Knight Cities Challenge Selects 2 San Jose Grant Proposals

A proposal to liven up a downtown parking garage with pop-up shops won a sizable grant to make it a reality.

Scott Knies, head of the San Jose Downtown Association, submitted the idea as part of the national Knight Cities Challenge. This morning, the nonprofit announced that it awarded $139,000 to San Pedro Squared, a plan to activate the ground floor of the parking garage by San Pedro Square with pop-up retailers.

San Pedro Squared was one of two winners from San Jose. Tim McCormick's Houslets project—prototyping and deploying tiny, low-cost modular homes—won $40,000. San Jose Inside ran a story about McCormick's project earlier this year.

Last fall, Knight Cities asked innovators in 26 cities throughout the nation for ideas to make their cities a better place. Winners would get a slice of $5 million to make it happen.

The foundation sifted through 7,000 entries before deciding on 32 winners. Some winning ideas included: training rehabbers to fix up vacant buildings in Detroit; a monthly subscription of local goods and experiences in Akron, Ohio; and installing porch swings in public places in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Not only did the Knight Cities Challenge uncover a wealth of new ideas to make our cities more successful, it will help strengthen a network of civic innovators who are taking hold of the future of their cities,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “These important connections will help create a pipeline for new approaches to city transformation and spark the type of collaboration vital to growing and spreading good ideas.”

Come fall, the challenge will launch a new call for submissions, with winners announced next spring.

Here's a list of the winners:

San Jose, Calif.

Houslets, $40,000 by Houslets (Submitted by Tim McCormick): Prototyping and deploying low-cost, modular housing and workspace units to test a new model for temporary and affordable housing for San Jose’s fast-growing population.

San Pedro Squared, $139,000 by San Jose Downtown Association (Submitted by Scott Knies): Testing a new method of economic revival focused on bringing activity to the streets by installing pop-up retail units on the ground floor of a parking structure opposite the lively San Pedro Square market.

Akron, Ohio

Better Block International Hostel on AirBnB, $155,000 by Team Better Block (Submitted by Jason Roberts): Turning a vacant property into an AirBnB hostel and cultural hub in Akron’s North Hill to tap the entrepreneurial potential of the neighborhood’s growing Bhutanese population.

Unbox Akron, $52,168 (Submitted by Chris Horne): Fostering a stronger connection to the city by creating a subscription service that celebrates Akron with a monthly selection of local goods and experiences delivered in a box.

Bradenton, Fla.

ReuseReCONNECT, $90,140 by Realize Bradenton (Submitted by Morgan Bettes): Engaging millennials in Bradenton by experimenting with pop-up events that temporarily transform outdoor spaces into places for conversations on local topics.

Charlotte, N.C.

No Barriers Project, $67,100 (Submitted by Sarah Hazel): Bringing two diverse neighborhoods together in a public park that sits on their border by creating a new common space that uses light, sound and play to stimulate conversation.

“Porch” Swings in Public Places, $28,000 (Submitted by Tom Warshauer): Fostering conversation among strangers by installing Charlotte’s signature porch swings in public spaces.

Take Ten Initiative, $74,000 (Submitted by Alyssa Dodd): Challenging municipal workers to take 10 minutes each week to connect with a city resident and report on their thoughts and ideas.

Columbus, Ga.

Minimum Grid: Maximum Impact, $199,195 by MidTown Inc. (Submitted by Anne King): Establishing a comprehensive network of bicycle and pedestrian connections among the entertainment and business district of Uptown and the 24 diverse neighborhoods of MidTown.


RE:Brand Detroit: Innovating Detroit Neighborhoods, $164,810 by Brand Camp University (Submitted by Hajj Flemings): Changing the narrative of underserved neighborhoods by developing compelling branding and digital presences for neighborhood businesses that better tell their stories.

Brick + Beam Detroit, $87,424 by Michigan Historic Preservation Network (Submitted by Emilie Evans): Creating a new community of Detroit rehabbers who will work together to combat blight, reactivate vacant buildings and improve their city.

The Buzz, $84,055 by Detroit Future City (Submitted by Erin Kelly): Pairing barbers with landscape contractors to transform overgrown vacant lots through facilitated design workshops that teach mowing and pattern-making techniques.

Detroit Homecoming, $100,000 by Crain’s Detroit Business (Submitted by Eric Cedo): Engaging Detroit expats with a new digital community designed to keep them connected to Detroit and its opportunities.

LIVE Detroit, $40,000 by LIVE Detroit (Submitted by Rachel Perschetz): Attracting and retaining residents by creating a center for information about Detroit neighborhoods and city life that showcases the best of Detroit.

Gary, Ind.

ArtHouse: a Social Kitchen, $650,000 by Rebuild Foundation (submitted by Lori Berko): Repurposing a vacant space in downtown Gary as a culinary incubator and café designed to reinvigorate downtown while creating jobs and opportunities for residents.

Lexington, Ky.

Northside Common Market, $550,000 by North Limestone Community Development Corp. (Submitted by Richard Young): Repurposing a vacant bus station into a market for locally grown food and locally made goods and a creative business incubator that will serve as a neighborhood hub.

Macon, Ga.

Operation Export Macon, $75,000 by College Hill Alliance (Submitted by Joshua Lovett): Fostering city pride and helping attract newcomers to Macon by sending one man in a roaming trailer to nearby cities, to showcase the city’s best food, goods and experiences. 

Macon Civic Spaces, $124,300 (submitted by Geoffrey Boyd): Creating an umbrella organization to bring together individual park volunteer groups to create a network of advocates, interested in improving and maintaining local parks as vibrant community engagement venues.

Miami, Fla.

The Science Barge, $298,633 by CappSci (Submitted by Nathalie Manzano-Smith): Creating a public focal point for Miami’s climate issues with the Science Barge, a floating, urban sustainable farm and environmental education center powered by renewable energy.

Multiple communities

The Urban “Consulate,” $150,000 (Submitted by Claire Nelson): Promoting cross-city cultural and civic exchange by setting up a network of new “consulates” initially located in Detroit, Philadelphia and New Orleans that offer events and an entrée into local culture.

The Swings: An Exercise in Musical Cooperation, $325,000 by DailyTousLesJours (Submitted by Mouna Andraos): Bringing people together to connect and engage in four Knight resident cities (Charlotte, Macon, Philadelphia and San Jose) with a musical swings installation that plays music when used and more complex melodies when people collaborate to use them together.


The Pop-Up Pool Project, $297,000 by Group Melvin Design (Submitted by Benjamin Bryant): Introducing fun, easy solutions at city pools, which will be designed to make them more vibrant places to meet and interact with neighbors and friends.

South Philly's Stoop, $146,960 by Scout (Submitted by Lindsey Scannapieco): Transforming the vacant space surrounding the recently closed, historic Edward Bok school in South Philadelphia into a new community living room that brings community members together, encourages connections and engages people with neighborhood history.

Urban Arboreta, $65,000 by City Parks Association of Philadelphia (Submitted by Timothy Baird): Transforming vacant land in Philadelphia into urban forests that produce trees to be replanted on city streets and in parks.

Next Stop: Democracy! The Voting Signage Project, $166,394 by Here’s My Chance (Submitted by Lansie Sylvia): Making voting in local elections more enticing by creating new types of signs at polling places and commissioning artists to perform site-specific pieces on election days.

Neighborhood Conservation Kit, $20,000 by Central Roxborough Civic Association (Submitted by Sandy Sorlien): Putting the future of communities in residents’ hands with a toolkit they can use to create a special zoning designation called a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay.

Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub, $261,500 by Mt. Airy USA (Submitted by Anuj Gupta): Harnessing the talent and energy of immigrants to revitalize distressed neighborhoods by providing centers that would offer immigrant entrepreneurs low-cost space, language assistance, workshops and trainings, and access to traditional and non-traditional sources of capital.

DIG Philly by The Big SandBox Inc., $149,050 (Submitted by Jacques Gaffigan): Bringing together members of the community from diverse ages, ethnic and economic groups to create a movement to reinvent schoolyards across the city using traditional grassroots outreach and new digital engagement tools.

St Paul, Minn.

4 Play, $117,000 by Greater MSP (Submitted by Peter Frosch): Changing the way people perceive the city and its climate by inviting all residents to come together for an outdoor activity—whether it’s ice fishing or summer canoeing—once per season.

8-80 Vitality Fellow, $175,000 by Mayor’s Office, City of St. Paul (Submitted by Mayor Chris Coleman): Promoting a more livable St. Paul by embedding a fellow in the mayor’s office who will work across departments to manage the $42 million committed to the mayor’s 8-80 Vitality Fund, which aims to ensure that walking, biking and public spaces are a priority in all city projects.

MN Nice Breakers, $37,960 (Submitted by Jun-Li Wang): Making the city more welcoming by using existing events to help newcomers quickly establish social networks that attach them to the city.

Rolling Out the Warm Welcome Hat, $67,288 (Submitted by Jun-Li Wang): Welcoming newcomers by having city leaders hold monthly ceremonies to give them an official welcome gift, a warm hat for Minnesota winters.


  1. Just asking but is this one of the areas that is owned by former Mayor McEnery , and if so , why are we still giving this Millionaire more money ?

    • Billionaire, but ya. I was there last Saturday, and the area was very vibrant. Parking is already cramped in the lot. I’m sort of surprised nobody has brought this up yet, but by taking away the bottom floor parking, they’re going to make it a lot more inconvenient for ADA access. They might be setting themselves up for an ADA lawsuit.

  2. Very happy to see San Jose land two of these projects. I like the creativity behind these experiments to make our downtown street scene more exciting and help deal with the thorny issue of homelessness.

  3. Houselet project sounds great, but I am concerned about parking for San Pedro Square businesses. I’ve seen that garage packed many times. I am guessing Scott’s proposal involves just a few parking spaces, not an entire floor.

  4. This section of San Pedro St. (between St John & Santa Clara) should be permanently converted into a pedestrian-only zone.

    • It’s pedestrian only Fridays until 2:00 p.m. from May to November for a Farmers’ Market, which makes auto traffic and getting into and out of the adjacent parking garage a nightmare.

  5. “Columbus, Ga.
    Minimum Grid: Maximum Impact, $199,195 by MidTown Inc. (Submitted by Anne King): Establishing a comprehensive network of bicycle and pedestrian connections among the entertainment and business district of Uptown and the 24 diverse neighborhoods of MidTown.”

    Gee, if Bike Boy Sam had submitted this idea, he could have had The Knight Foundation pay for his barely used Liccardo Lanes downtown, instead of sticking SJ taxpayers with the bill for his failed experiment in social engineering.

    • I don’t know where you actually visit downtown, but I see the bike lanes on San Fernando, 3rd, 4th, 10th and 11th used almost every time I visit any of those streets. I also saw people using Park Ave., more recently.

      I myself have used all those bike lanes many times, to go to and from Downtown/Diridon/etc.

  6. Mad Max:

    I reside near the corner of Third and San Fernando, and your suggestion that the Liccardo Lanes are used by most downtown bicyclists is complete nonsense.

    Since I also work out of my home and do a peripatetic on downtown sidewalks several times per day, I have ample opportunity to see and experience firsthand what really goes on during the day and early evening hours when it comes to bicycle riders. Egocentric cyclists whiz by me all the time, as they rather slalom through pedestrians on the sidewalks than use the Liccardo Lanes. These wild bicycle rides routinely almost take out little kids and old folks who are not as nimble or coordinated, but thankfully the young and the old are usually able to get out of the way.

    The problem with cyclists is so ubiquitous in downtown San Jose that signs have gone up encouraging two-wheelers to “Walk Your Bike When On Sidewalk,” which is readily ignored. In addition, little disks have been placed at the beginning of sidewalks leading up from crosswalks; they too ask for cyclists to walk their bikes.

    I was overjoyed last week to learn that two motorcycle cops who had been pulling over speeding motorists going down San Fernando actually pursued and cited a bicyclist who was traveling down the sidewalk as if he were sprint specialist Mark Cavendish at the Tour de France.

    Professional cycling has been tarnished by Lance Armstrong. Most downtown San Jose bicyclists “Live Wrong” as well.


    Michael Patrick O’Connor

    • Some people on bike are responsible and respectful and some aren’t, like people in general. I’m sorry some people make walking downtown feel dangerous, they should be cited.

      Nonetheless, many people on bikes (like me) *do* use the bike lanes, which means they are both keeping people walking safe and getting out of people driving’s way. From the perspective of someone on a bike, it makes no sense not to use the bike lanes since they’re much faster than any alternative.

      Again, even if some people bike on sidewalks when there’s a bike lane (shame on them), many many people bike on the bike lanes, to and from Diridon station, on San Fernando St.

      • Max: I guess it all depends upon how you define “use” and “many”. I worked downtown SJ for 41 years, the last 14 with an office at Third and St. John. I drove to my office down Third Street six days a week on average, and home southbound either on Fourth or down S. Almaden. The Liccardo lanes cut auto lanes from 3 to 2 on Third Street, causing 5-10 minutes extra time to get to work. All the while I’d see the Liccardo Lanes vacant virtually every day during commute hours, when one would expect they would be the fullest. There is one strange guy that rides north on Third many mornings on the left side of the road on his way to McDonalds at Third and San Carlos, even though the double wide Liccardo Lane is on the right side. Every weekday I’ve walked to lunch somewhere downtown, in the last several years to Original Joe’s at First and San Carlos at least three days/week. Although I’d sometimes see a bicyclist on the sidewalk, most often as he nearly ran me down from behind, to this day I rarely see one in the Liccardo Lanes, even though one would expect that at least SJSU students would bike to class to save $$. Now that I am retired, I only come to OJ’s for lunch 2 days/week. I still drive down Third, from the First Street split near Keyes to Third and San Carlos. It’s a rare day indeed that I see a bike in the Liccardo Lane. Do some people use them as you suggest? Of course. But they are few in number, and do not justify the disruption of auto traffic that they cause, nor will they in the foreseeable future. And they still vastly outnumber the bicyclists on the sidewalks, despite the signs and plaques exhorting them not to ride on the sidewalks.

        • I have less experience about 3rd and 4th St bike lanes so I can’t say I’ve seen them used enormously. I have used them myself though, to go from Downtown to Japantown and from San Fernando to San Salvador or so. I use San Fernando St daily and I’ve seen many bikes.

          As the number of people in SJ increase, biking will be much more scalable than driving, so I think adding bike lanes makes enormous sense to give people more choices. Some bike lanes might not be as used as they could be, and we definitely need to figure out why that is (are they badly connected to areas people might want to go to maybe?). Also notice than only a fraction of streets have bike lanes: most are left untouched and you always have highways and expressways for cars.

          Again, I’m sorry some people on bike aren’t respectful and put you or anyone else in danger. That’s not a good argument against bike lanes, that’s an argument in favor of enforcing laws. If there were no bike lanes, you’d see more (otherwise law-abiding) people using sidewalks on their bike.

          Thanks for the civil discussion.

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