Downtown San Jose: A Success Story of Redevelopment
by Martin Flores, ASLA

History and Background

During the 1950s and 60s, downtown San Jose fell victim to the nationwide trends of urban renewal and suburbanization. 

Flores - Freeway
When freeways were introduced, large city blocks were demolished and turned into expanses of open space, parking lots, and decay. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

Buildings were razed and storefronts boarded. Businesses and residents moved out. The tax base dropped. Little, if any, investment existed in the once vibrant Downtown of the 1930s and 40s.

Flores - Historic Building
Historic building and hotels that were once highlights of the downtown were boarded up or demolished. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

The 1970s technology boom that transformed Santa Clara Valley bypassed downtown San Jose so that essentially all that remained of the Downtown were eight blocks of vacant lots. San Jose needed an identity, an urban design vision and a plan to rejuvenate the city center, with involvement from both the public and private sectors.

In 1980 the Downtown Working Committee, a diverse group of residents, business owners, community leaders and urban design consultants, spearheaded the first Downtown Strategy Plan—a “blueprint” for the new San Jose. 

Flores - Engaging the Public
Engaging the public in the development of public improvements allows public ownership and acceptance. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

It laid the foundation for an urban development renaissance and was the first step in the adoption of following urban design principles. These have guided redevelopment over the past two decades.

  • The spaces between buildings are of primary importance, and act as the “civic glue,” making the Downtown a memorable urban place to live, work, shop and play.
  • An over-arching armature of streets, paseos and plazas is the continuous element that promotes development that serves the needs of the greater Downtown.
  • The connections that these civic spaces provide create a walkable, pedestrian-friendly downtown that incorporates big ideas, bold plans, and stunning places of various scales.
  • Humanizing scale elements in the public realm, high-quality materials, and spaces that are well designed and executed define the identity of downtown San Jose. 
Flores - Open Space Plan
The pedestrian realm is linked with paseos that connect parks and open spaces. Open space plan SMWM. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

This first plan for the Downtown became a cornerstone for all redevelopment activity, as it represented the wide range of stakeholders and had broad political support. Of San Jose’s ten City Council districts, only one district covers the Downtown (the mayor is not associated with any one district). Yet the other nine districts saw the benefits of a strong downtown to their areas, and were able to support the plan, giving it a much-needed political base on top of the widespread citizen support.

Taking the lead in the process of rebuilding the Downtown, the Redevelopment Agency’s landscape architects and urban designers defined the urban core, which then became the focus of all redevelopment activities. With the support of the political structure in San Jose, the Redevelopment Agency was able to act somewhat autonomously, and established a vision that reflected the performance-based physical realities of the Downtown rather than developing a physical plan based on traditional political or planning processes. The Agency’s landscape architects recognized public space as the foundation of a great public city, so they became the shepherds in developing processes to enforce integrated streets, buildings, street trees and open spaces as the thread that stitches the city together.

Flores - Spaces Between Buildings
Spaces between buildings were designed to engage from all vantage points. Design by Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP/Tom Aidala. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

Flores - Gateway signage
The Gateway signage of an historic area reflects the human, historic and building scale of its surroundings. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

Although the story of downtown San Jose in the mid-late 20th century is no different than that of many other cities in the United States, the circumstances of its redevelopment have unique aspects that have led to the revitalized Downtown that exists today:

  • Throughout the decades of redevelopment, the political and administrative forces in San Jose agreed on a common vision, eliminating delays that could have been caused by inter-agency conflict and allowing the Redevelopment Agency to act somewhat autonomously in making the vision into a reality.
  • The Redevelopment Agency was able to work with a capital-projects budget of over $2 billion during the past couple of decades.
  • A strong downtown for San Jose had regional implications—in the context of the booming Silicon Valley, a vibrant urban center in San Jose would be the heart of this sprawling region with multiple smaller centers in outlying towns.
  • As computers took precedence in the daily lives of Silicon Valley residents, they had a decentralizing effect on community life. People’s natural reaction was to look for ways in which to reconnect with their communities.

In addition to those distinguishing factors, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency was able to take a leadership role in providing a vision and using the funds available to create high-quality projects that became a catalyst for more redevelopment.

Urban Design Principles

The design principles outlined above have the common goal of creating places that are attractive to people, that draw them in. They all carry a common theme—that the creation of a high-quality physical environment around development sites will entice developers, who will in turn create high-quality buildings that will act as a stimulus for further successful redevelopment.

Flores - Urban Park
Urban parks provide the open spaces are critical to the success of a city. Under sized thematic parks do not provide festival space or stress relief for city dweller and visitors. Landscape architecture design by Hargreaves Associates. Image courtesy Martin Flores.  

Flores - Transit Mall
The transit mall and pedestrians coexist seamlessly within the downtown. Large tree provide the envelope for the pedestrian to move in a shaded environment and minimize the scale of adjacent buildings. Pedestrian lighting provides a sense of arrival and security for transit riders. Design by ROMA Design Group. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Flores - Transit Mall - B
The transit mall and pedestrians coexist seamlessly within the downtown. Large tree provide the envelope for the pedestrian to move in a shaded environment and minimize the scale of adjacent buildings. Pedestrian lighting provides a sense of arrival and security for transit riders. Design by ROMA Design Group. Image courtesy Martin Flores.   

Flores - Transit Mall - C
The transit mall and pedestrians coexist seamlessly within the downtown. Large tree provide the envelope for the pedestrian to move in a shaded environment and minimize the scale of adjacent buildings. Pedestrian lighting provides a sense of arrival and security for transit riders. Design by ROMA Design Group. Image courtesy Martin Flores.   

The ideas below formed the basis for every design decision made for the redeveloped Downtown.

Spaces Between Buildings

Outdoor space gives people a sense of where they are in a way that indoor space can’t. In the case of San Jose’s redevelopment, it creates a new environment for urban living. The spaces between buildings are rooms, and acted as the framework for the redevelopment. By creating a well thought-out pedestrian streetscape system linking the buildings to the public spaces, the Redevelopment Agency has allowed them to become a part of the daily circulation of employees and residents downtown. In addition, in a mediterranean climate such as San Jose’s, the tree canopy not only greens those outdoor spaces, but it also plays a critical role in sheltering people as they walk between the indoor and outdoor spaces.

 Framework of Streets, Paseos and Plazas 

Each of these elements plays a different role in the spaces between buildings. Streets are the primary movement arteries, taking people to their destination most directly. Paseos offer opportunities to take shortcuts, but also are a smaller-scale, pedestrian-only, quieter alternative to streets. Businesses that line the paseos can be destinations in themselves or provide convenient goods and services for people passing by. Plazas are places to rest, watch entertainment, follow the life of the city, and meet people—places where residents can reconnect with the community.

A Walkable, Pedestrian-Friendly Downtown

With the network of outdoor spaces, San Jose has become a downtown where the car can stay parked and people can enjoy a variety of daily activities on foot. From the workplace or residence to shopping, recreation and entertainment, the Downtown has been designed to accommodate humans as pedestrians.

Quasi-public buildings such as the Tech Museum of Innovation, the Children’s Discovery Museum, the Repertory Theater, and the San Jose Museum of Art were strategically located to be destinations easily reached within the pedestrian network. The numbers of visitors they receive annually attests to their easy access by multiple modes of transportation, not just automobiles. 

Flores - Oionos
Pieces of public art in major view and pedestrian corridors are used to guide, inform and direct. "Oionos." Designed by Doug Hollis. Image courtesy Martin Flores.  

Flores - Agriculture
"Agriculture." Designed by Andrew Leicester. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Flores - Overcoming Adversity
“Overcoming Adversity.” Designed by Andrew Leicester. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Urban parks are also a primary feature of this fabric, and the number that exist in and just around the Downtown is impressive. Cesar Chavez Park, the Guadalupe River Park, McEnery Park, and Arena Green are the major outdoor spaces, with numerous smaller parks and plazas providing places of respite as people walk around downtown.

Humanizing Scale Elements, High-Quality Materials, and Good Design

In establishing the design principles for the Downtown’s redevelopment, the idea of human-scale elements became critical and is now one of the features that distinguish San Jose’s downtown from others. Strategies such as matching building and paving scorelines, having a consistency of materials between the street plane and the building up to a certain height, and using fine-grained materials all help make the tall buildings downtown feel more human. In addition, the scale of street furniture, lighting, street trees and signage responds to the sizes of the spaces they inhabit and the way people will feel around them. The rhythm of the ground plane is set to be recognizable by a pedestrian.

Consistent, high-quality materials, from granite paving to majestic palms to the street furniture, water features, signage and lighting, were used throughout the Downtown to give it a unique identity. Colors were chosen from within a defined palette for their soothing qualities and the fact that they don’t reflect much light. Drainage structures, often an eyesore, were hidden from view, and smaller systems were used for sheet-draining sidewalks so that large catch basins were not visual intrusions in the urban design.

In essence, no decision was haphazard and the overall quality is ordered and harmonious. The strict set of standards used in the design were the result of the great number of master plans and studies that were developed over the years, each of which spelled out in greater detail how the community’s goals could be met in the redevelopment. These City-Council approved master plans and studies became binding documents that allowed the Redevelopment Agency to perform its work without having to get additional approvals or go through lengthy redesign processes.

Role of the Landscape Architect

The redevelopment of downtown San Jose has been the result of work by many people over many years, and landscape architects have played a key role from the beginning. The stakeholders in downtown San Jose’s renaissance included residents, business owners, and community leaders—a group with potentially many varied agendas. The Redevelopment Agency’s landscape architects acted as guides and implementers throughout the process, functioning as a central repository for ideas and realization efforts, and facilitating as an overseeing body.

Flores - Pedestrian Arcade
Pedestrian arcades are provided to shelter from harsh weather and to give a sense of direction, scale, and texture within the public realm. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

Flores - Bollard
Rough horizontal stone paving and vertical bollards were used to create a textural delineation between pedestrian and vehicular movements. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Flores - Signage Designed and Places with Care
Signage was designed and placed with care and to express an appreciation of the message that it interprets. Design by Office of Michael Manwaring. Image courtesy Martin Flores.

Flores - Granit Curbing
Granite curbing, paving and tree pan lid were carefully selected to create a public realm that is durable and expresses a sense of uniqueness, simplicity and quality. Design by ROMA Design Group. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Their many hats included being urban design testers, gathering all the ideas and finding ways to sort them and implement those that were possible. When ideas didn’t work, landscape architects were in a position to explore alternatives that could work and still meet the standards of the design principles. They also often played the role of consensus-builders. Working with politicians, architects, engineers, developers and the public, they were able to guide the master planning, design and construction of all the projects, as well as overseeing approval processes.

Flores - Designing and Planning of Lighting
Design and planning of lighting was thought to be critical to the economic stability of the city as well as to the safety of the inhabitants. Lighting levels and locations needed to respond to pedestrian movement and destinations, and the plan for them was developed accordingly. Lighting consultant: Auerbach+Glasow. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Understanding how infrastructure needs can fit with urban design ideas was another important hat that landscape architects wore in this process. The blending of the layers from the trees and standing structures to the ground plane to the utilities underground required a profession with a vision of how trees could be planted and lights installed without negatively impacting the underground infrastructure. 

As with so many projects, landscape architects were the big-picture visionaries and implementers, taking advantage of their training and teamwork skills to bring a complicated and lengthy process to fruition. 

Flores - Creative Way to Guide
Creative ways to guide or direct people —instead of vertical signs on poles. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Flores - Grey Concrete
Grey colored sand blasted concrete — simple but elegant. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Flores - Custom iron Planter
Custom iron planter pot reflects pattern, quality and texture of surrounding public space. Image courtesy Martin Flores. 

Martin Flores, ASLA, is the Director of Urban Design and Planning for Rick Engineering Company in San Diego, California. He was with the San Jose Redevelopment Agency for 15 years as a senior urban designer and landscape architect. He can be reached at: mflores@rickengineering.com.

 
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Stan Clauson, ASLA, Chair
(970) 925-2323
stan@scaplanning.com