Sidewalk Activity Provides a Jolt of Urbanism to San Jose

For years, authorities ranging from the Knight Foundation to Richard Florida have urged city halls across the country to wake up and smell the coffee: bolstering a growing economy requires much more than a series of tax and employment policies.

I often hear that our residents tell us that they seek walkable, safe, and vibrant neighborhoods. They know that enhancing the level of visible pedestrian activity in our “main streets,” neighborhood business districts and Downtown boosts the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods.

Increasingly, though, we’re learning about how another important group of people who value those spaces: the entrepreneurs, innovators, and high-skilled workers we need to keep our Valley economy growing. That is, creating a strong economy requires creating a “sense of place,” that difficult-to-quantify assemblage of urban elements—retail shops, flower-adorned paseos, street performers, murals or charming cafés—that make pedestrians want to linger, rather than merely to pass through.

Curb Cafés

Last month, many of you saw news accounts of our most recent effort to enliven our public spaces, in the form of a pilot project to launch “Curb Cafés” in San Jose.  By extending the sidewalks into the streets, adjacent businesses—restaurants, cafes, bike shops or bookstores—can create dynamic spaces that both draw customers out into sunshine, and enliven the streetscape for passers-by. Public Works official Harry Freitas has worked with several small business owners to establish guidelines for helping neighborhood businesses pay to expand sidewalk frontage and then use the new outdoor space to expand their businesses and enliven the street scene. We’ll focus on five neighborhood businesses during the pilot project, but if the program works as we think it will, we will expand it thereafter.

With this kind of urban innovation, everybody wins. The business owners get an expanded space that attracts customers. Taxpayers get an amenity paid for entirely by the local businesses, while the city gets new tax revenue from expanded sales. And city residents and visitors get a more vibrant—and safer—street scene.

More “Eyes on the Street” = a Safer San Jose

Why “safer”? From the sidewalk café of Paris to the funky “parklets” of San Francisco, data shows that allowing businesses to “program” some street space improves safety of those streets. We know this from our own experience.  We feel more comfortable walking on streets with many other people outside. Getting people out on the sidewalk launches a virtuous cycle, creating a safer, more attractive pedestrian environment that will draw others out as well.

A Broader Approach

This effort comprises just part of a broader, multi-partner effort to “retrofit” San Jose from a suburban sprawl to enhance our nascent urban villages. Our partners at 1st Act have led the way, with the steady reinvention of South First Street with new murals, public art, planters and sidewalk extensions and a plaza space at the Parque de los Pobladores.  The region’s leading voice of urbanism, SPUR, recently opened a San Jose office, and they’re renewing a push for better architecture and urban design. An effort managed by the San Jose Downtown Association has boosted the Downtown streetscape with more murals, flower planters and art boxes.

City Hall is doing its part as well. We’ve loosened restrictions on street vendors, eased regulations on retail signage for neighborhood businesses and liberalized zoning constraints on new tenants in storefront spaces. With the help of our Department of Transportation, we’re removing lanes to calm traffic where neighborhoods appear overrun by high-speed, three-lane thoroughfares, such as 3rd and 4th Streets, making for a safer and more pedestrian-friendly environment.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see eye-catching LED-illuminated designs filling daunting passageways, such as where Arena-and-Diridon-bound pedestrians pass beneath the barren 87 overpass.

A café is just a café. But as we can see from the impacts of Roy’s Station, Philz or Caffe Frascati, a café can provide the jolt that a street or neighborhood needs to spark its revival.

Sam Liccardo represents District 3 on the San Jose City Counci. Businesses wishing to learn more about the idea or how to create a Curb Café for their business can email .


  1. More eyes on the street = safer streets….you are delusional; “Oh my god, a homless person asked me for spare change, call 911”; San Jose is not and will never be San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego or any other city you feel San Jose should emulate; How’s the crime in your district? That’s right, its not as bad as Chicago or Detroit!!!

  2. Sam,

    I read your article with amusement… a “nascent urban village,” “reinvention of SOFA,” “loosened restrictions on street vendors.”

    By street vendors, I can only imagine that you include the pimps and prostitutes; after all they are selling a service.  It’s a thriving industry on South 1st and it does indeed “provide the jolt that a street or neighborhood needs!”

  3. Sam,

    I thought PO and Big ole double dipping PC was a joke.  But I so impressed with you.  Did you post your own picture?  Love it. Who in their right minds want to come downtown, especially when it gets dark.  You (Chucks clowns) have destroyed downtown.  I won’t even bring my family to come for a Sharks game, tired of being harassed by scalpers. Santana Row is the next place not to go too.

    Love all the prostitutes, nice touch, keep up the great work.  We might catch Oakland soon.  No where in San Jose is safe after dark.

  4. There really are two alternative realities in San Jose now.

    The first reality exists on the top floor of city hall.  Just this week we heard from Councilmember Oliverio writing about his loopy idea to itemize the Measure D expenses.  Next we have Councilmember Liccardo congratulating himself on his mini-achievement of building mini-cafes. With a small nod to the concerns of residents, Mr. Liccardo actually claims his mini-cafes will make the streets much safer.

    The other reality exists in the neighborhoods where residents know they are on their own if their house is burglarized while they are out at work.  They worry about the rising crime rate across the city and the lack of leadership in city hall to find a solution to the city’s public safety crisis.

    It is time for our city council to come down from their perch on top of city hall and start addressing the concerns of San Jose’s residents.

  5. Personally, I find myself in total agreement with the councilman. Why, just yesterday I enjoyed a remarkable sidewalk dining experience at the homeless encampment at Spring and Hedding. Talk about a “jolt of urbanism!” With commercial aircraft seemingly within reach above, littered, broken sidewalks at my feet, and deranged, filthy urban sophisticates all around, I experienced that unmistakeable “sense of place” that told me, “This is Chuck Reed’s San Jose!”

    Talk about “eyes on the street” safety, why during my entire visit to this nascent urban village, not one of the dozen or so shopping carts assembled there was touched by anyone other than the urbanite “owner” (who’d originally stolen it from a local business). Oh, there was lots of arguing to be heard—including a few profanity-laden threats, but that, along with the odors of human waste baking in the sunlight, only made me feel like I was really sitting outside a trendy cafe in downtown San Jose.

    Nothing enhances a warm panini lunch plate like the cigarette smoke and tubercular hacking of a half-drunk homeless beggar leaning over the table. Wow! So this is life in a sanctuary city! A city that never hesitates to use its powers to extract ever more money from those who commute to work, pay their taxes, or operate businesses, while at the same time it facilitates the ability of parasites and foreign intruders to spread their filth and incivility wherever it suits them.

    No question about it, this is what things look like after city hall has “done its part.”

    • Finfan,

      You’ve performed a bit of magic in writing a factual assessment of Downtown San Joser!  Without lying through their dentures, few could disagree with you.

      Liccardo, Reed, et al, seem to have no issue with their “Emperor’s Clothes” approach, when describing the gnarly and unseemly side of Downtown. 

      And, while Santana Row, is overdone falseness in terms of kinship with a real downtown street scene, it’s a clean and vibrant place and I’ll spend my time and money there, avoiding the parasites and intruders, who sustain the filth and grubby conditions in Downtown, a place once grand but nevermore to be.

  6. More “Eyes on the Street” = A Safer San Jose ?? Are you high Sam??  You know what makes a safer City ………………..PUBLIC SAFETY Does !!!! You can spin your B.S. any way you like , but people are starting to realize that you , this Mayor & the rest of your Clown posse are nothing more than self serving Politicians . There is no reason for anyone to ever come to san jose. there is no attractions , food is ok at best , down town is ajoke , nothing but a plethora of low income housing , no parking , nd lets not forget the decimated public safety . people who live here dont feel safe . get over yourself

  7. No thanks Sammy, I’d rather go to Los Gatos, Palo Alto, Campbell, San Francisco, even Santana Row to sit outside at a sidewalk cafe.

    By the way, now that CalPERS has come back and given you a price tag on your by out for your pension, I guess it just easier to keep it and hope everybody forgets the you lied about getting rid of you pension.

    Must be nice to have vested rights for your pension and future police officer will not.

    You better hope measure B does not pass.

  8. Finally, something is done right! You go, Sam!  Now, we be better with the two highrises set for downtown.  What an improvement!  Hopefully, downtown can rise out of the ashes of suburban sprawl nightmare very soon.

  9. Whenever the “Illuminati”  get behind a program you (1) Beware and (2) Hang on to your wallet!!!

    Sometime ago on this site a poster (David Wall perhaps) warned everyone ans suggested people start educating themselves on an outfit called “San Jose SPUR” and the topic it promoted which is “Urbanism” or “New Urbansism.”

    It didn’t take long for posters on this particular article to deduce that Liccardo’s “More Eyes on the Street = A Safer San Jose”  is just a load of hooey. 

    Given the current tact of Mayor Reed and his core block of Votes on the City Council (which includes Liccardo) to utterly decimate the traditional “front line in the war on crime” THE POLICE DEPARTMENT… there is little doubt that the planning/building concepts of URBANISM are in play. 

    The tenets of Urbanism is exactly what Liccardo and Co are proposing – this idea that “everything out in the open”  naturally reduces “anonymity” ; that limiting vehicle traffic and encouraging well defined and bounded areas for people to associate that are best accessed on foot and public transportation rather than by automobiles is part of the kook factor.  Urbanists love to say that high visibility (see and be seen)  should naturally promote more civil and socially acceptable behavior amongst us all – everything is brought out into the sunshine – and imply that crooks can run but they cant hide.

    Big porches Big windows big sidewalk cafes…. for those who haven’t figured it out yet, Urbanists believe that surveillance cameras are a cost effective replacement for expensive police forces.

    Urbanists desire to create “territory” (TURF) outsiders are welcome to come and spend but don’t misbehave or you’ll be reported to the “authorities.”

    Here is a report on how expensive the cost of policing crime in “Urban-ized” areas is vs areas that are designed with more traditional “security” measures:

    Urbansim very expensive – how many “lattes” does a cafe have to sell to pay for it?  Again we have a scenario where Liccardo (one of the “usual suspects”) is lobbying for planning that will no doubt funnel more taxpayer money to developers!!! Doubt it? Check out the “Director” of San Jose SPUR – her last name (not a very common one )  is connected to …..a big time developer!

  10. Ask Zanottos Grocery about their attempt at an ” outside cafe” at their original location on S. 2nd Street. You remember? The 6-10 homeless parolees who would regularly take over the outdoor seating after making a meager purchase inside. That sure didn’t take long to close that place. Don’t be naive to think those kind of problems didn’t contribute to the deterioration of the business and its customer base.

    And that was just a few years ago before “pension reform” cough cough.
    Good luck Sam. Those of us in the know recognize you’re merely shilling for SPUR and the Toeniskoetter Development group. Keep it up pal. The Seeno brothers could use some company.

    P.S. Nice picture of the empty sidewalk cafe. You could of at least got skinny Pete Constant to sit down for an outdoor meal and photo. Or is he determined to spend all his council card money at his buddies Pasta Market restaurant on Coleman?
    No need for any more Urbanism over there. Camp Chuck Sam is right across the street.

  11. Sidewalk cafes have worked in Livermore, Mountain View, & SF; there is no reason they can’t work in downtown San Jose.  The weather is even better here vs. SF (stating the obvious). 

    Add some large retail stores and there is certainly the potential for a more vibrant, flourishing downtown area.

  12. I think this sort of thing can work in certain instances.  The thing that San Jose tends to do is to take something that is intended to be “lightweight” and turn it something bloated.  Traffic circles for traffic calming comes to mind.  Why put in a 4-way stop in a residential area when you can spend money tearing up the street and planting stuff in the middle of an intersection?

    If it’s just making it easy for businesses to block off parking spaces for tables, or putting tables in front of an establishment without blocking the sidewalk then what’s the downside?  If it is additional opportunities for bloat and bureaucracy, then the naysayers are going to be right.

    If any of you know anything about Murphy Street in Sunnyvale, you know that after all the money they spent for redevelopment (building and then “re”building the shopping center), the block of Murphy Street they left alone is the area that gets all the business now.

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