Go Big or Go Home: SJDA Slams First Street Development Plan

Plans to revamp an old office building on the corner of First and Santa Clara streets are too drab and unambitious for the core of a major city, according to the San Jose Downtown Association.

On June 30, Saratoga Capital submitted a proposal to add another floor to the four-story red brick building at 1 N. First St., which houses Lincoln Law School and Meriwest Credit Union, and convert some of the upper stories into residential units. But Henry Cord, who chairs the downtown association's Advocacy Committee, told Mayor Sam Liccardo that San Jose should hold out for a better proposal.

"As a strong property rights and market forces advocate, SJDA has agonized over its conclusion that this is the wrong solution for this site," Cord wrote in the July 17 letter. "In looking at downtown development proposals, SJDA does not want 'perfect to be the enemy of good' and curtail today's investment for the promise of a better project many years down the road. Nevertheless, we should not compromise today for a lesser project on this site."

The project is under preliminary review by city planners, so it's too early to say whether it even complies with the city's general plan and downtown zoning, Cord noted. But the SJDA committee already decided in a harsh critique that, as submitted, the plan isn't dense enough or interesting enough for that corner.

"This prominent corner deserves a taller building with more engaging architecture that understands its forward-looking place on the doorstep of BART as well as its historic context kitty corner from the old B of A tower," Cord wrote.

A high rise would be more fitting, agreed SJDA Executive Director Scott Knies.

"It should be taller and serve more people," he said.

Cord seemed especially unimpressed with the "ordinary" design, which he said could have been copped from any boilerplate mixed-use project in California.

He also criticized Saratoga Capital's attempt to grandfather in the no-parking requirement, which he said gives the proposal "a square-peg-into-round-hole feel."

Saratoga Capital did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this month, Silicon Valley Business Journal reporter Nate Donato-Weinstein interviewed Kirk Kozlowski of Saratoga Capital, who shared details about his tentative blueprint for the 82,000-square-foot building. In that article, downtown Councilman Raul Peralez came out against the proposal over concerns that San Jose can't afford to lose any more commercial space to housing conversions.

This new letter from the downtown associations raises more concerns about whether Saratoga Capital's vision aligns with the community's big-picture plan for the city center.

The building is on a block shared with the Valley Transportation Authority and includes a public parking lot, VTA offices and ground-floor retail. It pales in comparison to the vertical blue-whale One South Market, a 23-story apartment building that recently opened up nearby.

Cord said the proposal should spark a discussion about the city's aspirations for that part of town, a corridor slated for a future BART station and other major development.

"What are the investments envisioned and encouraged for downtown 'super blocks' like Mitchell—[site of the Saratoga Capital Project]—Valley Title or Greyhound?" he wrote. "Will public plazas, pocket parks or paseos be required? Is ... the addition of more parking spaces needed? Minimum densities or heights? Certain percentage of sites dedicated to office? Will the big parcels like Mitchell be allowed to develop piecemeal and how does the first project 'set the tone' for the rest of the block?"

Ultimately, Cord said, the long-term benefits of a future high-rise outweigh the short-term gains of rehabbing the existing building.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

20 Comments

  1. Peralez.

    Two issues I see in DTSJ. One is a lack of internet options, the other is inflated prices. Before we see our commercial inventory vacancy at 0%, we need to address these issues. Maybe it’s time to start looking into non-disruptive methods for running cable underground, there’s many. In Palo Alto on Page mill I can get internet from at least 7 different ISP’s. I can’t say the same thing about DTSJ.

    Also the shirt thing… Makes me think of a character from one of my favorite Anime’s. You should do it more often. :)

    • > One is a lack of internet options

      I’m clueless. Splain.

      Years back, I understood that a major fiber optic internet backbone ran through downtown San Jose.

      Who is NOT providing internet options, and WHY not?

      • Sorry for keeping you chompin at the bit, been sick the last few days, and today I took my kids to see Ant Man (pretty good)

        Not sure which backbone you’re talking about. A while back CSJ installed some fiber to control traffic lights.
        https://www.sanjoseca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/14165

        There are other backbones running through DTSJ going as far back as Netcom days. These are peering connections that allow ISP’s to route traffic to each other, without having to go through the internet. Either way though, it’s not Fiber to Premise.

        Fiber (or any kind of connection) to premise is EXPENSIVE. I had a project I had to drop on San Fernando and San Pedro because our options were…

        DSL (nope, not reliable, slow)
        Comcast (with a $30k to the premise fee)
        Etheric (If we could get line of sight to the hills)

        It’s that “hookup” fee that kills it. Startups just don’t have that kind of money. Sure, rent might be more in PA, but you aren’t sacked with a 1/2 dozen city fees on top of premise fee’s. I think a large part of their success is they’ve built (and are still building) a municipal fiber network.

  2. Add a third issue—the increasingly Skid Row look and feel of DTSJ. Whatever they do with that block, let’s hope they don’t make the façade as ugly as the One South Market façade. Did they buy those blue panels at separate flea markets?

    • What Groundwerx isn’t keeping up with the bums, PRCS parolees, dive bars, dive market pimps hoes, dope singers and the Adult TOY store in Santa Clara between 1st and 2nd?

      • You got it Weed Man. For the last several years, DT SJ has been spiraling downward. My office was in DT SJ since about 1985, and just outside of the official DT since 1973. Over the last several years it was at Third & St. John. I walked to lunch daily at a DT restaurant, unless it was pouring rain or over 85 degrees. Then I drove, but observed. I have witnessed a steady decline in that time, the speed of which increased over the last 5 years or so as Groundwerx and the SJDA kept losing ground to the bums; the graffiti; the drug dealers in St James Park, the VTA light rail station between Santa Clara and San Fernando Streets, and the plaza adjoining The Hammer Theatre; the mentally disabled wanderers who should be institutionalized, but can’t due to LPS—what the PC folks call an “urban environment” and what I call Skid Row. The extra tax on DT businesses has produced few positive results, unless you get a paycheck from the SJDA. We are losing the battle to get SJ suburbanites to come to DTSJ in droves. The only hope is the millenials who seem to romanticize this “urban environment.” If enough of them fill up the new apartments (they prefer to rent than to own), perhaps things will change, but I am less than confident since Skid Row doesn’t seem to bother them, so why would the milieu change? Now that I have retired, my trips to DT SJ have dropped drastically, and will continue to drop as Bike Boy Sam and his followers continue to make it more difficult to drive a car DT by increasing the bike lanes for the miniscule number of people who ride bikes DT, while squeezing cars into fewer and fewer lanes. From 1975 to 1985 I was a huge proponent of DT, especially what is now called SOFA. My enthusiasm has waned to near zero. In fact, if it weren’t for Original Joe’s, where I still lunch twice a week, I’d never come to DT SJ again. And that’s being made more difficult by the latest project, which is reducing San Carlos Street to one lane eastbound for auto traffic from Market to Fourth.

        • Very sad. Sorry it happened … we did our best to keep the riff-raff out but Reed, Sam, Rosen, Knies, and the voters thought they knew better.

          • Weed Man: It’s not PC to dis’ the riff raff, or even call them by that name. They are economically challenged, or socially challenged, or emotionally challenged, or psychologically challenged, or employment challenged, or all of the above; and thus they must be accepted, embraced, coddled, and saved from their chosen fate…I’m sure you get it now. Say 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys, clean up some of their graffiti, then go out and hug one as repentance for your callousness

        • JohnMichael, I very much agree. Whatever they do with that building, being as it’s at such a downtown-y location, it better look good. And that block is very creepy to walk down. I have occasion to walk that block about once a month, in the middle of the day or late morning, and I don’t feel safe. It also frequently smells like urine.

  3. Let’s start with the idea that any improvement at one of downtown’s most popular evening gathering spots for “street” people, will be an improvement. I often wondered who owned this property and let it become an after-hours hangout. Want to get a bad impression of downtown SJ – stop by this corner after 7PM?

    Now to the state of downtown… Is the SJDA the new RDA? The visionaries? The manipulators, who should tell developers what to do, where, and when? Have you noticed that with RDA out of the way, market economics are driving development and there are many positive results?

    If a different type of development makes sense at the site in question, the answer will come forward organically – not from City Planning or the SJDA. As long as the proposal fits reasonably within existing planning and zoning guidelines, the property owner should be free to proceed without excess meddling.

    • YYY wrote: “ Want to get a bad impression of downtown SJ – stop by this corner after 7PM?” Would you care to be more specific so that those of us who choose to could avoid that spot? Thank you.

    • As a 25 year resident of downtown, I’ve slowly realized that the corner of 1st and Santa Clara is probably the most dynamic intersection in the entire city: Only there will people bump into each other of all nationalities, all ethnicities, all walks of life; rich and poor, legal and illegal, tourist and resident, religious and atheist, etc.; It all mixes up right there. And it’s the best place for people-watching south of San Francisco and north of Los Angeles.

  4. I don’t think the posters here are living in the real world. Downtown SJ is so much better than 1975 or 1985 or 1995 in so many ways. I’ve had offices and homes downtown and around downtown for more than thirty years. Does it have big problems? Yes, but there will never be a time there are not problems. I’m glad you guys weren’t in Europe in the 1700s or my ancestors would have never made it here. You would have convinced them it wasn’t worth the effort.

    • I’m with you, Phil. I just don’t “get” negative people. I fell in love with Downtown in ’67. Now, at last, I finally live and work here, and also, contribute my small efforts to making it ever better. When you do that, you see problems as opportunities and improvements as accomplishments in which to take pride. It makes for a happier outlook, I find, and energizes me to actually work for more improvements instead just pointing out problems as if there were no hope.
      Back to the topic, I agree with SJDA that this development proposal is inadequate for the site.

    • Yes DT SJ is better than it was in 1975 and 1985. But it is also worse than it was in 1995 and 2005. I worked in DT SJ from 1973-2014. Lots of ugly, empty lots in the 70’s. $3Billion of taxpayer money changed that. I’ve seen it gradually improve in a minimal way, only to start slipping back into a Skid Row environment, especially after 10:00 p.m. Eulipia, now Stritch, was open only for lunch in the 70’s and most of the 80’s, since no decent folks would go to what is now SoFA after dark back then, due to the hookers of all genders. That situation has improved markedly. I walked to a DT SJ restaurant for lunch every day, weather permitting, from the mid 90’s to my retirement in 2014. During that time, DT SJ spiraled slowly downward, and continues to do so. Some folks, such as you, apparently don’t mind walking down streets with empty storefronts, drug dealers, hookers, schizophrenics who should be institutionalized, and graffiti everywhere. If enough of you fill the new apartments rising skyward, perhaps the decline will reverse. But I rather think you’ll all just tolerate it. I still drive from home to Original Joe’s a couple of afternoons per week. However, as a living environment, I prefer Willow Glen to DT SJ, just as the vast majority of SJ residents prefer their neighborhoods to DT SJ. Even the 35k-40k folks who work in DT SJ but live elsewhere rarely return to DT SJ after dark. I was poised to buy in The 88 just after the Great Recession. It was two blocks from my office, so I would have walked everywhere. I started looking around more carefully as I walked to one restaurant or another for lunch, and I came DT evenings to check out different venues. Increasingly, I didn’t like the decline I saw. On the other hand, my son lives DT SJ and loves it. Different strokes… However, you and my son are in the distinct minority of residents who prefer DT to other SJ neighborhoods. I am pleased both of you enjoy it. I, and 975,000 SJ residents, do not. They stay away in droves.

  5. OMG, how could I have forgotten the bicyclists who speed down the sidewalks in DT SJ, consistently avoiding the use of the Liccardo Lanes, which remain practically empty? I just heard the DT SJPD Captain on KCBS, who says officers write ten tickets a week for violating the 6 months old ban on riding bikes on many DT sidewalks. Ten a WEEK? They should be writing at least 20-30 a DAY, for the safety of pedestrians. Streets are for vehicles, including bikes. Sidewalks are for pedestrians.

  6. If one gets tired of the winos, bums, mentally ill, pimps, dope slingers, hookers and deadbeats who populate downtown then just wait until BART rolls into town – there will be a lot of new faces, new acts, new tricks to enhance our urban experience – -

  7. That corner of 1st and Santa Clara is actually one of the most critical intersections in Downtown San Jose. If you spend time watching pedestrian foot traffic at night, you will see:

    1) Night time pedestrians exploring eastwards from the Shark tank and San Pedro Square will stop, then turn around and walk back the way they came.

    2) Night time pedestrians exploring northwards on first street from the convention center and the hotels will stop, then turn around and walk back the way they came.

    3) Night time pedestrians exploring northwards on 2nd street from San Jose State and the Improv will stip, then turn around and walk back the way they came.

    4) Few pedestrians walk south from North First street, because there’s an abandoned city block with a St James park for the homeless.

    5) Few pedestrians walk west from East Santa Clara street, due to a lifestyle mismatch between the people who live to the east, and the upscale restaurants to at San Pedro Square.

    Therefore, it is critical that the new building at #1 North First Street be brightly-lit, night-friendly, high density retail: This will create a continuous strip that links up the restaurants in all 3 directions and encourages tourists, visitors, and locals to walk thru from one sector to another instead of wanting to turn around.

    Putting residential there will only serve the residents who live there, instead of putting something which serves the entire city.

    Putting retail or something else with broader appeal will also help to revive the abandoned city blocks to the north of that intersection.

    Putting something with mass appeal there will also more fully optimize the future capacity of BART and LightRail-VTA to move large numbers of people to that intersection.

    Finally, 1st and Santa Clara used to be the epicenter of downtown. That was why the old historical tower there was brightly lit, why there was a giant streetlight hanging over the intersection in the early 1900’s, and why there’s a gigantic 1960’s red electric sign jutting out of one of the high rises there. These bright lights pulled people to the center of town and helped establish an identity to the city. Giving this intersection something to appeal to the general population will make Downtown a better attraction and add more tourist revenues to the city coffers.