Staedler: Trash cleanup needed to help downtown San Jose thrive
Trash and debris accumulates at the 7th Street onramp to Highway 280 in San Jose. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

A common question we find ourselves asking is: After COVID-19, what’s next for downtown San Jose?

I moderated a discussion on this topic with three panelists: Gary Dillabough of Urban Community; Erik Hayden, founder and managing partner of Urban Catalyst; and Blage Zelalich, downtown manager for San Jose.

A key topic was the need for governmental cooperation for trash collection in our public right-of-ways.

Urban Community, Urban Catalyst, Jay Paul, Google, Adobe, Sobrato and others will be investing billions into downtown San Jose development. The daytime and nighttime population along with the vibrancy of downtown will start to meet its potential.

On the path that we are currently on, that vibrancy will be hit in the nose and tarnished by the chronic trash in our public right-of-ways.

It is a situation that is worsening by the month. The most asked question I get is: Why can’t we keep our streets and highways clean like the rest of the country?

People often ask about the situation on an arterial such as Southwest Expressway or Almaden Expressway. I used to try and explain the difference between a right-of-way controlled by the city, the county, Caltrans or a median managed by PG&E.

People roll their eyes and ask if I am joking. They claim the city must be responsible for all of it because it is within city limits. More often than not, they pivot into a long rant about how frustrated they are with the homeless problem.

As for San Jose having responsibility for everything within its limits, that is simply not the case. It involves multiple governmental entities with an overlay of a bureaucratic swamp of declining budgets, unclear limits of responsibility, insurance issues and a heavy topping of the blame game.

Caltrans District 4 that covers San Jose also covers Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Marin, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The majority of District 4’s focus, in my opinion, is skewed toward San Francisco and Oakland.

Let’s get to some ideas to address the problem.

My first recommendation would be to create a new Caltrans district that is only Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties. This would create a district that is 56% of the population of the original district. Santa Clara alone is 25% of the population of the district in 2018 numbers.

This district would allow for a new focus on these counties that have different challenges and opportunities from the rest of the Bay Area.

My second recommendation would be to create a joint task force or nongovernmental agency which would mirror the look and feel of a Property Based Improvement District (PBID) arrangement for the sole purpose of cleaning, tree management and more in all right-of-ways.

The crews that do this work would be union, safety trained by Caltrans and nimble enough to handle changing road conditions.

The group would be funded by a mandated amount from all of the various governmental agencies. This guaranteed funding level would allow for the scope of work planned to be performed in a predictable manner.

The new group could nimbly handle these issues in all jurisdictions without the staggering pension costs, governmental overhead and red tape.

The GroundWerx crew in downtown San Jose proves this concept can be successful. Having an organization that has resident participation on the board would reassure the public.

While it is great to dream about where downtown San Jose will be in the next 10 years, we need to roll up our sleeves and ensure we are handling the blocking and tackling of basic governmental services such as trash cleanup.

I understand not everyone will be onboard with my ideas. That is fine. We need to come together and start talking about how to solve these problems.

In my experience, solutions come from a collaborative effort and robust discussion among people with different backgrounds. Let’s muster the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley and figure this out. I have faith in the people of this region to do that.

San José Spotlight columnist Bob Staedler is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. His columns appear every first Monday of the month. Contact Bob at [email protected] or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.

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