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.
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 .