The Past, Present and Future of Downtown

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, 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.


  1. Could not understand the newspaper ad this weekend promoting the use of long term parking lots for the airport. The incentives should be used to promote the use of light rail to the airport and reduce traffic. Of coarse then they would have to improve the bus service from light rail to the airport, something that is not happening. Why not?

  2. I am all for “forcing VTA and its contractors to pay direct compensation to those businesses suffering loss of business good will during the construction” but I think that the BART extension is a waste of money anyway (at least it could provide good jobs while it is being built, but what then?).

    As a former downtown resident on North Third Street I can tell you how I shopped as did others.  I drove to Willow Glen for all but an occasional pack of smokes or pint of booze from the local liquor store (wonderful Kelly’s Market) to and from which I walked.  When I dined out there was Mariscos Inda that is one of the best restaurants in the county once in a while to and from which I also could walk.  Otherwise it was just too much hassle to shop downtown when I needed a vehicle to transport extensive bags and I would not hassle the meters and parking validation hassles of the lots.  Without acres and acres of free parking nothing will click in San Jose beyond ‘night on the town’ high end saloons and restaurants as well as hotels for conventioners.  Moshers Ltd is a good example of a high end store that finally simply died the death of rag doll when it deserved to thrive as Eli Thomas that has thrived like a tall dandelion through the cement of all reversals and vicissitudes.

    No problem with many, many buying high end condos to live downtown – it is a fun locale in which to be resident.

    Once Michael Eisner was asked on Larry King what is his most overwhelming and gnawing daily issue as Disney CEO.  He gazed up reflectively and replied, “parking.”

    San Jose, looking to the future, will find its restoration in the same concern.

  3. “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…” That’s because it is well known that the so-called “public hearings” are a sham and a waste of time. The decisions are made well in advance and the hearing is just for show. What are you going to do to change that?

  4. “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.”

    Wow – that sounds just like the project (albeit much smaller) that was jammed down my neighborhood’s collective throat.

    We organized, we hired a lawyer, we showed up, we each spoke our 2 minutes, the whole 9 yards.  Our councilmember overrode the planning commission and recommended in favor of the developer. 

    Sorry, too bad, developer wins again, have a nice day.

    Dave, is it true that before a hearing on a contentious issue that councilmembers agree to a “memo of understanding” such that the matter is pretty much decided beforehand?

  5. Just like Novice and Adam, I feel that the whole process is a waste of time. When was the last time a decision was actual made at a Council Meeting? Every meeting I’ve observed public outcry has had little if no impact. Dave, when did Council vote according to the attendees wishes or protests. Remember the EVP task force? Even thought numerous individuals spoke against the Mayors task force the end result was well known ahead of time. Why speak in front of Council if most, if not all decisions, are made behind closed doors? I believe the low attendance at Council Meetings are due to this act. If the public felt that they could actually influence Council the attendance might increase. Would it have made any difference if people had spoken gainst the North San Jose plan? I think not. It was a done deal before it was brought in front of the public.

  6. It is sad to think that citizens can not change the government they have.  We elect these people and hold their jobs in our hands.  Shouldn’t they be the ones listening to us and our demands?  If you packed the council chamber with say 60 people and each of them spoke for two minutes, I believe the council would take notice because at two minutes a pop for 60 speakers would mean 2 hours,  and 60 people is not even that many people.  Imagine if you packed the room and every single person in it spoke just once.  I believe at that rate the council would pay attention because they would know that the public does care.

    The council makes its decisions before meetings because they obviously do not have enough input from the public.  If the public would contribute more than the council would be forced to pay attention.  I will never buy for a second that the public in this democracy of ours can not change things if they do not like it.  So as San Joseans we have to get off our buts and tell our elected officials what we want.  If we don’t tell them, it will just be the developers with the massive projects that want to build near your land.

  7. Dave,

    I am assuming Labor, Chamber, and SVLG support   this project North of downtown as it sounds like a “smarth growth” type of project.  If so, who are you expecting to show up in the council chambers to speak out against the project?  I cannot imagine any group(s) having the will and the resources to fight such a battle over a done deal.

  8. To be honest, I probably would not vote for a politician whose position on a subject is based on the turnout at a public meeting.  Might does not make right. 

    However, there is always the possibility that a member of the public just might have an interesting perspective on a subject that contradicts the majority, or popular, opinion.  Or even more importantly, is speaking the truth and the truth contradicts what the politician has been told in backroom meetings.  So we really do need to improve the public input process in our political system. 

    From attending, and speaking at, both City Council meetings and Santa Clara County Supervisor’s meetings I see a few things wrong with the process for public input.

    1.  It seems many times public input is at the same session the item is up for vote.  I would certainly expect that most council members and county supervisors have already reached a position by meeting time so public input appears to be for show. 

    2.  Although it might happen, I have never seen either a council member or a county supervisor ask a question of the public speaker.  Many times I have heard someone say something that generated a question in my mind.  Yet no politician bothers to ask a question.  I get the feeling that while the public is speaking the politicians are day dreaming.

    3.  The time limit is insufficient in order to adequately make a point.  I don’t know if the city council does this, but I have seen the county supervisors, on popular agenda items, cut the time back to 1 minute per speaker.

    I think that each one of these problems has an easy and obvious solution.

    1.  Public input needs to be before the vote so that new and differant information can be taken into account. 

    2.  When a member of the public speaks and it is apparent that this person knows what they are talking about, then the politicians need to start asking questions.  They just might learn something, assuming they are not in some special interest group’s pockets.

    3.  If 5, or more, people say they will forfeit their speaking time so that person X may speak for them then person X should be allocated a minimum of 15 minutes time, and the politicians need to ask follow up questions of the speaker to determine the knowledge and veracity of the speaker.  Additionally, the speaker should be given calender time for each politician equal to any calender time given to lobbyists for the opposite position.

  9. I also used to walk downtown from school and it was fun ,exiting for a young boy, and interesting.  I would go to Kress’s and get there get chilli hot dog before going home.  What a terrible shame what happened to it.  The only thing worse was the city of Santa Clara completely destroyed and gone.  It was similar to downtown Los Gatos in 50’s.  Where are these people and lets give them some credit for their disasters.  Keep up the fight for downtown, Cortese, we need it and someone with a history of our city so we won’t repeat those failures.

  10. Downtown San Jose is the “Heart” of the city. We need to improve on the following issues:
    1) Gangs
    2) Homeless
    3) Traffics
    4) Neighborhood clean-up
    5) Equal opportunities for minority’s small business
    6) And much more . . .

    We need the right person with the “Vision” and “Heart” to uplift the City of San Jose. We can not wait for the next 10 to 20 years because . . .

  11. Glenn Smith #1:

    Light rail to the airport?  Right, I’m gonna schlep down to the airport for a trip with my two bags—and a golf bag if that’s the purpose of the trip—on light rail.  And how do I get to light rail from Willow Glen.  And sure, lots of parents will pile themselves and their kids on light rail to start off their trip to Disneyland.  Get real, Glenn

  12. Glenn, just a follow-up.  I just read the other day that all the transit nuts are so surprised at the low ridership of BART to SFO.

    I’m not.  If folks from “The City” won’t ride it to SFO, just who does anyone expect will ride it to SJC?

    JohnMichael O’Connor

  13. JMO – you’re missing the point.

    It doesn’t matter that no one rides it or not. 
    What matters is that it makes people feel better. 

    “I voted for the 15 billion dollar BART extension, therefore I am more earth friendly and I feel better about myself.”

    Combine this mindset with politicians out to build transportation monuments to themselves and you’ve got quite a force.

    Logic and common sense have left the building when it comes to transit around here.

  14. Really Novice, I have to say that your reasoning seems to have left the building…

    People voted for BART to feel better about themselves?  I don’t think so, people voted for BART because they thought it would cut down their commute.

  15. 59% of Santa Clara County voters approved Regional Measure 2 – how many of the transportation projects benefit the south bay?

    Here’s a favorite quote from Pat Dando re lightrail…
    `As we prepare to develop any future lines, we have to build them to places people want to go, like major shopping centers and the airport,’’ said PatDando , a member of the San Jose City Council and the VTA board. “In the past, we’ve felt if we built them, operating and maintenance money would somehow flow. That was foolhardy. It was like immaculate revenue or something.’’

    Logic and common sense have left the building when it comes to transit around here.

  16. Yo, Transit Truisms:  I think Novice #13 was being sarcastic.  Surely no large number of non tree-huggers would vote for transit/BART JUST to feel better.

    Do you really believe, Novice #14, that any rational person voted for BART to SFO because they thought it would cut their commute (which I presume you meant to their job)?

    Is there real data out there regarding mass transit systems-to-airport ridership?

    Another example—there was a hue and cry by VTA not to cut light rail on San Carlos and bus transit on Santa Clara Street for the weekend of the Grand Prix.  Come on!! 

    How many people ride the VTA lines that traverse Santa Clara Street between First and Stockton on Saturday and Sunday via VTA bus?  Can there be more than one hundred all day?  Hell, they could give each rider an Outreach vehicle for the day and save money over bus operation with union drivers.

    The same cost/benefit analysis applies to the hugely expensive and ugly retrofit for the downtown transit mall stations for the “handicapped”.  For a tenth of the price of the retrofit, we could have had an Outreach vehicle on call for every handicapped person in the county 24/7 in perpetuity. How many people have actually even seen a handicapped person use the light rail system?  The cost of that retrofit per rider is enormous.  Once again, it would be far cheaper to sign them up for Outreach…and they’d get to their destination faster, too.  A federally mandated waste of money.  So, what else is new?

  17. Yo Dave, you posted July 18.  Nothing since There are at least 15 comments.  Wanna respond, or was it post-it-and-forget-it?  Fifteen concerned citizens not worth the time to respond?  Check the other blogs—a lot of discontent here.  How will you fix the problems?  Why should we vote for you?

  18. I’m saying that there are significant numbers of tree huggers in our midst that would vote this way.

    I would love to see exit polling data the next time some transit bill comes up.  Here are my exit polling transit questions.

    1.  Will you ever ride the transit thingy you just voted for?

    2.  What’s the primary reason you just voted for the transit thingy?

    I would bet the answer to #1 would be ‘no’ or ‘seldom’.  In case anyone hasn’t figured this out already – Californians love their cars and transit is for the other guy.  smile

    I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the majority of voters responded to #2 with “because it’s good for the environment” ahead of “to cut my commute”.

    Lastly, we should require VTA to put LEDs on the outside of all lightrail cars that indicate:
    – the number of passengers on board
    – and the taxpayer cost incurred to support those riders. 

    Even the most clueless among us would then begin to see what a collosal waste lightrail is.

  19. First let me apologize to anyone who was expecting a blog response from me sooner than this. Several people have contacted me directly since I last blogged on July 18 and those persons I have responded to 1:1.

    However, although I have checked in and read all of the blogging on this item, I made the mistake of assuming that any questions posted here were rhetorical—without expectation of an open response.

    That said, I can now see that I am expected to respond here and I will do so later today (as my schedule frees up) in full. Some great questions have been posted and posed and I am eager to respond.  Thanks for your patience.

  20. Dave Cortese’s responses to questions:

    After a technical glitch Friday where my entire (unsaved) response was lost via cyberspace I am taking another crack at answering questions posed by bloggers. The responses are numbered based on the blog/ questions:

    1.Bus service to the airport has not been expanded in recent years as part of VTA’s budget cutbacks. VTA lost 25% of its annual operating revenue due to the drop in sales tax revenue during the recession. It would certainly be a good idea to focus on the airport when service is expanded.

    3. One of the things I would do to ensure that public hearings are not a sham would be to discourage the use of council memos that are used to build consensus prior to these meetings. Often in the past memos have circulated on controversial items at city hall the week before a public meeting with 5 signatures already on them. Those memos RECOMMEND full council support and are circulated to the entire council ahead of time. I have argued against this practice as a councilmember in public meetings and in the Mercury News, to no avail. As Mayor I might have my way.  The city attorney has warned us not to send group emails around to one another asking for consensus on an item, yet he says these old fashioned hard copy “RECOMMENDATION” memos are OK. Go figure…

    4. See # 3 above.

    5. I think it would have made a difference if the general public had spoken out and asked the remaining issues to be addressed in North San Jose prior to council action. Maybe people don’t trust politicians that are affected by big crowds, but as one of my colleagues once said to me, “500 votes are hard to ignore”. And he did say ‘votes” not voters. Moreover, with the public there bringing into play impact on downtown, traffic and schools, the debate would have been framed more properly setting a record for accountability—even if only in future planning exercises and elections.

    7 (2). Daydreaming is certainly unacceptable. But you should know that when people speak under “public forum” and bring up new business elected officials cannot respond due to the Brown Act. The rationale is that those items brought up were not agendized, therefore there was no public notice that they would be deliberated on or discussed. As such, it often appears that the council is rudely ignoring an excellent point. Not so. When I chair meetings I regularly point this out to the audience and I would do so as Mayor.

    8. I see your point about these three big stakeholders perhaps having a chilling effect on debate, but assuming that the Chamber, Labor and SVLG all endorsed the North San Jose proposal should that really preclude members of the general public or other stakeholders from showing up and speaking their mind? Should we councilmembers who represent the entire community simply turn our proxy over to these three groups and dispense with the public hearing? What resources are really necessary to turn out? A car or a bus ticket and time? Even emails and letters can be effective. I assume time is a huge factor for most people as it seems everyone is busy in the Valley. But we need to have public input. While economic development, a good cause, was supported by this action, school impact, traffic impact and the impact on downtown development were not adequately addressed. We need both—economic development and a sustainable future. We should never shortchange one for the other.

    16. As you say, the improvements at VTA are Federally mandated for the disabled community. Ironically, VTA was successfully sued recently for a large sum over its duty to provide ADA assistance over and above ADA minimums—at the same time VTA has been trying to tightening up standards for Outreach service because it had been providing the service to just about anyone who asked, causing the program to skyrocket to $38 million per year. It has now been revamped but has gone through huge customer service issues that have caused people to lose their jobs. I assume your other statistical questions about ridership are somewhat rhetorical but if you would like available data please email me at [email protected] and we will get from VTA whatever they have.

  21. Dave:

    Thanks for resurfacing.

    My comments to your responses:

    #1 See my response #11 and check out novice #18.  Light rail is a big enough money drain when you consider it has the lowest % of revenue from the fare box of any light rail system in the USA, and probably the entire world.  But to the airport?  It’s empty except when conventions are here.  If people don’t take it to work with a lunch bag or a briefcase, who on earth would take it to the airport with their wives, kids, and bags?  And how would they get to light rail—by taxi, by car?  Can’t leave your car @ light rail parking for very long.  For heaven’s sake, drop the concept.

    #3 Nice, but not enough.  Every savvy person knows that by the time the day for public comment comes up, the decision has been made.  Public comment on vote day is a total sham.  It’s worse than oral argument in the court of appeal—the decision has ALREADY BEEN MADE.  If you really want to convince the public that anyone on the council, or the mayor, give a damn about what they think, public comment on every measure should be two weeks before the final vote on the item.  The agenda should so note, clearly.

    #5 See #4

    #7 Beacham has some good points

    #8 Money talks

    #16 Once again money talks—Fed money.  We kowtow to them for their money—10% of which we contributed anyway.  Like Montana did with 55mph—they just stopped taking fed funds and kept the limit at 65.  We need to be able to opt out of some programs because they don’t make sense.  Mass transit in a horizontally developed area makes zero sense. 

    To retrofit at a huge cost for a small base of people we could serve people better another way is foolhardy.

    California is suing the feds over warnings on tuna cans.  So, we can sue them on their mandated mass transit garbage.  It may be good for the right coast, but not for this part of the world.

    Thanks for getting back.  Maybe Chuck will, too.  Maybe Cindy will even deign to post.

  22. Hi Dave,
    Has there been any independent (ie. non-VTA sponsored) cost analysis done re lightrail and bus service?

    My question concerns the financial impact of taking lightrail out of service and replacing it with bus service. 

    Would the city benefit financially or would it cost the city more to decommission lightrail and just run buses?

    Can you say who are the major beneficiaries of perpetuating such an inefficient and costly lightrail system?

    Given that our lightrail is the most heavily subsidized lightrail system in the US, I know the SJ taxpayers aren’t benefitting.  smile


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