Bringing downtown San Jose back to life will be tough

Downtown San Jose feels like a ghost town. Boosters say economic recovery is within reach for the heart of Silicon Valley. But those who live and work in the heart of the city are skeptical.

John Seol, owner of a small cell phone repair shop a few blocks from City Hall, told the San José Spotlight that he had heard about festivals and the booming foot traffic in nearby towns. such as Campbell, and that he didn’t see that energy in downtown San Jose. Instead, he sees pervasive homelessness and friends closing their doors due to the drop in foot traffic. He’s been downtown for five years, but he’s out of breath. This year alone, his store was flooded twice, an issue he attributes to a broken city pipeline.

“If I had to hang out somewhere, I wouldn’t want to hang out downtown,” Seol said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown San José was showing signs of growth. Developers were innovating on new towers, while tech companies like Google plan to develop a multibillion-dollar downtown campus that will draw thousands of people to the heart of the city. New restaurants were opening to take advantage of the influx of young tech workers looking for food, drink and entertainment in the downtown area.

The pandemic has hit the city center hard, forcing restaurants to close, canceling conventions and slowing development. Some tech companies are still developing downtown offices, but their workers have moved away, making foot traffic non-existent.

John Seol, owner of a small phone repair shop near San Jose City Hall, says many of his friends have gone bankrupt. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

Be like Campbell

Downtown San Jose has struggled for years to become a destination for more than a million people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. The city also competes with neighboring towns like Campbell, Los Gatos and enclaves like Willow Glen which have restaurants, bars, shops and eclectic events that attract a younger population.

Downtown Campbell has a robust program of events in its historic downtown, including “First Fridays” street entertainment, a robust Sunday Farmer’s Market, and its annual Oktoberfest. Parklets line its main downtown corridor – San Jose has also launched an outdoor program to allow and encourage alfresco dining during the pandemic.

Similar events dominate the calendar near Los Gatos, which over the summer has closed its main thoroughfare on certain days for live music. Randi Chen, project coordinator for the Los Gatos Chamber of Commerce, told San José Spotlight that the city has also expanded its use of parklets during the pandemic. She is now in the process of converting them into semi-permanent facilities, designed to last a decade.

“Adding outdoor dining has really made a huge difference,” Chen said. “People really appreciate it, and our city was opened to it, so it’s really thrived. “

Derrick Seaver, CEO of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, said downtown San Jose has a lot to offer, including a large consumer population nearby. But businesses can’t take advantage of the pedestrian-free zone, which has been decimated by tech workers who continue to work from home.

“You have to have a crowd for lunch and the day to really turn on (business),” Seaver told the San José Spotlight. “And a lot of things are beyond our control.”

Crushed by COVID-19

Gareth Morris, who works in downtown San Jose at the Good Karma restaurant, told the San José Spotlight that he finds it encouraging to see the city invest in events like First Fridays, a monthly arts and culture exhibition in the SoFA neighborhood, and he wants to see more outdoor events like flea markets and park walks that cater to all ages.

But he noted that the local economy was fragile before the pandemic and it has only worsened, making a rapid recovery more difficult.

“Small places here and there were dead before the pandemic, but not on the current scale,” he said.

Blage Zelalich, downtown manager and acting deputy director of business development, previously said San José Spotlight sales tax revenues declined by around 50% downtown during the pandemic. According to the city, about 35 to 40% of the city’s 60,000 businesses may have closed during the pandemic, although it is not known how many have closed permanently.

The return of San Jose state students has been hailed by local businesses as a key part of the downtown revival. A recent study showed that the sales tax on student spending amounts to tens of millions of dollars in the downtown area.

Council member Raul Peralez, whose neighborhood includes the downtown core, told the San José Spotlight that students are an essential ingredient in the region’s recovery. Another is to get people to want to live there, which is what the city is still working on.

“We have been building more and more high-rise residential towers to try to increase our population density in the heart of downtown,” Peralez said. “But it’s not there yet.”

A shuttered store in downtown San Jose. Photo by Eli Wolfe.

‘I’m getting out of here’

Attracting downtown residents also requires maintaining essential businesses, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and retail outlets. But some companies claim that downtown San Jose has become an increasingly hostile place to make money. In recent years, there has been an exodus of core businesses, most notably the Safeway on South Second Street in 2019, and the closure of Ross, the city’s largest clothing store, a few years earlier. The remaining businesses have to compete with popular high-end malls such as Westgate Valley Fair and Santana Row a few miles away.

Alfredo Diaz, co-owner of Diaz Mens Wear, said he has worked downtown since 1985. He said if you walk down Santa Clara Street in either direction there are vacant buildings to the left and to the right. He noted that the city is investing in individual downtown developments, such as the San Pedro Square market, but is neglecting entire shopping districts.

“They forget about Santa Clara Street,” he told San José Spotlight.

He gets killed financially while trying to keep his store open. His rent today is double what he paid 20 years ago.

“I got out of here at the end of my lease,” Diaz said.

Creating dynamism, a vague concept of knowing-the-when-you-see-it-requires holistic solutions. Robbie Silver, executive director of the Downtown Community Benefit District of San Francisco, told the San José Spotlight that his organization has focused heavily on cleaning up graffiti and addressing quality of life issues. They are also creating an asphalt art mural on Battery Street and holiday projection lighting to make the nightlife more inviting. San Francisco May London Breed has invested more than $ 9 million in funding programs to support the economic recovery of downtown San Francisco.

“If people don’t feel comfortable working or playing downtown, your economic hub is really falling apart,” Silver said.

San Jose city leaders have also promoted public art projects to boost downtown’s economic recovery. The Serpentine Pavilion, a temporary structure of fiberglass blocks, is expected to attract visitors with art exhibits and lecture series.

But some locals say the city has failed to market downtown San José as a destination and has not done enough to distinguish itself from other downtown areas.

“From my perspective, I don’t think downtown has done such a good job of articulating what you could do outside of downtown like some other neighborhoods have,” said Robert Chapman Wood, professor of strategic management at the State of San Jose.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] Where @ EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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