The timing couldn’t be more pivotal for San Jose, the Bay Area’s largest city by square miles but one with a smaller downtown than either San Francisco or Oakland. Long seen as a sleepy suburb more than an urban center, San Jose has begun attracting developers eager to fill its vacant lots.
“What makes this critically vital, not only to (the city’s) future but also to the Valley’s future, is that the Valley has long lacked a vibrant urban center for its growth,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “We have the opportunity now with significant transit infrastructure on its way to retrofit a city built for cars to a city built for people.”
The 6-mile extension linking San Jose to the East Bay and San Francisco is expected to carry 52,000 passengers every weekday by 2035, in addition to the 25,700 expected to pass through Diridon Station alone on high-speed rail, Altamont Corridor Express, VTA light rail, Amtrak and Caltrain. Earlier this month, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) approved a single-bore tunnel through San Jose, which will result in less disruption to surrounding businesses and better coordination with developers. BART’s governing board is expected to approve the plan on April 26.
The VTA is wasting no time. The transit agency is kicking off a 15-month planning study to look at how to develop the land around its stations, along with two ventilation structures in downtown San Jose, with a series of three community meetings scheduled at the end of the month.
But with building already moving forward at a feverish pace, some community organizers and public officials are worried that the vision for walkable neighborhoods may already be slipping away at the Alum Rock and Santa Clara stations, where developers’ proposals look more like their sprawling South Bay surroundings than the dense clusters of homes, businesses and gathering spaces envisioned through years of planning.
What is more certain, however, is that the two areas where BART stations are planned in downtown San Jose are already inundated with plans for significant new construction. Cranes dot the city’s downtown skyline with more than a dozen towers planned or under construction. And, Google’s property-buying spree near Diridon Station has locals counting on the ultimate jewel of the extension — an internationally recognizable train station to serve as the gateway to Silicon Valley.
But, it won’t be easy, Liccardo said: “We’ve got people and institutions clinging to surface level parking like Charlton Heston clinging to his gun.”
Diridon Station offers the biggest opportunity for redevelopment. The modest train depot serving Amtrak, Altamont Corridor Express and Caltrain, along with VTA buses, is surrounded by a sea of parking. The approximately 240 acres around the station is slated to be transformed into a mix of offices, restaurants and retail, plus public plazas with the station — a bold, architecturally significant building — as its focal point, said Ellen Lou, director of urban design and planning for the architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, which has helped city leaders think about eventual design selection for the station.
“The existing building can still stay, but we need another one that really marks this as a gateway,” Lou said. “This is our chance to fill the gap between the station and the downtown by having a vibrant mixed-use area that serves everybody.”
From there, tourists, employees and residents will be able to connect to downtown San Jose on light rail, bikes or BART, or walk through Google’s planned campus before passing through a reinvigorated Guadalupe River Park, said Teresa Alvarado, the San Jose director for urban planning think-tank, SPUR. The nonprofit recently invited local leaders to begin rethinking the meandering waterway as San Jose’s version of the New York City High Line, a skinny, elevated park on top of abandoned train tracks.
“The train station is the catalyst for growth,” Alvarado said. “It becomes the reason businesses and residents want to be downtown. They want that mobility, and it’s an economic driver.”
And, it appears anticipation of more seamless public transit is already driving development downtown, said Timothy Rood, a principal designer for the city of San Jose.
“I don’t think the city has seen anything like this momentum,” he said.
Downtown San Jose has 8.6 million square feet of offices with another 3.9 million under construction or review. There are 2,133 high-rise residential units under construction and another 5,378 approved or under review, adding to the city’s existing, roughly 10,000 downtown residents, Rood said. Within a few blocks downtown, there are at least 13 new buildings under construction, approved or pending.
It’s a long way from the exodus of businesses and residents during the 1950s and ’60s, said Scott Knies, the executive director of the Downtown Business Association, when the city’s center became a “proverbial hole in the doughnut, with downtown as the hole and all the areas around it being the focus.”
Redevelopment in the 1980s and 90s helped preserve downtown as the South Bay’s cultural, entertainment and dining center, he said. Now, it’s time to bring back employees and residents.
“This is really the great second act for San Jose,” Knies said.
Beyond downtown, the stations at Alum Rock and in Santa Clara are also poised for redevelopment, but already, some of the proposals for new buildings haven’t achieved the density necessary to support transit or the mix of uses some community organizers and public officials were hoping to see.
CommUniverCity, a neighborhood group that coalesced around early discussions of development at the proposed station, opposed a project near the Five Wounds Portuguese National Parish, just a few blocks from the proposed Alum Rock BART station — not because they didn’t want it in their neighborhood, or that it was too dense, but over concerns about the design, said Terry Christensen, the organization’s former executive director.
“One of the challenges is what pencils out for developers,” Christensen said. “There will always be projects coming forward, and you hope they will be consistent with the plan, but if they’re not, do you cave and say something is better than nothing? Or, do you hold out?”
That’s a question Santa Clara councilwoman Teresa O’Neill has, as well. A member of VTA’s governing board, O’Neill said Santa Clara went through a similarly extensive planning process. But, she’s worried developers are still proposing projects that don’t fit the plan, with buildings that only reach four stories in height, for example, rather than the eight or 10 that are possible there.
“My only issue is we have these developments proceeding, and I haven’t seen evidence it’s been done comprehensively as that plan envisioned,” she said. “Here in Santa Clara, we must prize ourselves and value ourselves, because we are a prize.”
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