San Francisco pedestrians always know when they are walking by an Academy of Art University branch. In place of the usual mishmash of hurrying professionals in business suits, meandering tourists and street people, one finds young, eclectically dressed hipsters, all loaded down with easels and tool boxes, many smoking American Spirits: art students. This crowd can be found throughout the city, congregating in front of historical buildings, all of which are emblazoned with the striking red-white-and-black Academy of Art University triangle logo.
This modish scene may soon be re-created on the streets of downtown San Jose as the Academy of Art University (AAU), the largest art design school in the country, is looking for a home in Silicon Valley.
Aiming to accommodate for their ballooning enrollment—while sidestepping an increasingly volatile relationship with the city of San Francisco departments of code enforcement—the private art school’s representatives say they are seriously looking into expanding into downtown San Jose.
Paul Correa, planning director for the AAU, says San Jose looks like the ideal location for the first branch of the for-profit art academy outside San Francisco city limits. He says that AAU president Elisa Stephens, and her father and former AAU president Richard S. Stephens, are both enthusiastic about expanding to the South Bay.
“They’ve always had the desire to locate to San Jose, because they see it as another market for them to tap into in terms of demographics,” says Correa, specifying Latino art, art technology and AAU’s burgeoning athletics program as potential focuses for a San Jose branch. “The academy is definitely looking for a new area to grow into, especially if San Francisco can’t meet that need at the pace we’re currently growing at.”
While San Jose State University and other schools in the CSU system have had to slash enrollment and faculty as state funding has dwindled over the past year, Correa says that the Academy of Art, as a private university, has been largely unscathed.
The Stephens family has directed the school for three generations, since Richard S. Stephens founded it in 1929. The academy has seen significant expansion since Elisa Stephens became head of the school in 1992. The AAU’s current student population is 15,791, up dramatically from 1,761 students in 1991. They anticipate 10 percent to 12 percent yearly growth in enrollment into the future, Correa says, and a 20 percent increase in faculty every year to accommodate for that growth.
Correa says that he and president Stephens have met and been in talks with District 3 Councilman Sam Liccardo, 1stACT Silicon Valley managing director Connie Martinez and downtown building owners as they search for an appropriate home for the school.
Liccardo says he supports the plan. “I’m thrilled with the prospect of bringing hundreds of creative people into our downtown,” he says. “This would be a really unique opportunity, combined with San Jose State’s School of Design and all of the arts institutions in SoFA, for us to start to see a critical mass of artistic talent emerge in the downtown that could make our arts scene truly unique.”
The old Bank of America building and the empty San Jose Medical Center downtown are two sites that were mentioned as possibilities. The AAU’s expansion policy targets unwanted historic and landmark buildings that the school then converts into classrooms and dormitories. The school currently owns 33 buildings around San Francisco.
Connie Martinez also seems excited about the idea—but cautions that the institution has gone no further than preliminary talks.
“To say that there is any kind of firmness around that would be an overstatement,” Martinez says. “I’ve just had a couple of casual conversations, and what I know is that they expressed some interest. I know that they’ve made some trips here, but I don’t know anything more concrete than that.”
The deal may be complicated by the fact that the AAU has a lengthy history of violating city policy in its native San Francisco. Since the early ’90s, the art school has bought a bevy of historic structures around San Francisco and converted them into classrooms, administrative offices and dorm space. Meanwhile, the AAU has built up a reputation for ignoring building and signage codes, evident in their penchant for painting huge Academy logo murals across their buildings, often without municipal permission. The AAU has also reportedly neglected that pesky process of obtaining proper city building permits on many of their locations, a habit that prompted the San Francisco Planning Commission to launch an investigation into their practices in 2007.
Some AAU critics have gone so far as to paint the school as a cover for a real estate scheme in which the Stephen’s family gobbles up and holds San Francisco’s prime housing under the guise of providing for their school’s population.
AAU president Stephens was unavailable to comment on these issues, after numerous phone calls from Metro.
Despite the school’s stated enthusiasm for a San Jose branch, local public officials stress that nothing concrete has been put in motion thus far. The ball is in president Stephens’ court when it comes to making a serious offer on San Jose’s first landmark skyscraper—the old Bank of America building.
Still, there is a question of whether the academy is merely courting San Jose for leverage against its testy relationship with San Francisco officials. Perhaps it has already worked: On Jan. 7, the city of San Francisco finally officially announced that it would not be filing a lawsuit against the school after all. This is after AAU representatives openly confessed to flouting building codes in an expansion of one of their San Francisco SoMa industrial buildings during a Planning Commission meeting last November.
So perhaps San Jose shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for the hipsters to converge.