First Act: creating an urban center for Silicon Valley

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Ever since the concept of "Silicon Valley" was spawned into public consciousness, visitors to the bay area have persistently, and quite naturally, actually wanted to see the place; ask any tourist what they came away with and it's bound to be a vague impression of centerless sprawl as glimpsed from the grand boulevards, Hghways 101, 280, 880, 85... the view is hardly more inspiring than the the list of numbers. Had Gertrude Stein actually said "there is no there there" about her hometown of Oakland, she might have absolutely marveled at how antithetical to Paris of the 1920's is the world epicenter of the (much more gilded) Technoligical Age.

Downtown San José, that red-headed stepchild of the valley, is fast becoming the sole candidate for a true urban center of the south bay, as nearly all central bay area communities now hold strict zero-growth measures and little available land, save the odd tract made available to lure a pro football or baseball team southward. Combine this with the fact that cities are, ironically, the "greenest" and most efficient western living arrangement and you begin to feel some earth tremors beyond those generated by the Hayward Fault.

The problem, of course, is that the street-level experience of San José is that of a vacant, alienating hardscape. Amazingly, among the top 20 cities in the US only Detroit has a similarly unmotivated center, yet San José finds itself at the peak of a boom: it is the geographic epicenter of the highest per-capita income anywhere. Downtown is the only neighborhood of San José not to get an invite to the prosperity party that is The Valley.

Enter First Act Silicon Valley. Founded by a consortium of arts organizations and backed by Adobe (unique among big tech companies in its rejection of a suburban campus in favor of urban towers which have won green awards), First Act represents the start of a movement to transform downtown San Jose into the true center of Silicon Valley.

But how do you grow a city in a place already dominated by parking lots and massive brutalist buildings with their backs to the street? How do you get all of the mixed use complexity of a city into one that deliberately omitted it without a wholesale, Disneyland-style central planning effort like Santana Row (which anyone would have to admit is a much more hip and sexy place to be currently than downtown)?

"If you build it, they will come." If all you can build at the municipal level is zoning, street layout and pedestrian corridors, then you start with that, and these are among the recommendations of Ken Kay Associates of San Francisco, who devised the strategy being promoted by First Act. On a practical level, the city can implement new urbanist paradigms to re-engineer the public spaces to be as pedestrian friendly as possible (because at the end of the day, a vibrant urban center is fundamentally about more feet on the street).

This, then, can put the people with the real power to shape the city - landlords, merchants, and people who might actually move downtown - into the right frame of mind to start building the place themselves. Add "storefronts" for the biggest valley tech firms which currently have no retail presence (imagine eBay, Adobe and Google equivalents of the Apple Store) and you start to have a place people feel good visiting, whether from up the block or flying in from around the globe.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming decade. Barring a sudden and catastrophic downturn in the American tech industry, growth is certain to continue in the south bay, and downtown San José is essentially the last central place that can handle a large influx of new residents as a counter to that scourge of the bay area, the exurb. Because of zoning, change is to some extent inevitable. The question is, will anyone ever really want to live there?

If you look at how the world's greatest cities have been shaped, the key often turned out to be cheap housing - a period in which artists, writers and other impractical creatives had time to hang out and make the place vibrant. Paris in the 1920's, San Francisco in the '60's and '70's or Berlin today all shared abundant, stylish, cheap housing to attract droves of young scene-makers. This observations jibes with Richard Florida's writings about the creative class and all it can do for a local economy.

The bay area is already a destination for members of the creative class, but those who want an urban lifestyle rarely choose San José. Can you create a vibrant urban center in the city with the world's highest per-capita income? No one has ever tried, but prior to this post-modern, virtual, automobilist era the situation had never even been possible.


The last paragraph seems like it's about to introduce one of the things that S.J. has that doesn't extend to much of the rest of the South Bay: the light rail. Instead, the article ends.

I lived downtown for nine months in 1989 because of the light rail (I worked near Great America). I moved away because I couldn't (then) afford a nicer place to live in the area (plus the constant noise of jets was driving me bats). I was working a decent job at the time and still stuck in a roach motel under the airport approach. I found much more pleasant digs in Los Altos, a short drive from the then-new downtown Mountain View, which is even more happening now.

By the time I was making enough that I could've considered moving back to S.J., I was working in Sunnyvale, and the western line of the light rail hadn't even been built yet; even now, it runs too far north of Central Expressway to be viable transport to much of S'vale's industry. I relocated to a spot in M.V. with a relatively short and easy (non-freeway) commute, outside of the traffic disaster that is 101/237/880.

Posted by: M Cowperthwaite on December 6, 2006 10:06 PM

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