Academy of Art University Eyes San Jose

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.”

Good Neighbors?
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.


  1. Jessica:

    You and your colleagues have developed the most intriguing story of the New Year.  It shows a lot of creativity and good old fashioned journalism.  What I am most impressed about is that you emphasize the selection of the old Bank of America building as the cornerstone of the story.  The Bank of America building is the one of the best landmarks for San Jose, but it is fallen on very hard times.  Once a site for the Bank of Italy,the building which might be the tallest in San Jose, though the new SJSU dorms may challenge it, is a shell of its former self.  Someone has to do something with it.  It stands has the home for some seedy pawn shops, which our friend Bailey in Santa Clara, and the Hazelnut, probably frequent with their relatives last remaining watches and dental work. 

    Ok, so the Academy of Art is a little agressive with historic building conversion, SO WHAT!

    Look at Verrill Phillips, the tea lady who is the Vice President at SJSU.  He has said that Tower Hall should not be at state landmark, “because the state will begin to tell us at San Jose State, how to manage it.”  (state landmark, Verrill).

    However, an active use for the old of B of A building may just be the right thing for it.  Use of a historic building is more of a preservation tool than leaving it in decline.  Mission Santa Clara was saved due to Santa Clara University, and Academy of Art University may just be the savior of one of the most stunning pieces of Terra Cota architecture in California.

  2. With a track record like theirs they don’t seem like a very good neighbor. Their arrogance and mistreatment of historic buildings is not wanted in San Jose. The B of A
    building is an iconic structure downtown and no one with a record like AAU should be allowed to touch it.
    Certainly the building needs love and care and could be a jewel of downtown but it also must have an owner/occupant who will treat it with the respect it deserves.

    • Native, I think you need to do your homework…the Academy has spent millions on fixing up historic buildings in San Francisco while maintaining and preserving the historic character of these buildings.  The historic buildings the academy uses in san francisco were delapidated, rotting, falling apart, and facing possible demo until they came and retrofitted and fixed up these buildings to their original historic condition.


      • Most are still dilapidated, maybe with a false wall in front, the school is completely run like a shady corporation, trust me i go there, the money they make goes straight into Elisa Stephens pockets and literally the least amount of money possible goes back into the community or to helping their own students and providing them with obvious necessities like fire alarms in the industrial design building for instance? Believe every student who has ever gone there and even most of the faculty, dont get me wrong, the education you can get there is amazing but once you get past the instructors its all shadiness

  3. Outstanding story Jessica!  Make this happen SJ!  I love the old Bank of America building.  To me, that building represents our great city.  I still remember as a young boy in the early 70’s, taking the bus from the east side to downtown with my mom, and getting off the bus, looking upwards at that beautiful structure.  Agree wholeheartedly with JR; let the Academy get aggresive with the historic building conversion.

    Question: is the Academy looking at expanding into SJ or relocating their SF operation entirely to SJ?  The last paragraph through me off a bit.

    Lastly, let’s hope know one knocks this possible development like the thread the other day re: The San Jose Public Market.

  4. The majestic B of A building deserves to be used and loved.  Yet I fear that our city politicos will somehow f*** up this opportunity, as they quite often do.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that this situation somehow slips under their radar and comes to fruition.

  5. LET ‘ER RIP!
    I think this is a GREAT idea! Now mind you it is coming from the private sector, not the goons at City Hall, who would first need to confer to the MACLA and Act1st crowd so they don’t get their undies in a bunch.. that being said “go for it”, it would be a much needed shot in the arm, both economically and culturally.

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