Mapping Downtown San Jose’s Road to Recovery

Downtowns across the country are in upheaval, but San Jose’s downtown is in a particularly difficult position as the coronavirus pandemic stretches through what was set to be a period of growth in the city only a handful of months ago.

San Jose Downtown Association leaders say they’re ready to make moves to help small businesses limping along, think creatively about filling storefronts that are already emptying out and are prepared to become a more active force in curbing the area’s growing homeless population to help draw people back to the city’s central business district.

The pandemic has made the issues San Jose was facing before the coronavirus arrived even more urgent, said Brad Segal, president for Denver-based consultant Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA). The group on Friday unveiled a report that aims to plot a course for recovery, not only for the city’s downtown, but for the 31-year-old San Jose Downtown Association itself.

“Our basic conclusion here is that the pandemic is more of an accelerator of trends than necessarily something that is fundamentally changing a lot of things there will be changes,” Segal said Friday during a webinar on the report.

That document encourages the city’s downtown association to market and promote the downtown area generally, become a local leader in snagging and keeping storefront retailers, update its own business and funding model and to grow its popular Groundwerx cleaning and maintenance program.

Image courtesy of San Jose Downtown Association / Progressive Urban Management Associates

Across the board, downtown San Jose leaders and the 1,254 residents surveyed said that keeping the downtown clean and safe, including through Groundwerx, was among the most valuable services the association provides. The program deploys workers wearing bright-colored shirts in the city core to ensure the area is well-maintained.

“We ask this question and other downtowns and we rarely get this strong of a consensus from constituents,” Daniel Makela a senior associate with PUMA said.

But as visitors remain scarce in the downtown due to the pandemic, homeless residents have become more “visible,” according to the report. The downtown association could expand the boundaries that the Groundwerx crew cleans and task the team or others with providing more information and resources to get the unhoused off the streets, the report suggests.

That typically hasn’t been the downtown association’s role, but it could become an area of focus, Scott Knies, president of the San Jose Downtown Association said.

“We've been successful because we've stayed in our lane, and we have said what we're going to do, and we give results to our property owners,” he said. "What we're hearing from our property owners and our members, is that more needs to be done in this area.”

If some of the homeless downtown residents who are exhibiting mental or behavioral health conditions were placed into programs to address those issues, “the safety level and comfort level of downtown would increase dramatically,” Knies said. “We’ve not really seen anyone focused on that and if that’s not going to happen, I think what you're seeing in today's plan is that perhaps we should be stepping into that role.”

The 'Storefront Economy'

Those surveyed also said they wanted the downtown association to focus on social efforts to ensure everyone feels at home in the area and supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Those two initiatives can go hand-in-hand, through focusing on arts and culture events, installations and socially-minded retailers.

But for now, one of the downtown association’s most pressing mandate is simply to try to keep existing small businesses and retailers afloat and help fill the empty storefronts in the city’s urban core. A majority of downtown businesses—as much as 75 percent—are at risk of shuttering permanently if conditions don’t improve by the end of the year, according to a recent study by the city of San Jose.

“I think there's a real opportunity in San Jose with some of the major corporate players that you have there to be participants in some sort of investment fund, particularly something that would bolster the storefront economy,” Brad Segal, president for PUMA said. “That would have direct benefit for them long-term, it would help continue to provide that invigorating downtown environment that's so important to employee retention and recruitment.”

Image courtesy of San Jose Downtown Association / Progressive Urban Management Associates

Indeed, most people surveyed for the report said they aren't yet comfortable with the idea of returning downtown for fun.

Meanwhile, some of the few retailers that exist in downtown have already called it quits, including Japanese retailer Muji, which declared bankruptcy last month and announced July 31 it would indefinitely shutter all of its California locations.

“The downtown association needs to be the leader in nurturing the storefront economy downtown, both through the stabilization and recovery period over the next 12 to 18 months and then a strong focus there beyond,” Segal said.

Japanese retailer Muji has permanently shuttered in downtown San Jose. Photo by Janice Bitters

One way to do that may be to create a new street-level “Small Business Support Center,” to boost the group’s visibility, where business owners can drop in to get information and resources like answers to questions around coronavirus planning, applying for city permits, marketing advice or the like.

The downtown association is already thinking about working with landlords who will be faced with empty property, Knies said.

“We are looking at a reckoning with, as we're calling it, the storefront economy, and we are going to have many vacancies,” he said. “There's going to be a reckoning with our landlords and, you know, are you going to keep space vacant or are we going to look at how we're going to reuse the space?”

Meanwhile, the San Jose Downtown Association will also have to tackle change from inside the organization, which made a name for itself by hosting large events and festivals, which makes up about one-fourth of the organization’s revenue.

Those are not feasible for now due to the pandemic. But such events also may not be the best way to move the organization forward in the long-term, either, Segal said, encouraging the organizations to focus on other parts of its organization and smaller events.

“In the short term, some of that festival energy, we're suggesting be redirected to the storefront economy, and really helping small businesses survive through this,” he said.

Janice Bitters is managing editor for Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @janicebitters.

11 Comments

  1. Let me save the city and tax payers a ton of consulting fees

    Clean and Safe – unachievable.

    Pack it up Denver boys, take your Progressive Urban grift on outa here. I know what you are.

    btw SJI I would wager a week of coffees that this captcha is training our skynet overloads, are you sure you want to keep feeding AI like that?

  2. And Im impressed with the troll in the graphic.

    Mr Scott head juxtaposed with “Pure Pork Sausage”

    Tip o’ the hat, Ms. Bitters

  3. > Mapping Downtown San Jose’s Road to Recovery

    Just build more bike paths, put more homeless people in hotels, make everyone wear masks, and raise taxes.

    Everything will be fine.

  4. what do you mean “recovery” – there hasn’t been a downtown SJ since the city and theRDA came in and demolished entire city blocks for redevelopment for the “redevelopers”. It was all bad planning, i.e, the Retail Pavilion which replaced many Mom/Pop shops. The Pavilion was later leased out to a server farm AboveNet – – supposedly a large portal for online porn — however all the small adult book shops were chased out – “too seedy” – – it got so bad the RDA had to hire out-of-town street musicians to play on street corners to make downtown appear “happening.”

    SJ spent 30+years and billions to achieve what we have today – – a bunch of boarded storefronts which seems to be Scott Knies primary function covering them with decorative “looking busy” pictures.

    Road to Recovery? the patient has been dead to decades. the well of commerce was poisoned long ago. Thank you San Jose leaders.

  5. “it got so bad the RDA had to hire out-of-town street musicians to play on street corners”

    Id call BS in any other city but San Jose

    I guess San Jose has always had it out for mom and pops

  6. I started working in SJ in 1973 at 777 N. First. That was the farthest my office ever was from the County Courthouse. When Eulipia went white tablecloth it was open for lunch only for quite a while, because what is now SOFA was hookertown. The SJDA was formed in 1986. Since then Scott Knies has played the role of Sisyphus for DTSJ revival. Frank Taylor and Tom McEnery tried and failed to bring big name retail to DTSJ. They had an “if you build it they will come mentality” regarding the DT. I told them more than once that they had it backwards. SJ is a a bedroom community and always will be. People who live outside the DT will work there, but for the most part they’ll go home and not return. The reality here is that “if residents are here you can build retail” I’ve always believed they had it backwards; that is, you need a large indigenous DT population in order to get the 24 hour DT they hoped for. Very few people have any interest in leaving their little piece of suburbia to come to DT SJ. In the last five years as medium rises have popped up there was hope. Then along came the PANICdemic called COVID 19. I have no idea how many people have left those high rent places since being laid off due to COVID. The latest proposed model is Mom and Pop storefronts. I don’t see a vibrant DT SJ being spawned by a bunch of small storefront businesses. I watched the construction of the light rail destroy what few struggling businesses were in DT. Now the geniuses at City Hall want to do it all over again with BART construction down Santa Clara Street. The efforts to make DT SJ a destination since I came here in 1973 have been as unsuccessful as the myriad efforts to end homelessness. We’ve got slow learners running the show out of R2D2.

  7. > Across the board, downtown San Jose leaders and the 1,254 residents surveyed said that keeping the downtown clean and safe, including through Groundwerx, was among the most valuable services the association provides.

    What a ridiculous survey!

    Who the hell knows what the questions meant. They are so vague and open ended, any second string politician could shoehorn his populist agenda into whichever one got the most buzz.

    Q. “Do you like the virtue signaling I’ve been doing, or would you rather that I do different virtue signaling?”

    “New poll shows massive support for Councilmember Blat’s agenda”!

  8. Downtown needs more density: no surface or vacant lots especially block 2,3,8 and Victory lots. Those parcels/lots need to be developed with mixed used high rise towers. That also goes for Fountain Alley lot. Downtown has to be packed and not feel like an incomplete city; then, the area would bustle again like it did 1964 and before.

  9. > Downtown needs more density:

    Would more “density” change the demographics of the city?

    Would the population of the city include more of some kind of people and fewer of other kinds of people?

    Who are the people you are trying to get rid of?

    Who put you in charge of demographics?

  10. KZ Lager Google

    Just level all of downtown. Sell the shark tank to Google. Put 25+ story apartment buildings in the whole downtown and just fence it all off. The tech industry can just dump their h1bs living 10+ to a studio apartment wearing GPS monitors. The Google SS (being social services) or the SA( security agency) can make sure that no one leaves the KZ.

    We have checkpoints at Diridon Station making sure that only Americans are using going in and out of transit through KZ Lager Google

  11. We have a pandemic that gets worse with high density populations

    Solution. Build 20+ story high apartment buildings in San Jose