By Guest Blogger Dave Cortese
Many times on this site I have read excellent historical narratives on the history of downtown. I have my own perspective, of course, but it is not just a look back. It includes a look forward at some of the promise but also some new threats to the viability of the city’s center.
As a little boy I walked 7 blocks each day for several years after school through downtown from Third and Reed to First and Santa Clara to catch the bus home to the eastside (the old city transit line). It was certainly safe then. There were so many pedestrians downtown back then that a skinny kid like me had to zig-zag around people on the sidewalk just to get through—on a weekday afternoon! Many of those people were rural and suburban residents who were there to shop, pay bills, and do banking Monday through Friday.
During those early years, as a third generation member of a San Jose farming and business family, I spent a great deal of time in all of the vital locations, from the Farmer’s Union to the Bank of America, from Schilling & Son to SH Kress, often dragged along by my grandfather or my father while conducting business.
I returned to downtown in 1979 for my first post-college job in the finance business in an office located, guess where… First and Santa Clara. It was the beginning of my own 20-year career in business, but by that time, downtown had already become a ghost town. It had taken less than ten years for that to happen.
All that was left were a few of the strongest survivors and the remnants of culture.
That could happen again if city leadership does not protect the current downtown investment—especially its small businesses. The BART project alone will be devastating if the next mayor does not force VTA and its contractors to pay direct compensation to those businesses suffering loss of business good will during the construction. As a Councilmember I pushed forward a new ordinance a couple of years ago that allows the city to demand that outside agencies pay mitigation for business impact, but again, it will need to be enforced or it will mean nothing.
Though much has been accomplished between 1979-present, there have been huge missed opportunities. That original population needs to be replaced with new residents downtown. The only way to do that is with high density housing in the downtown core—and lots of it. That will create enough baseline daily traffic to support the little businesses that can’t make it right now. And we can re-focus RDA money to business assistance for landlords willing to keep our homegrown, unique businesses in place. It takes creativity to use RDA money that way, but it can be done. Add a world-class international museum system, and a couple of major entertainment venues and things will be off and running again. But it does take someone to lead on the policy side who has lived that history, been in business, and has actually worked the investment side of housing and retail. It also requires inspiring the most successful business people in this valley and getting them to start putting their money to work in San Jose again, instead of elsewhere.
Lastly, we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. The recent council decision (on a split vote) to OK another 100,000 (plus) residents immediately north of downtown in cheaper four story residential buildings is the right way to create exactly the wrong flow of investment energy. Elements of the “plan” will be needed but have not been well thought out and are not sequenced properly. More specifically, the North San Jose plan was not supported by its own EIR, does not address school impact, and allows 8,000 new residential units to the north without the prior creation of any jobs and without any triggers to force downtown hi-rise to be built first.
Amazingly, while many are still lamenting the last downtown exodus, few if any showed up in June at the council chambers to question this latest rushed move to build another competing downtown. It is time to speak up. It is time for people who care to stand up and be counted.
My own (more extensive) comments on “managed growth” are available at http://www.davecortese.com, as is the text of my February 8th speech outlining some initial principles and vision for the future of this great city. These writings will be added to regularly over the next several months.
I’d love to hear from your readers on these and other issues. The ultimate vision for San Jose will come from the people—and carried forward by the next mayor.
It is true as others have said, that this is a wonderful place to live, but we can do better.
Dave Cortese is a San Jose City Council Member representing District 8 and a candidate for Mayor.