A longtime goal of revitalizing San Jose’s downtown will require input and energy from a broad group of politicians, residents, advocates and businesses.
One venture capitalist hopes a series of meetings will accelerate and complement existing efforts to make the downtown cleaner, safer and bring in more visitors to support local businesses still reeling after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Carabiner meetings, started by Gary Dillabough and his business partner Jeff Arrillaga, are aimed at getting a variety of people and organizations on the same page about downtown’s direction. Dillabough chose the title “carabiner” to evoke a sense of support, named after the clip used in rock climbing or other safety harnesses.
“There are a ton of extraordinarily well-intended smart people in San Jose, but they seem to operate in their own silos, their own lanes,” Dillabough told San José Spotlight.
Only a handful of the meetings have taken place since the first one with about 20 people in late 2021, but the events have grown to include nearly 200 people at the March meeting, Dillabough said. Attendees have included city officials, San Jose State University representatives, corporations like Adobe and Zoom, transit agencies, small business owners and police officials, among others.
The meetings often include guest speakers such as artists, designers and civil engineers who share ideas on how to improve downtowns, drawing from examples that have helped cities around the globe. Following that, there’s a party, which Dillabough said is critical for building relationships and spurring ideas.
“Sometimes we’re all a little too focused on work and we forget there are real people on the other side of these conversations. But after you’ve had two or three beers, it’s interesting how the conversations evolve,” he said.
Dillabough isn’t the first person to suggest San Jose could benefit from better collaboration among its movers and shakers, but the Carabiner meetings are being well-received as the city continues to plot out its way forward post-pandemic.
“People are just wanting to figure out ways we can help bring more vibrancy to downtown. I think we all realize that we’re not going to be returning to things as they were,” Deputy City Manager Rosalynn Hughey told San José Spotlight. “We are all trying to come together to reimagine, what is the new normal for our downtown and how can we work together to make it happen.”
Nanci Klein, the city’s head of economic development, told San José Spotlight the Carabiner meetings have generated “palpable buzz,” and are building on momentum from past revitalization efforts waylaid by the pandemic.
“There are people who believe in downtown and want to push San Jose over the edge so it really flourishes,” Klein said. “I think we’re in a moment where people see that collective action, their action, can really make a difference.”
Dillabough said the meetings go hand-in-hand with other work he’s helped spearhead, like the Urban Vibrancy Institute, a nonprofit that supported downtown businesses with live music programs in 2021 and 2022. But it’s not just altruism driving the work. He wants downtown to thrive in part so his major development projects will become part of a better place to live, dine, dance, shop and work.
Through their investment business Urban Community, Dillabough and Arrillaga have snapped up roughly $300 million worth of downtown properties over the past several years, and are partnering with other local big name developers and international investors to build housing, office buildings and green space.
It takes a village
The next Carabiner meeting is scheduled for May 18 and will be followed by a “block party” organized by Urban Vibrancy at Fountain Alley, with music and an unveiling of a pilot lighting project meant to spiff up the downtown alleyway and boost safety. Dillabough wants to do one block party each month in different parts of downtown.
He’s found backing for the meetings and events from people all over the city, including Councilmember Omar Torres, who represents much of downtown and is a sponsor of the first block party.
“If we are really going to create vibrancy in downtown San Jose, it’s going to start with our arts organizations and our small businesses that are rebuilding after the pandemic,” Torres told San José Spotlight.
Adolfo Gomez, owner of Mezcal Restaurant in downtown, said he’s optimistic the meetings will spur more ideas that can help downtown. But he also hopes plans already in the works to improve safety and cleanliness, such as those put forth by San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan’s transition teams, make significant progress.
“It’s so hard to paint a beautiful painting on a canvas when it has holes in it and it’s dirty,” Gomez said. “Right now that’s where we are in San Jose. We want to change, and we have the energy to do it, but right now we don’t have a clean canvas.”
Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.
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