Dismal Downtown San Jose

September 13, 2019 orc1428308415337 No comments exist

People choose to live in San Jose for many reasons. Weather is a big one: it's sunny and glorious nearly nine months of the year, not cold and damp like San Francisco, nor hot and humid like Miami. Without the mood-ruining climate swings of most places, San Joseans generally tend to be a laid-back, fun-loving, and friendly folk.

Jobs in the Bay Area are a big draw, of course, and San Jose is effectively a vast bedroom community for middle-income Silicon Valley workers. Life in San Jose can be quite comfortable, in the suburbs. Downtown is another story.

“It's my first time in downtown San Jose. This is the most expensive shithole I've ever been to.”

-- comment from a downtown visitor, 1st and Santa Clara streets, August 2018

Welcome, dear unlucky visitor, to downtown San Jose: the most dreary city center you'll ever get stuck in. A bleak sea of empty storefronts, random mismatched streetlights, and muddled, dysfunctional architecture. Maybe you assumed that you had accidentally stumbled outside of the downtown core?  'fraid not; this is it, fella.  Convention center visitors like you are typically directed to a small number of bland display blocks that are kept in order at great expense; you ventured outside of this zone, thus your shock at the misery of it all.

San Jose's downtown endured the typical flight-to-the-suburbs decline in the 1950s-60s. It flattened out in the 70s. There was a merciful two-decade reprieve, 1985-2005, where Downtown was actually on an amazing and carefully orchestrated upswing. But it was not to last.

Why is this important? Because San Jose bills itself as "The Capital of Silicon Valley". With the understanding that "capital" comes from the Latin word for "head", maybe a moniker more related to the posterior end of the anatomy might make more sense for San Jose. Nowhere is this more evident than downtown.

By and large, Silicon Valley tech workers don't live downtown. Part of the reason is that there is no tech office space downtown, aside from a couple of buildings on the periphery. But most wouldn't want to live downtown. Ask a member of the tech community at a Bay Area company how they would characterize downtown San Jose; "ghetto" is a typical response.

San Jose City Hall and its departments of Planning, Building, and Code Enforcement have been working for nearly 70 years to make downtown San Jose unlivable. They've almost succeeded.

Business Exodus

San Jose is the worst-run city of its size in the nation. The money-driven political machine in San Jose rivals that of Chicago at its lowest point. City Hall decisions focus solely on increasing revenues and lining pockets. So it's no surprise that the City Hall building itself echoes this attitude – the main atrium is rather interesting in that it looks much like the half-finished Death Star, but the rest consists of soulless horizontal and vertical expanses of concrete, the chosen schema for San Jose of the future.

You see the impact of City Hall on downtown most clearly is in the street-level approaches to City Hall from east and west, where barren storefronts dominate the streetscape. They weren't that way before City Hall was built there. That brings us to the main issue.

San Jose City Hall caters solely to a certain few politically connected large developers, actively snubbing small business and private commerce. There is a cozy relationship among politicians, a certain few real estate moguls, and the construction industry, ensuring that money flows into the right bank accounts. The politicians promote these links to developers as business-friendly, but it somehow turns out to be the opposite in San Jose.

Over just 15 years, downtown lost its drug stores, grocery stores, hardware stores, and restaurants (both fast-food and otherwise). The list of those driven from downtown San Jose include some companies that (you'd think) could survive anywhere. This was all before Covid-19.

What about Google?

Because of City Hall's business-killing attitudes, downtown San Jose is not a hip place to be. Large tech companies find downtown San Jose undesirable as a location for their offices – both because their employees wouldn't want to work there and because it's so difficult to deal with City Hall functionaries. San Jose has to provide massive tax incentives to get tech to relocate downtown. It once managed to lure old-school tech firms like Adobe, but cutting-edge companies just say "no, thanks."

What about Google? Doesn't their interest prove that downtown is viable? Well, it actually demonstrates their shrewd understanding of the situation. The new Google development is all west of downtown. If Google is successful, it will effectively move the center of downtown gravity away from its current location. That won't be such an evil thing, given that the current downtown is largely a lost cause anyway.

San Jose City Hall Report Card

Any visitor to San Jose will conclude that downtown is a train wreck. Here's how the various departments of City Hall contributed to the disaster.

Department Grade Summary
Planning D At the peak of the greatest economic boom the area has ever seen, many of the most visible downtown San Jose storefronts are vacant. Planning shoulders a majority of the responsibility for the disaster; they've accelerated the process in the decade since the Redevelopment Agency was dissolved.
Parks, Trees A- It's hard to keep plants alive and parks nice-looking in an era of constant drought and low budgets. These San Jose departments seem to do their best with what little they have.
Code Enforcement F Code Enforcement has been an active agent of San Jose's ruin for over a decade. Their mishandling of their duties has for years been responsible for the business flight and neighborhood decline that permeate downtown. During the brief downtown golden era, some new recruits to the agency attempted to make a difference.  Most left in disgust during the Gonzales years, leaving a surly and incompetent remainder today.
Transportation C+ Once a strong indicator of San Jose progress, transportation today tends to be laughably bad. Street marking is comical, with lanes directed into parked cars. Bike lanes go down the most dangerous paths. Traffic lane utilization is bizarre, seemingly conceived with the mantra "Bollards, Bollards Everywhere!"  Signal control programming sophistication dates from the 1970s. Downtown street parking is nearly wiped out, going along with City Hall's apparent plans for an all-skateboard labor force.
Garbage Hauling A City corruption during the Gonzales years was so rampant that trash services were nearly non-existent. But because of the catastrophe, at least this one department got cleaned out and functions well.
Building D+ The Building department caters only to certain large developers, who can get permits and complete their projects within months. Small business owners wait years, while their phone calls are ignored and fees are doubled or tripled. The one bright spot is the field inspectors, who tend to be fairly capable.
Police B+ Unfairly blamed for the ills of San Jose, the Police Department does an admirable job of holding together a poorly managed city based on failed political policy. We give them extra credit for rebuilding from nothing after Sam Liccardo decimated their ranks just a few years earlier.
City Attorney D For the last two decades, the City Attorney's office has backed away from its responsibility to support residents and business people, choosing to actively work against them. For example: The City used to trim trees along public streets. It now places the responsibility on property owners, allowing the City to sue owners and turn a profit.
Fire B+ The firefighters in the San Jose Fire Department are second to none. The grade average comes out slightly lower, however, when the administrative section is included. Decisions to raise building fire inspection fees numerous times, and on top of it outsource the inspection job and let 3rd parties charge property owners for the privelege, smacks of typical City Hall shenanigans. We were hoping the Fire Department was above this sort of thing...


What Went Wrong?

One might try to look back in time to determine where San Jose began its decline; most signs point to the Great Depression. The severity of its impact on the community is demonstrated in a famous public lynching (1933), the first case of mob rule promoted by a modern communications medium (radio, pioneered in San Jose 24 years earlier). Watch the Spencer Tracy movie Fury from 1936 and you'll feel the effect such an event would have had on a small community like San Jose.

Milestones along the path of the downhill slide include falling behind in technology and shameful race relations. But chief among them was appointment of a misguided city manager and his fateful decision to grow San Jose into another Los Angeles by taking over adjacent towns. Mindless bureaucracy became the norm in San Jose City government. Success was measured not by quality of life, but by filling City coffers.

What came of it:

  • The subsumption of many fine towns, annexed to San Jose ostensibly for improved access to services. In reality, they would be doomed to a mediocre future as cookie-cutter duplicates of a bland generic Planning Department design.
    • Willow Glen
    • Robertsville (south San Jose where Bass Pro is now)
    • Cambrian Park
    • Almaden (and its mercury mines)
    • Alviso (once prized for its harbors)

    Most originally had distinctive downtowns like Los Gatos, but the goal of City Hall is to destroy what little remains to keep construction money flowing.

  • Implementation of a roadway system that blighted downtown, obliterating some neighborhoods and turning most others into conduits to suburban traffic trying to get to and from outlying areas. Quiet side streets became one-way multi-lane thoroughfares, where street parking was arbitrarily removed with no consideration of residents. The resulting decay of most neighborhoods was no surprise.
  • Commonplace government bullying and taking of property by eminent domain. Neighborhoods where powerful politicians lived (and still do) somehow avoided this fate -- witness Naglee Park, where identical houses built at the same time (and for the same cost) as those of their neighbors two blocks away can sell for almost double the price. Their streets are blocked off from thoroughfare traffic to prevent the riff-raff from disturbing their tranquility.

It's sometimes thought that the fate of downtown was sealed with the decision to reject large department stores and put them in what is now Valley Fair and Santana Row, the go-to shopping and entertainment spot for San Jose. The golden era of the 1990s showed that better outcomes were possible.


Brief Golden Era

Back in the 1940s, San Jose was dreaming of the "progress" that Los Angeles-style freeways could bring. In the 1950s, that aforementioned City Manager laid the groundwork to ensure citizens were powerless to stop the onslaught. By the 1960s, rows of mid-city turn-of-the-century suburban houses were being mowed down to make way for the Sinclair freeway (I-280).

In what seemed like a forward-looking effort, some of the historic homes slated for destruction were moved a couple of miles out to become the San Jose History Museum in 1971. Here, the City could provide a smattering of old homes that it had saved from the wrecking ball, freeing it to demolish the remainder with impunity.

What about the rest of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown? They were left for dead. But a surprising thing happened: Some people actually found the old homes charming and started restoring them. They also started getting involved in politics.

For an otherwise sad downtown, a period of hope came in the 1980s and 1990s. People like Norman Mineta, Tom McEnery and Susan Hammer as mayor, David Pandori as downtown district councilmember, and a mix of other thoughtful leaders in San Jose government brought a vision of a real and human-scale future to downtown. Unfortunately, they still had to deal with an entrenched "big" city bureaucracy.

The Redevelopment Agency tried to correct for the errors of "LA dreaming". But even the RDA personnel found the Planning and Building departments impossible to work with, and were stymied in many of their efforts. Nonetheless, some of the best features of the New Downtown came out of this period.

During this "golden era", plans were made to reconsider the 1880-1920s era surrounding neighborhoods as assets. Anti-crime and anti-blight programs were put in place with much success. Neighborhoods were down-zoned to protect historic resources. David Pandori would later go on to run for mayor and nearly win; San Jose would have been a much better place if it had turned out that way.

Culture and arts zones like the South First Area (SoFA) thrived during this period. Nightclubs and restaurants were everywhere, and the streets came alive. Ever so briefly, downtown San Jose was the place to be.

Hopes Dashed by Corruption

A new era of corruption and greed was ushered in during the years when Ron Gonzales was mayor and Cindy Chavez was the downtown district councilmember.

In a cynical move, Gonzales took credit for the achievements of prior downtown neighborhood efforts by re-labeling them as "Strong Neighborhoods Initiative" (SNI) and making them city-wide.

  • In general, SNI was tantamount to bribery: each neighborhood district got a pot of money to dole out, and it invariably went to the pet project of a vocal few in return for their silence on corrupt City operations.
  • In the case of the older downtown historical areas, signing up to SNI meant making a hidden legal agreement with the City that private property could be taken by the City in eminent domain proceedings at any time to further its goals.

Being able to quickly reduce entire neighborhoods to rubble became important to Gonzales.

• He started with several blocks of Victorian mansions, to be replaced by a City Hall building meant as a monument to his ego that was enormously expensive and entirely unnecessary. (Side note: City Hall was tens of millions too expensive - $2M alone just because the Building Dept forgot to check the flight path height restrictions.)

• His more important goal was to justify a BART station in downtown as a lasting legacy to himself. To get federal funding, the City had to show enough population potential - in the case of downtown, 17 nearby high-rise apartment complexes (Mercury News). While the region had long needed a BART connection, this one would be designed as a cramped afterthought -- possibly since the majority of eventual users would be drug dealers coming down from Oakland anyway.

Gonzales will be remembered for squandering hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds on:

• a decimated historical residential district, a story that will continue to unfold as BART gets closer

• a grandiose City Hall architecture set in the midst of a barren plaza that fails to deliver any sense of connection to the citizens it claims to represent

• peripheral "artwork", completely out-of-character with the remaining historic neighborhoods, basically middle-finger salutes to the surrounding community

• elaborate fireworks displays to show off "money to burn"

• approving a 7 million dollar "tent" add-on to the Convention Center to make the square footage seem larger, scarring downtown for decades

• running a car race though downtown that required ripping out and replanting 40-foot palm trees every year

• giving the City garbage hauling contract to a friend, resulting in the worst service quality and highest costs ever.

This last one was his undoing. The failures at all levels of City oversight were so massive and embarrassing that even laid-back San Joseans had to act. Today, garbage service is possibly the best-run department in City Hall.

The City stepped up its assault on all San Jose small property owners during the Gonzales years. Its costly and failed attempt to take over the Tropicana shopping center is the best example.

Reed Years

Mayor Chuck Reed arrived at an inopportune time. The massive budget surpluses of the Hammer years were all squandered during the Gonzales years, so there was just nothing left to work with. The economy was tanking due to the 2007 economic implosion. All Reed could do was try to hold the City budget together. He did so by slashing the Police Dept budget, encouraged by then-councilmember Liccardo. The mass exodus of seasoned police officers began predictably.

Liccardo Years

As the downtown district's representative on City Council, Sam Liccardo did little for downtown aside from glad-handing. The decline of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods started anew under his leadership. The murder rate rose noticeably. The master plans he worked on for neighborhoods were blueprints for historic neighborhood demolition. He was especially proactive about targeting classic houses that previous City Councils had specifically voted to spare.

By time Reed was done with his terms, the economy had started to pick up. Councilman Liccardo moved on to become Mayor Liccardo, and talked about a "fix" to the problem he himself had created with the Police Dept while councilmember. His approach for downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods is unchanged: "desperation development", embracing whatever comes along, no matter how out-of-character or detrimental to the community fabric.

Being in control of the downtown district for so long (14 years), Liccardo has left a significant imprint on the area. It isn't an attractive one. The future for downtown is a sub-standard cluster of mid-rise "project" housing, where poor tech industry wannabe entrepreneurs will live together in massively overcrowded apartments until they can make an escape. They'll waste three hours a day commuting to/from the communities where they work but can't afford to live, because there will continue to be no appreciable high-tech presence downtown.

Reversing the Damage

Could San Jose ever truly aspire to its presumed role as Capital of Silicon Valley? It's unlikely. Instead, the current downtown will morph into the next Detroit, as a Mercury News reporter predicted. That process will take roughly 40 years, a long wait for such a pointless outcome. But no new generation of forward-looking City boosters and planners appears to be on the horizon.

Maybe Google will fix it. You'll be holding your breath for 40 years to find out.

Next Up: San Jose Code Enforcement

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