Why downtown San Jose struggles to find its sense of place
Downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

    For decades, downtown San Jose has struggled to claim its centrality in Silicon Valley, but the metropolitan core is on the verge of a transformative era, architecture experts say.

    At the heart of California’s third largest city, many buildings in downtown San Jose aren’t particularly striking—or accurately reflect the status of a city that dubs itself the capital of Silicon Valley.

    “The quality of architecture in San Jose could be better,” Thang Do, CEO of Aedis Architects and founder of SoFA Market, told San José Spotlight. “From an economic point of view, (San Jose) is a much more substantive city than the architecture of downtown would suggest.”

    There are still pockets in the area with significant architecture, such as the Tech Interactive museum, San Jose City Hall and San Pedro Square, experts said. But those are the few exceptions.

    The Tech Interactive museum and Urban Community’s Park Habitat project under construction in downtown San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    The area also suffers from decades of neglect, long before the dot-com boom brought new development downtown. That momentum now faces delays as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Downtown San Jose also faces fierce competition from nearby upscale shopping at Santana Row, Westfield Valley Fair and bordering neighborhoods such as Willow Glen with its array of boutique stores and restaurants.

    Experts believe decades of effort—and many exciting developments in the pipeline—will put downtown San Jose on the right track to become an arts and cultural hub for the region.

    “We’re witnessing the transformation of downtown,” Anthony Raynsford, an architectural and urban design historian at San Jose State University, told San José Spotlight. “From something that was really forgotten about and partially neglected into a major downtown.”

    An aerial view of downtown San Jose. File photo.

    A sense of neglect

    Downtown San Jose fell into disrepair when thousands left the city’s core for suburban areas during the “white flight” in the early 1950s. The issue was exacerbated when San Jose relocated City Hall next to the Civic Center in 1958, moving thousands of workers out of downtown.

    “When you look at old photographs, you see a lot of parking lots and semi-abandoned buildings,” Raynsford said. “There was that kind of sense of neglect.”

    City officials have tried to revitalize the area since the 1980s, but the process requires decades of work, Raynsford said.

    “I think it’s getting there,” he said. “It’s been a long process.”

    San Jose laid down the light rail to connect downtown, added more housing and started investing in developments like the Fairmont Hotel and the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. The city also hired its first urban planner to oversee downtown developments and urban planning in recent years, Raynsford said.

    A masked couple walks past the San Jose Convention Center in this file photo.

    “Building downtown from almost nothing is a pretty monumental undertaking,” Do said. “The trouble with San Jose is that we’ve had several cycles of boom and bust. We started having a boom and then we got hit with an economic recession, and nothing happened for a long time.”

    Lawmakers also might have been too eager to revitalize downtown San Jose by pumping in new developments—regardless of how they fit into the area.

    “It’s the city, (where) city leaders and city residents didn’t place a whole lot of value on design and architecture, especially for downtown San Jose,” Do said, adding an apathy for quality architecture downtown still remains. “We accepted a lot of things that, in other downtowns, they may not have accepted. So we built a lot of forgettable and unmemorable buildings.”

    Do said San Jose could learn from the bustling downtown in Portland, Oregon, which was designed to attract pedestrians and shoppers.

    “In Portland, there is sort of urban cohesiveness in the sense that you can walk in those districts and there are lots of things to draw you in,” he said. “In San Jose, we have some blocks that are dominated by parking garages or parking entrances. It’s somewhat of  a no man’s zone if you are a pedestrian.”

    Urban Community is partnering with developer Westbank to revitalize the iconic Bank of Italy in downtown San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    On a verge of transformation

    With several mega campuses in the pipeline, San Jose is on a verge of transformation, experts said.

    “The Jay Paul buildings, for example, seem to make a big splash,” Do said. “If what they are planning turns out to be true, it’s going to make a huge difference to San Jose.”

    San Francisco developer Jay Paul Co. is constructing a modern glass-lined, three-tower, 3.8 million-square-foot office park at the site of the former courthouse at 170 Park Avenue. Google’s multi-billion dollar mega campus is also bound to be a game changer for the downtown core, bringing back thousands of workers.

    “Right now the major developers seem to recognize that downtown San Jose deserves a higher level of architecture,” Do said.

    A proposed rendering of the new Google campus and village coming to downtown San Jose, called Downtown West.

    Policymakers will still need to look beyond mega campus projects to build a cohesive urban core. Do said developers like Urban Community are elevating and activating parts of downtown through major projects.

    “They’re not just building a single building, but they’re building an ecosystem throughout downtown,” he said. “These buildings are strategically located, so that together they create different notes of architectural significance that hopefully will spur other things.”

    Raynsford said the expansion of public transit like BART into downtown will be key to bring the area to the next level.

    “We’ll see a very different looking downtown at that point,” he said. “That’s the hope right now.”

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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