Development in San Jose is based on whatever will bring in the most revenue. Sometimes this works to the benefit of both developers and the community (rarely). In the case of downtown San Jose, an extreme method that could be called "desperation development" is employed. Any project, no matter how poorly conceived and regardless of flaws, is rubber-stamped by the Planning Department in accordance with the wishes of the mayor. The argument is that downtown is in such bad shape that any development is better than none.
Downtown San Jose is presumably being rebuilt with an eye to the future. Sadly, the Planning Department is following a model that is already a proven failure, setting up a slow-motion disaster.
When the San Jose light rail system was built during the 1980s and 1990s, many small businesses went under – initially due to the streets being torn up for track work, and later because of the resulting reduction in parking. The City planners kept insisting that it would be worth the wait, since it would bring new accessibility and prosperity to downtown.
There was, in fact, a brief resurgence of downtown. It wasn't due to the light rail, but happened despite it: The initial light rail segment didn't go anywhere useful or bring in any new visitors. Nonetheless, many people just weren't ready to give up on downtown. New businesses came in to fill the voids. Some made it and some didn't. But at least there was the appearance of life and activity. It felt hopeful. And the nightlife was amazing!
The cycle began anew in 2000 with the promise of BART downtown. "BART will fix everything. Yes, the streets will be torn up for a few years. Don't worry, it'll be worth the wait." In preparation, the City planners decided to remove more parking. And the business exodus continued, this time driving out even the national chains. Dismal Downtown San Jose was the result.
Trouble is, there is precedent for failure of just this type of development. No, this has nothing to do with light rail. We're talking about exactly the same subway system that is being planned, with the same "transit community" development based on numerous mid-rise apartment buildings. Precisely the same development already exists in another US city. It's been there for 40 years. And it has been an unmitigated disaster, exactly as it will be for San Jose.
Crystal City, in Arlington, Virginia, was built just south of National Airport (now Ronald Reagan airport). You can find a Wikipedia article that tells a little of its origins, but isn't quite so honest about its troubled history or fate. It incorporated extensive retail facilities and a subway stop (on the the once-beautiful Washington Metro system, based on BART but more elegant and refined). Sadly, Crystal City utterly failed as a desirable place to live, shop, or dine. A visitor there today will today find a shabby, blighted area with extensive, abandoned shopping arcades.
The San Jose downtown development shares the same original design flaws with Crystal City.
- Because of location in an airport flight path, building height is limited. This means housing density can never be adequate to allow for a strong retail venue based on local residents.
- Due to the design as a transit-only environment (hostile to cars), it can never become a retail or entertainment destination. Successful urban retail/entertainment centers in medium-density developments depend on mid-day "quick trip" decisions by those living in other parts of town or the suburbs. (Think of a time when you needed to go to a specialty pastry shop, flower shop, hobby store, etc.)
- With poor transit (a subway station with connections only to bus-like transit), no real hub is possible. That is, other stations with better connections will become the real destination spots.
- The amount of planned office space can never reach the critical mass needed to allow for a successful self-sustaining commercial center.
And making the problem worse, the quality of planned nearby residential developments is shameful. Re-creation of classic mid-rise slums like those in Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis seems to be the design goal.
The one saving grace of the Crystal City project was that it left the nearby residential areas more-or-less intact. Thousands of older mixed single-family homes, duplexes, and small apartment complexes give the area a sense of community and prevent it from decaying further. And, of course, the subway stop allows those residents to leave the car at home while heading to work or entertainment in downtown DC.
In San Jose's case, all these same surrounding communities are secretly slated for demolition. So, how does the City plan to acquire all these properties? You guessed it: by Eminent Domain (sidebar).
So, to get back on track: what is the ultimate fate of downtown San Jose? Crystal City provides a clue. That whole area is being bought up by Amazon at a huge discount. Countless small business owners invested their lives and lost their savings in a dream that could never have come to fruition. Years from now, Amazon will demolish everything and start the process anew.
Back in San Jose, Google is doing much the same in the area west of downtown. City Hall, by laying the groundwork for the ruination of central downtown, will have everything ready for a steady eastward expansion by Google. City coffers will again be filled by taking tax money out of the pockets of residential and small business owners.
That's about 40 years off now, judging from the Crystal City fiasco. Between now and then? Downtown San Jose will be the place to not be. Devoid of personality and character, lacking any sort of charm. The perfect extension of City Hall.
Place your bets on downtown Mountain View. Or downtown Campbell. Or even downtown Sunnyvale. But steer clear of downtown San Jose for awhile. The dust will take a long time to settle.
Eminent Domain. Governments have the ability to declare an area blighted and deserving of government takeover for redevelopment. What about an area that is not blighted, yet nonetheless desirable for development? Corrupt and sneaky San Jose City politicians, staffers, and attorneys came up with a multi-faceted approach.
- Offer beautification grant money to neighborhood associations that were considered to be speaking on behalf of unwitting residents. But in the grant agreements, slip in wording allowing the City to take blighted properties at any time by the power of eminent domain.
- Deny basic Code Enforcement services to the to-be-blighted neighborhoods. Today, you can't get San Jose Code Enforcement to enforce against basic blighting factors like lawn parking, overcrowding, or illegal occupancy.
- Establish a City Attorney Office that works against residents by joining lawsuits with corporations against individuals, actively initiates lawsuits against property owners to acquire their land where no complaint has been lodged, and "forgets" to send its lawyers to hearings that could resolve blight issues.
Now, just sit and wait for the area to fall into decay. Sure, it'll take a couple of decades, but just blame the increased crime and murder rate on the Police. San Jose cops have been taking the fall for bad San Jose government policy for 70 years -- why stop now?