Every serious baseball fan who has traveled a bit has seen the benefit that can come from economic development projects like the San Jose Public Market. During the 1980s and ‘90s, many American cities invested public money to build baseball stadiums in the hope that they would stimulate economic activity. There are now vibrant neighborhoods surrounding ballparks from Washington D.C. to Denver. Often controversial when proposed, these neighborhoods now stand as testament to the wisdom of public-private partnerships in pursuit of urban development. The only downside seems to be the preponderance of newspaper headlines saying (you guessed it): “If You Build It, They Will Come.”
This brand of redevelopment was spurred in part by the publication of a book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by the visionary urban planner Jane Jacobs. Written at a time when many cities were being abandoned, the book proposed investment in urban renewal as a way to spur economic health and community well-being.
When he was mayor of San Jose, Tom McEnery helped put many of Jacobs’ theories in practice locally. Here on SJI, we’ve become familiar with his relentless boosterism of Downtown—it’s a song he’s been singing for decades. Back when he was in office, there were doubters who believed McEnery was being naïve—Downtown San Jose was decrepit in those days. Not everything the mayor tried worked; but anyone who was Downtown this past weekend (and there were a million of you) witnessed the fruits of his endeavor.
Other McEnery-haters in those days accused the mayor of simply trying to enrich himself and his family. And it’s likely that the restaurants in McEnery properties around San Pedro Square did a brisk business this past weekend. But it requires a pretty bleak brand of cynicism to believe that alone was the impetus for McEnery’s efforts when he was mayor. And it’s similarly naïve to believe that this new plan is designed purely to line his pockets.
Of course the Public Market will be a boon to McEnery and his partners. By investing $5 million to build a pedestrian mall, expand a parking garage, and help with the construction costs of several new structures near San Pedro Square, the City is in effect helping the private enterprise that McEnery and his partners have launched. But these investments will likely also benefit other Downtown businesses and the city as a whole. That’s how these public-private partnerships work. And as we have seen, they work.
We are hearing, in the weeks since the project was announced, from the doubters who can’t see a Public Market succeeding in San Jose. Others simply can’t get past the idea of tax dollars benefiting private businesses. Ten years ago, similar sentiments won the day in San Francisco, when the Giants ownership group was defeated in its efforts to get municipal assistance to build a ballpark. Some said the ballpark would be a boondoggle. They were badly wrong, as anyone can now see. And while the Giants’ Peter McGowan was able to go it alone and prove them wrong, it’s unlikely that this Public Market can go forward without participation from the city. We are living in different times, and everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Barack Obama recognizes that government investment is a good thing.
I’m well aware that putting these thoughts under my byline opens me to criticism because Tom and I are colleagues. But he’s being pilloried by the haters, and I think they’re wrong. Today, as the City Council considers the San Jose Public Market plan, other friends of Tom’s face a similar choice. I have to hope they’ll be able to judge the project on its merits, and not be intimidated by his political foes.