decades, mayors, developers and business owners have claimed to know the secret for helping downtown San Jose come of age.
Builders erected high-rise apartments, condominiums and office towers, and as the skyline changed city officials proclaimed the people would follow. The tech sector went on a tear, conferences sold out at the convention center and hotels packed their rooms. Foot traffic flowed on the streets, restaurants sprung up and the homeless crisis had yet to hit critical mass. For a brief moment, downtown San Jose caught lightning—and then it was gone.
A once-bright future turned into vapor, and the decadeslong question remains: What will it take to turn downtown San Jose into a dynamic city for more than a minute?
The answer being bantered around today is a unified commitment from residents, city officials, real estate developers, businesses and San Jose State University, which itself encompasses 154 acres of the city’s core.
We’ve heard it all before.
For this to happen, the city’s central district stakeholders need to stop operating in silos and make a genuine effort to connect the entire downtown core into one seamless community. Weekend events and first of the month activities do not equal a bustling city. Something needs to be lighting up the downtown regularly.
If the Center for the Performing Arts has a Broadway show, neighboring restaurants should offer pre- or post-performance dining or after-hour cocktails or dessert specials. Consider cross-promoting live music at San Pedro Square with other venues like SJZ Break Room at San Jose Jazz. Art galleries in SoFA could team up with the San Jose Museum of Art or The Tech Museum of Innovation for cultural events. San Jose State University could partner with downtown businesses like Adobe or Zoom for tours and lecture series. After all, companies in Silicon Valley employ more graduates from SJSU than from any other university in the U.S. There are countless ways to interconnect the city’s core.
If San Jose wants the downtown to be its heart, it needs to have a visible pulse. Restaurants need to have buzz. Shops need to be well-lit and busy. The city’s core needs to feel alive.
Getting there isn’t going to happen overnight, and now, with Google’s Downtown West project on indefinite hold, city officials and everyone else in its bull’s-eye can’t wait for the massive development to restart.
This is a wake-up call, and San Jose policies need to change as part of that unified commitment. The city needs to help, not hamper new businesses and get them open swiftly. Businesses aren’t going to rent on a block with vacant storefronts. The city has to commit to cleaning up the streets and helping those in need find housing and services. If people don’t feel safe coming downtown, everything else will be a challenge.
Critical services like grocery stores and drugstores have to be part of the landscape. Who’s ever heard of downtown without a grocer or drugstore? If San Jose is all about creating a walkable city and ditching the car, that can’t happen without adequate public transit and essential services within walking distance.
San Jose has been given a rare opportunity to reshape itself post-pandemic. Downtown stakeholders must take charge of its future and execute a well-designed plan to finally address that nagging question: What will it take for people to come live, work and play in the downtown?
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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