Pioneering downtown San Jose developer Kimball Small dies
Kimball Small, 84, made a name for himself in San Jose by developing some of the city's earliest and most iconic downtown buildings. He died Oct. 11, 2019. Image Courtesy of Mary Lynn Small Marrs

Most San Joseans today may not know the name Kimball Small, but they most certainly know the pioneering developer-turned-tech-entrepreneur’s work in the city’s downtown core.

Small, who developed the iconic, luxury Fairmont Hotel, the nearby retail pavillion and 50 West San Fernando (often called the KQED building), died peacefully Oct. 11. He was 84.

“He came, and his personality was pretty much bigger than life,” said longtime downtown San Jose developer Phil DiNapoli. “He had many friends, and kind of lit up the room, so to speak.”

Small, often called Kim or Kimo by friends, was born March 5, 1935 in Granville, New York, though he grew up in Riverside. He was a veteran, having served in the U.S. Marines, and a proud graduate of UCLA. He married his middle school sweetheart, the late Martha Jane Lindgren, on their college graduation day in 1956.

When he arrived in Silicon Valley, he initially focused much of his energy on real estate on the north side of San Jose and in Santa Clara. By the 1980s, however, the city’s downtown caught his eye. At that time, the downtown core was essentially a blank concrete slate, ripe for redevelopment and full of financial risk. Even so, Small arrived ready to bite off some of the biggest, most expensive and still-iconic projects with his development partners, the Swigg family and Melvin Simon.

“We have a lot to thank him for,” said Mark Ritchie, a longtime downtown San Jose broker who worked with Small. “He took an enormous risk as a non-institutional, private developer by getting involved in those major projects in the beginning of downtown’s rebirth.”

A recession complicated things, pairing many of those early downtown San Jose projects with uncertainty and heartache, said industry insiders. But they also say that rocky start or not, Small’s projects played an outsized role in paving the way for the city’s success today.

Never far from breaking into song, Small needed only a small amount of coaxing to entertain, according to those who knew him. His wife would often play piano alongside him.

“He was like P.T. Barnum with great substance to him,” said Tom McEnery, a former San Jose mayor. “He actually had a great voice, too. I thought the guy was lip syncing, it was so good.”

But McEnery’s favorite memory of the charismatic developer was from the groundbreaking for the Fairmont Hotel in 1985. Small and his partners had commissioned a cake in the shape of the soon-to-be-built luxury hotel, but forgot plates and knives.

“Kim said ‘For what we’re doing here, you can just grab a big handful,’” McEnery remembered with a laugh. “So I did.”

Small, who friends and family remember as unabashedly enthusiastic and a risk-taker when it came to the projects he took on, was not only a major developer in San Jose, he was also extremely tech-savvy, said Mary Lynn Marrs, Small’s daughter.

“When I was a kid, he was lugging around a 40-pound suitcase, and that was the cellular telephone and you’d say. “What is that?’” she said. “He was way ahead of his time in terms of tech, it’s like he knew where it was going before anyone else knew.”

Small founded AboveNet Inc., a provider of fiber-based connectivity products for businesses, which started on the 18th floor of 50 West San Fernando building. AboveNet grew rapidly, moving over to office space at the Pavilion. Eventually, the company went public and was acquired.

But more than the business legacy Small leaves behind, Marrs will remember her father for his constant push for fun, his extensive Hawaiian shirt collection and their family trips — often with several other families — to Lake Tahoe for ski weekends or to ride around on a boat in the ocean.

Above all, those who knew Small say, he was devoted to his family, placing them ahead of all else.

“He loved his 11 grandchildren,” Marrs said. “He would come to every grandparent’s day and be there all the way through until he couldn’t anymore. He was a great guy that just happened to be my dad.”

Small is survived by his sister, Pat Hewes, his children, Jennifer Mushasha, Mary Lynn Marrs and David Small, their husbands and wife, along with 11 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. His funeral service will be held Oct. 26, 2019 at 11 a.m. in the sanctuary at the Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos, 16575 Shannon Rd. in Los Gatos.. Small’s longtime friend Rev. Jack Longley will preside over services, which are open to all.

The Small family has asked that that in lieu of flowers, friends and loved ones consider a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, The USC Center for Elder Mistreatment, The San Jose Youth Symphony or Nova Vista Symphony.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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