Figuring Out a Strategy to Retrofit Suburbia in San José

A VTA light-rail line runs along N. 1st Street in San José,

A VTA light-rail line runs along N. 1st Street in San José, Michael Grass / Route Fifty


Connecting state and local government leaders

North San José—and the rest of Silicon Valley—is full of office parks sitting in seas of parking lots, creating a tough environment to improve planning approaches.

This is fourth in a series of stories looking at this year’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership 2017 Fellowship citiesAnchorage, Grand Rapids, San José and Washington, D.C. On May 2, Route Fifty, as part of a five-city Roadshow series of events, will be hosting a special Rose Center Mayors’ Forum from the Urban Land Institute’s Spring Meeting in Seattle. | REGISTER

SAN JOSÉ — Of the four cities that are involved in the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership’s 2017 fellowship program, the capital of Silicon Valley is the most populous of the bunch. So it might not be surprising that the team from San José may be dealing with a more complex set of land-use challenges of the group.

The projects that Anchorage, Grand Rapids and Washington, D.C., are working on with the Rose Center’s experts and advisers have relatively compact geographic footprints. In a recent interview with Route Fifty, the team from San José noted that they’re looking at a variety of smaller projects to better connect a larger—and economically important—area within their city: North San José.

To those not familiar with San José, this area of the city encompasses major suburban-style office parks, many featuring buildings surrounded by parking lots and significant setbacks from roadways, like the Montague Expressway, a surface street with four lanes in each direction built to carry a lot of traffic traveling at higher speeds.

It’s a major jobs center, featuring the headquarters of PayPal and major offices for Samsung North America and Cisco, just to name a few. Apple, headquartered in nearby Cupertino, has some office space in North San José, too.

Along the N. 1st Street corridor in North San José (Photo by Michael Grass / Route Fifty)

While other U.S. localities might not necessarily have the same clusters of tech companies like North San José has, the landscape of suburban office parks nestled between heavily-trafficked multi-lane roadways here may seem very familiar.

Kimberly Vacca, a long-range planner with the city, described it as “typical suburban-style development.” Growth patterns and planning norms from previous generations that created places like North San José and other places in Silicon Valley, created similar landscapes all over the nation, whether they be in Dallas, Orlando, or Oakland County, Michigan, just outside Detroit.

North San José is a “desert,” as one City Council member told Curbed SF in a recent Q&A discussion about the city’s growth challenges. “You have some buildings, some parking, some apartments, but really nowhere workers want to spend time.”

San José is in some ways locked in by decisions made by previous generations of leaders and planners.

Only 15 percent of the city’s land area is designated for employment purposes in the General Plan, meaning that single-family neighborhoods with expensive homes dominate. San José, the nation’s 10th-largest city by population, is somewhat unusual in that it has a larger nighttime population than it does in the daytime, thanks to the decentralized nature of employment across Silicon Valley.  

In many ways, the challenge in North San José is one of creative placemaking and figuring out options for making this suburban landscape more than just a work destination—it’s about drawing those tech workers out of those office buildings to utilize community amenities and shop in local businesses and hopefully, get them to live close enough to where they don’t need to drive.

Under the North San José Development Plan, which was adopted in 2005 to set local goals for jobs—and the revenue the city can count on coming from those jobs—the North San José area can accommodate up to 26.7 million square feet of new space for offices and research and development purposes, 32,000 new residential units, 2.7 million square feet of new retail and 1,000 hotel rooms.

The North San José Development Area (City of San José)

But San José has faced what it describes as implementation challenges related to its long-range planning, including the state of California’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies in 2011, which subsequently shifted the financial responsibility of $519 million of planned infrastructure investments in North San José to the city. All this happened just as San José was trying to recover from the Great Recession.

“What we’ve noticed since 2005, all the housing has been developed,” Vacca told Route Fifty. “We at the city are getting huge pressure from developers and members of the community to open up the amount of housing development.”

But with the amount of designated housing in the area mostly maxed out, the city is somewhat limited in what it can do, though it hopes to create more dense development to accommodate the demand. San José is also currently working on a new retail overlay for the area, which is hoped will encourage new businesses, services and amenities to plant down roots in the area.

A key asset that San José has in this part of town is a transportation backbone with a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority light-rail line running along N. First Street.

That light-rail line was among the first sections of the VTA system built and in some ways, it was “way ahead of its time,” predating much of the office development that took shape, according to John Ristow, San José’s deputy director of planning and project delivery.

But with so much surface parking provided at the office complexes, the light-rail line isn’t used as much as many would hope. Planning attitudes and tactics to create transit-oriented development have evolved since VTA’s first light-rail line opened in the late 1980s.

Still, “we are lucky that it’s there. It needs to be utilized. It’s prime and ready,” Ristow said, noting that more improvements are slated for the transit corridor through North San José.

Ristow noted that VTA is "improving that service with speedier trains and more frequency,” including a connection to the BART regional rail network’s forthcoming Silicon Valley extension that VTA is currently building and expected to open in 2018.

(A future phase will extend BART all the way into downtown San José, giving residents of the South Bay a new way to reach San Francisco and Oakland that doesn’t involve sitting in traffic on Highway 101 or Interstates 280 or 880.)

More transportation planning is underway, including improvements to street and sidewalk infrastructure, and boosting access to bicycle infrastructure plus recreation assets and parks.

Like in the three other 2017 Rose Center cities, much of the work in San José involves envisioning better ways to better connect existing infrastructure, leverage community assets, engage local stakeholders in the process, and think differently about possible ways forward.

Ristow said it’s been an “incredible” experience working with the Rose Center and the experts they’ve brought together to look at San José’s planning challenges. “They really do roll-up their sleeves.”

It’s tricky work, for sure. But if the city implement creative placemaking techniques that work for a decentralized area in North San José, it could serve as a template for other parts of Silicon Valley facing similar planning challenges—and maybe even a suburb near you.

Michael Grasss is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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