San Jose business leaders find little to cheer about — except Google
The shuttered Safeway store sits vacant in downtown San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep people at home nearly seven months after shelter in place began, the once-bright future of San Jose’s downtown core is now overshadowed.

But even amid the darkness, San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA) officials say there are some points of light on the horizon.

At its annual meeting Oct. 9 — an online-only event this year, usually convened in the auditorium of the First Presbyterian Church of San Jose across the street from City Hall — the association updated its members on the stabilization plan it commissioned in August.

COVID-19 hit downtown hard

It’s no surprise the neighborhood has struggled during the pandemic, said SJDA Executive Director Scott Knies, adding that half of the storefront businesses downtown are shuttered.

As long as offices are asking employees to work from home, San Jose State University students are distance learning, the SAP Center is closed, hotel vacancy rates remain sky high and events like concerts and festivals are canceled — Knies says downtown can’t really recover.

Moreover, restaurants, bars and storefront retail businesses all depend on a routine influx of people they can tap into as a steady stream of customers.

“The pandemic has halted us from being with each other — at the office, the classroom, the bar stool,” Knies said. “Downtowns are built for socializing. And until people are able to get together again, safely, our communities will continue to struggle.”

Despite that bleak forecast, Knies said a light appeared at the end of the tunnel this week as Google unveiled its vision for a “city within a city,” just to the west of the downtown core.

Google’s Downtown West campus

The tech giant plans to build 7.3 million square feet of office space and 4,000 housing units spanning 80-acres that envelops 10 parks and two trail systems along Los Gatos Creek.

The company may eventually have as many as 25,000 employees working on the campus. Google is promising numerous public amenities as part of the project and pledging that 25 percent of the housing will be affordable to low-income residents.

This illustration shows Google’s plans to build a sprawling campus in San Jose’s downtown. Image courtesy of Google.

“It is a place where we will all feel welcome and included,” said association Board President Katia McClain.

Other community leaders have been critical of Google and the tech titans of Silicon Valley for driving up the cost of living in the region, which already has forced many families out of their communities.

Maria Noel Fernandez is campaign director of SV Rising, a group pushing the tech industry to be more inclusive and responsible. She says Google will need to create thousands of more affordable housing units throughout the region to reverse the gentrification it already has caused.

“From the beginning, our community has been clear that this project must include the affordable housing needed to keep families — especially Black and brown families — from being displaced and provide good, family-supporting jobs for San Joseans,” Fernandez said. “The pandemic has made addressing these priorities even more vital, and we look forward to Google and the city working with the community as the project moves forward.”

This illustration shows the height limits of various structures Google plans to build as part of its Downtown West project. Image courtesy of Google.

Knies said increasing housing density and adding affordable housing downtown have been longtime priorities for the association as well.

“As Google unveiled details about their downtown project this week, equity and affordability are top of mind,” Knies said. “SJDA is a champion of expanding downtown to the west, and pushed for more than a decade to double building heights in the area to add more density.”

Going forward, Knies said the association will be working to “promote social justice and engage in the process of addressing built-in bias.”

“I have listened and learned a lot about equity since I stood before you at the last annual meeting,” Knies said. “As a business organization, SJDA is interested in actions that bring in different thoughts and behaviors. Our board leadership is bursting with ideas, like establishing local preference and procurement policies, measuring equity in development proposals, working to increase diverse building ownership, creating programs that inspire consumer inclusivity and generally getting more people involved in designing the downtown experience.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: SV Rising is a program of Working Partnerships, USA. Derecka Mehrens, the executive director of Working Partnerships, USA, sits on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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