West San Carlos (WSC), with its cool vibe and eclectic mix of businesses, is not only a destination in-and-of itself, but it also plays a pivotal role linking downtown San Jose and Santana Row. This area also happens to fall within both the city and county jurisdictions. This dual jurisdiction has historically thwarted development, and has made consistent code enforcement difficult. But with recent annexations, there now exists the opportunity for positive private economic development to happen on WSC.
Small, family-run business, many of which have been in place for decades, help give the WSC business district its unique character. You may choose to feast at Falafel Drive-In, Time Deli, Gojo Ethiopian, Korean Palace, Pizza Jack’s or Race Street Seafood Kitchen. One can also shop at several interesting stores, including Antiques Colony, Crossroads Trading, Moon Zoom, Just Leather, Winchester Western Wear, Ginseng Shop, Sam’s Downtown Feed, Mel Cottons and a variety of national chain stores.
Some of my earliest memories of WSC date back to high school, when I used to cover shifts at the Burger King on WSC and Race Street in the mid 80s. This particular Burger King location had a colorful cast of characters as its clientele, and bizarre incidents frequently ensued. Occasionally the police were even called. This “edgier” side of WSC still exists, and today one can find an adult bookstore, tattoo parlor, medical cannabis collective, the Pink Poodle, a pool hall and even a bar that just sold a winning million dollar lottery ticket. Although this may not be ideal for some, there is no denying the fact that these businesses contribute to the commercial offerings of the WSC business district.
Economic development via private investment occurs incrementally, and almost always takes place parcel by parcel. Last week I participated in a WSC community meeting that was well attended by residents. The main topic of discussion concerned the fate of a vacant and blighted building on a high profile corner. The request from the BMW motorcycle and Vespa dealership, a prospective occupant of the building, was to allow an incidental vehicle repair use so that they could then improve and subsequently rent space in the vacant building. Coincidentally, 40 years ago this same corner housed a business that sold BMW cars and motorcycles.
Council approved a similar request over a year ago for a Tesla store to locate within Santana Row. Tesla has been a fantastic source of sales tax revenue and the benefit of such tax remittances redounds to the entire community. The expanded store on WSC, which plans to sell a variety of vehicles that cost up to $20,000, would be one of the few dealerships of its kind in the Bay Area, and would thus bring in customers from other cities.
Although this is only one corner parcel, it certainly represents a positive step in the right direction. In order to fill vacant storefronts in a timely fashion, our planning department should expedite the process and “rubber stamp” new tenants the same day they apply for a business permit. If not, WSC and other areas of San Jose may lose out to other cities—even though those same cities have higher rents, they yield they faster turnaround time on such permits.
An incentive program has been proposed recently that would, in effect, give tax dollars to private property owners for the purpose of subsidizing rent for tenants. This seems confusing to me, especially given the fact that many tenants I have spoken with seem more concerned about lengthy time to market factors associated with the permit process. I am not certain our limited revenues should subsidize this when the city controls the permitting process, which has the potential to enable commerce today. Why subsidize a process that we have the ability to change?
The Redevelopment Agency (RDA) spent over $6 million dollars on improving the WSC neighborhoods with new medians, street lights, palm trees, sidewalks, pavers, curbs, gutters and many new retail stores facades. The RDA also devised a 250-plus page master plan for the street in 2003, which ended up costing taxpayers approximately $1,000 a page. After countless public meetings and substantial community input, 100 recommendations were outlined in this exceedingly expensive report. It is significant to note that most of the recommendations in the report failed to materialize, as many of the suggestions it contained required continued government spending and/or control over private property. Such efforts often breed unrealistic expectations, and usually lead to unsatisfactory results. Excessive reliance on government funding and control over private property rarely—if ever—produces a successful outcome.
WSC continues to evolve into an area filled with mixed-use development. Private investment construction is currently underway at the corner of Meridian Avenue. This project will yield a development with market rate housing units situated above street level retail establishments. Meanwhile, year after year, on the other side of the street, an empty lot sits waiting for government funding to build affordable housing. Private investment will change WSC over the next 20 years. However, in the meantime, we should appreciate and celebrate the cool funkiness of WSC now. This funkiness is what makes WSC truly one of a kind.
Pierluigi Oliverio is a councilmember for San Jose’s District 6.