Lessons From Silicon Valley's 'Downtown'

A new report from SPUR traces the decline of downtown San Jose.

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How best to revitalize downtown urban centers in the wake of the sweeping suburbanization of the past half century? It's a big issue, one we discuss frequently here at Cities. A report released Thursday, Shaping Downtown San Jose: The Quest to Establish an Urban Center for Silicon Valley by SPUR, the Bay Area-based urban-planning research and advocacy organization, provides a detailed and intriguing history of the challenges that continue to face downtown San Jose, the Valley's urban center. (SPUR is also advising on San Jose's redevelopment plan).

The report, written by SPUR regional planning director Egon Terplan with research assistance from Jason Su, notes that the city in the 1970s "was trying to do something exceedingly difficult in the history of American cities: create a major downtown center, with high volumes of pedestrian activity, within a region that was overwhelmingly low-density and car-dependent." The San Jose Redevelopment Agency, armed with $2 billion in public investment, took center stage the following decade, trying a wide variety of strategies to counter the forces of decentralization and suburbanization and revitalize downtown. Here's how Terplan describes the evolution of downtown San Jose:

In the early 1950s, downtown San Jose was the cultural, civic, shopping and economic hub for then-agricultural Santa Clara County...

But as technology firms began to grow around the epicenter of Stanford University, the role of downtown, and the rest of San Jose, would soon be radically transformed. As the new businesses to the north coalesced into what would later be known as Silicon Valley, San Jose grew through aggressive annexation and development, doubling in population in 10 years, then more than doubling again in the next 10. ...

San Jose became the quintessential suburb, providing single-family homes with 300 annual days of sunshine in an environment of relative cultural tolerance and economic prosperity. But by the early 1970s, the problems of unchecked growth and suburbia were already becoming visible, and a counter movement began to try to limit the outward spread of development. Some far-sighted city leaders began to try to refocus growth into downtown, and it became official policy to establish downtown San Jose as a major center for Silicon Valley.

By this point, however, downtown had lost its central position in the South Bay. To refocus city growth and investment in downtown, San Jose had to fight against the trend toward decentralization that afflicted nearly every major city in the United States. It faced competition from shopping malls, office parks and downtowns up the Peninsula and in suburban areas within its own city. It eventually had to contend with a height limit on buildings due to the airport flight path.

While the report is place-specific, other cities and redevelopment agencies can take lessons from San Jose's history.

1. Don't make downtown streets easier for cars. The city converted downtown's two-way streets to one-way in the 1960s, making it easier and faster for vehicles to move through the area. Around that time, the city also constructed several off-ramps to the major Interstate 280, which runs down the San Francisco Peninsula, and the project forced the demolition of downtown homes and businesses.

2. Keep City Hall downtown. City Hall moved two miles north of downtown in the 1950s, and didn't return for nearly 50 years. This is at the very least symbolic. If even the city leaders didn't want to be downtown, why should anyone else be?

3. Suburban shopping malls have a negative impact on downtown retail. The city allowed a giant shopping mall outside of downtown to be built in 1956, and the downtown is only starting to see some new retail now.

4. Embrace a variety of nightlife. The city successfully attracted a handful of museums and theaters, but some of the existing live music and club venues were pushed out to make room for these higher-brow venues. Those existing venues, had they been spared, could have attracted students from San Jose State University to spend time (and money) downtown.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here