The tone of an annual meeting on the state of downtown San Jose was hopeful, despite the city core’s slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
San Jose Downtown Association members met today at the Hammer Theatre Center, along with city leaders who rallied support for a “vibrant, community-driven” downtown. The area is facing a number of setbacks, including the highest commercial vacancy rate in 10 years, workers not returning to the office and homelessness. But the mood remained optimistic and leaders projected an upward turn for downtown.
“We are steering downtown San Jose into a new era of promise, opportunity and growth,” Downtown Association CEO Alex Stettinski said.
Residents who live in the area are visiting downtown only 5% less than they were in 2019, and Stettinski said out-of-towners are visiting San Jose’s core 5% more than they were pre-pandemic. The data comes from Placer.ai, which tracks cellphone-based movement to produce location-related data.
“Attracting visitors to downtown is trending up,” Stettinski said. “What’s lacking is the office workforce that we used to have in 2019, something we need to address.”
Stettinski, who stepped into the role last year, said downtown is in a transitional phase both in identity and leadership—San Jose has a new mayor, Matt Mahan, a new downtown councilmember, Omar Torres, and a new San Jose State University president, Cynthia Teniente-Matson.
Mahan said the downtown has momentum for economic improvement, and encouraged attendees to “tell a better story” to encourage friends and neighbors to visit. He said he’d been to 31 downtown ribbon-cutting ceremonies this year for a variety of new businesses.
“I know we have headwinds, yes, commercial vacancy rates and return to work, and Zoom destroyed downtown and all the rest, I get it,” Mahan said. “But it’s not true … there’s just something special about a downtown, it will continue to be resilient and it will continue to grow.”
Despite a plethora of vacant storefronts, downtown has seen a mini-boom in new restaurants and bars in the past year primarily in the Historic District, according to a June city economics report. This includes Goodtime Bar on Fountain Alley, the city’s first natural wine bar, and El Cabrón Kitchen & Cantina at San Pedro and San Fernando streets. Torres said there would be no doom-and-gloom talk about downtown from him, adding the city is working to encourage new businesses and better manage the homelessness crisis.
“We as a city are working to make sure … unsheltered folks are not in front of your business. They’re not in front of your home. They’re not in our parks,” Torres said.
Stettinski said his main goal is to increase foot traffic downtown, and he plans to do that through reducing barriers to opening a business and ensuring the area is safe and clean. He also spoke of wanting to host more events in the city center. Christmas in the Park has struggled with unpermitted street vendors crowding the streets and blocking attractions, but Stettinski remained optimistic.
“Downtown Ice will be back,” Stettinski said. “We’re really looking forward to an active holiday season.”
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