UPDATE: San Jose City Council approves new downtown landmark

San Jose’s new iconic landmark has cleared another hurdle but will now face environmental analysis.

Councilmembers on Tuesday unanimously approved “The Breeze of Innovation,” a project that won an international competition launched in 2019 for a new landmark at Arena Green, located at the southern tip of Guadalupe River Park.

The council’s unanimous vote will set in motion a working plan that will include environmental analysis and a plan for fundraising, but will not yet allow construction to move forward. Instead, the project’s designers will have to address concerns from the community about potential light pollution and the extravagant costs of the proposed structure.

The council will vote again on the project in four months before it breaks ground. During that time, city officials will study environmental impacts and funding for the project.

Most councilmembers applauded the effort by private philanthropists to activate the city’s urban core with an iconic landmark.

“Activating an underutilized area of this park is a great prospect for our city,” Councilmember Dev Davis said. “On the other hand, I’m extremely sensitive to the environmental concerns that have been raised.”

Some councilmembers worried that environmental concerns have been ignored and that pandemic recovery should take priority.

“What will we do to ensure that, no matter what, this doesn’t become a financial burden on the city?” Councilmember Sylvia Arenas said.

Nicolle Burnham, a deputy director in the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department, said a financial and fundraising plan is still being worked out by the city.

“I think there’s going to be ample opportunity along the way for us to talk about this more,” Burnham said.

The Breeze of Innovation, San Jose’s future landmark, will consist of hundreds of rods that generate electricity and light up at night. Photo courtesy of Urban Confluence of Silicon Valley.
The Breeze of Innovation, San Jose’s future landmark, will consist of hundreds of rods that generate electricity and light up at night. Photo courtesy of Urban Confluence of Silicon Valley.

The Breeze of Innovation will be gifted by the San Jose Light Tower Corp. to San Jose. So far, the group has raised $2.2 million for the project. But estimates, including some from the organization’s Executive Director Steve Borkenhagen, place the final price tag upwards of $100 million. How advocates intend to fundraise the remaining $90 million-plus is still unclear, leaving some residents to question the need for the project.

Fernando Jerez, director of SMAR Architecture Studio which has offices in Australia and Spain, designed the proposed landmark.

The Breeze of Innovation consists of 500 flexible rods, each 200-feet-high, that sway in the breeze. The energy created by the motion will be used to provide electricity to the building and light up the rods at night. The project is intended to honor the region’s tech workers while encouraging greener technology, according to SMAR Architecture Studio.

“This project is important for the future of San Jose for us to have an iconic landmark,” said Nate LeBlanc, the business development manager of the San Jose Downtown Association. “We lack things to do as a community and we need art. Sometimes beauty is its own purpose.”

But environmentalists are staunchly opposed to the project, calling it “light pollution” in the city’s downtown and questioning its impact on birds and surrounding plants. Many campaigned against it, including in a recent a San José Spotlight op-ed.

“This project is intended to symbolize San Jose,” said Dashielle Leeds of the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, one of the largest environmental groups in the country. “But by building a structure against the wishes of the community and scientific experts … I can’t help but worry what this will symbolize.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo said he hopes the environmental report identifies solutions for reducing the impact.

“I think there are certainly understandable concerns from the community,” Liccardo said. “Undoubtedly light is a very significant impact on wildlife.”

Councilmembers asked the project’s developers to come back to the City Council with ideas for how to mitigate light impacts on wildlife, airport operations and nearby neighborhoods. They also asked that future work plans created by city officials be paid for by the developers.

“I want San Jose to have an identity that brings us all together,” Arenas said. “But we have to make sure we engage our community. … The optics of this investment might not be favorable within some communities.”

Developers plan to hire a contractor by the summer.

The landmark will contain a viewing platform offering 360-degree views of San Jose, as well as exhibition space and room for a café, according to a city presentation. It beat out almost 1,000 other submissions, which included a color-changing structure shaped like a California grizzly bear, a cloud-themed museum and a 200-foot Gateway Arch-like structure called “The Caterpillar.”

In September, the San Jose Light Tower Corp. announced three finalists in a live fundraising event. A timeline for the project will be made by city officials and presented to the City Council at a later date.

“The Breeze of Innovation is beautiful,” said Councilmember Pam Foley. “It has a lot of movement and can attract people to wander around.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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