What Google’s San Jose project means for downtown

For years, much of the area around Diridon Station has been a
neglected jumble of grimy auto body shops, vacant lots overgrown
with weeds and shabby warehouses.


Google —
whose plans face a critical City Council vote Tuesday — is
expected to transform some 50 acres into a mix of offices, shops
and restaurants connected by pathways that wind through parks and
plazas filled with public art. Steps away, Diridon is set to
undergo its own renovation and become the only place in the Bay
Area where BART, Caltrain, Amtrak and high-speed rail converge.

It’s a tall order. But if the tech giant succeeds, the project
could transform a downtown that has struggled to rebound from
sprawling development in the 1950s and 1960s, when city manager
Dutch Hamann rapidly annexed land at the city’s fringes while
neglecting its urban core. When it’s complete, the area could
support more than 25,000 workers, a
65 percent increase
in the number employed in the core of the
city today.

For longtime restaurateur and downtown business owner Steve
Borkenhagen, Google’s foray into San Jose might finally spark the
kind of urban rejuvenation he’s dreamed of for decades. For Kathy
Sutherland, a nearly 40-year resident of the Delmas Park
neighborhood in the shadow of the proposed development, the project
brings both the long-sought possibility of a vibrant neighborhood
and the fear of displacement. And for the urban studies theorist
Richard Florida, the project is less personal but no less important
— a chance for a major American city to finally get redevelopment
right, to provide an antidote to the debacle of the Amazon HQ2
rollout.

It will be years before any such dreams or fears are fully
realized, but the sale of more than $100 million dollars of city
land — expected to be finalized at the Tuesday council meeting
— sets the stage for planning and development to begin in earnest
after months of closed-door talks and speculation about the biggest
thing to happen in San Jose in generations.

Steve
Borkenhagen, at his office downtown. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News
Group) 

When Borkenhagen opened his restaurant Eulipia in the 1970s on
S. 1st Street, “there were about seven people downtown,” the
66-year-old said.

San Jose as a whole has long had far more residents than jobs
— an imbalance that has snarled freeways, left the city the most
cash-strapped in the South Bay and generated scant revenue for
things such as repaving roads and bridges. But relatively few
people have made their homes in the urban core.

As a San Jose State student interested in art and film,
Borkenhagen had to slog up to Oakland or San Francisco for a
culture fix. Borkenhagen hopes that Google will inject a dose of
not only residents but young professionals with money to spend on
restaurants and nightlife and culture so that more theaters and
galleries can flourish.

“I’ve been sort of waiting for this my whole life,” he
said. “We’ve simply never had anything like this.”

Even as it tried to pour life into downtown in the 1980s and
’90s, the city botched planning on many of its plazas and parks
— in some cases creating largely unused wastelands rather than
pedestrian-friendly gathering places, said Borkenhagen, who gave up
his car several years ago for walking, FordGo Bikes and the
occasional Uber. Now he is leading a campaign to erect a modern
replacement to the
light tower
that graced the intersection of Market and Santa
Clara streets at the turn of the 20th century near the site of the
Google development.

“It’s going to be a bustling downtown,” Borkenhagen said.
“If you’re an urban planner, you’ve got to be licking your
chops.”

The neighborhood several blocks southeast of Diridon Station was
“rough” when she bought her home in 1980, Sutherland said.

Kathy
Sutherland at her home near the proposed Google development. (Randy
Vazquez/Bay Area News Group) 

The weekend her family moved in, a prostitute was shot down the
street. A nearby bar sold stolen liquor to a homeless clientele.
Noxious fumes from car repair shops wafted through open windows on
warm nights. But the house was affordable and Sutherland, now 60,
liked the architecture. Her kids could walk to the now-shuttered
Lou’s Donut Shop without crossing the street, and the backyard
was so large that her daughter later married there in front of 130
guests.

Sutherland wants to see Google move in nearby and hopes that,
this time, promises won’t go unfulfilled.

“We know that our neighborhood needs to change,” she said.
“We have been waiting for development and we have so many
developments that have gone through the approval process, but
nobody’s put a shovel in the ground.”

That’s what makes Google’s determination to create a master
plan for the area so enticing to city leaders: the risk of stalling
is much more limited than if a variety of smaller companies bought
up the neighborhood and built piecemeal.

“We’ve lived through bad planning,” said Sutherland, a
one-time council hopeful and an active member of her neighborhood
association who sat on the Station Area
Advisory Group
 that met monthly for most of 2018 to discuss
the future of the neighborhood. “It’s time for our neighborhood
to get to the next phase.”

But Sutherland wants local residents to have a say in how that
next phase looks. A homeowner whose children also are fortunate
enough to own homes in the area, she stands to build significantly
more equity with Google — and thousands of well-paid employees
— nearby. But she is concerned about how nearby renters will fare
and the possibility some families will be forced out.

“I don’t think anybody is going to be able to ignore
that,” she said. “It’s going to have to be addressed.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo and several of his council colleagues have
pushed for 25 percent of the housing developed in the area to be
affordable. But nothing is set yet, and Sutherland also has
concerns about parking — only residents of the area are supposed
to park on the streets — and the prospect of raised building
height limits in the area obscuring views.

“If we weren’t involved,” she said, “we’d get run
over.”

Rarely do cities have as much relatively empty urban space as
San Jose has smack in the middle of downtown.

Urban
studies theorist Richard Florida. (Courtesy of Roshan Nebhrajani) 

Florida, the author of a widely discussed book on downtown
renewal and urban creativity, thinks San Jose has a golden
opportunity to show not only the region but the nation, how “tech
companies and inclusive development can go together.”

New York and Virginia are set to give Amazon millions of dollars
in subsidies, tax rebates and fee waivers in exchange for the
company’s HQ2 — an approach that Florida said shows government
catering to the interests of a company rather than advocating
what’s best for the community. San Jose hasn’t promised such
incentives and is actively pushing Google to help offset the rise
in housing costs its arrival could bring.

“I think this could be a real test case,” Florida said,
praising Liccardo’s political leadership and Google for showing
“some good will” by coordinating with the city and listening to
community input.

Companies such as Google that depend on brand name can enhance
their brand by developing inclusive, inviting areas, Florida
said.

But “you can’t figure this out all in advance,” he
cautioned. “Maybe this is an ongoing experiment and there’s a
give and a take.”

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Google can draw in more tech companies, Florida said, but planners
could also deliberately create space for civic groups, too. For
decades, he added, down-and-out cities allowed their anchor
institutions — big hospitals and universities and companies —
to do what they wanted without demanding much in return. Now that
many cities are revitalizing, leaders have the ability to put some
pressure on the Googles of the world.

“San Jose,” Florida said, “has the opportunity to be one
of the first cities to get it right.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
What Google’s San Jose project means for downtown