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June 21, 2006

San Jose Snazz

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

San Jose is like a pin-headed giant.

Even though there are more than 900,000 residents within the city limits, the place has small downtown. There's a reason for this.

The reason is that the city didn't develop "organically."

I first laid eyes on San Jose in 1951 while on my first trip to California. We were probably driving along the Milpitas-Alviso road (state highway 237). In those days it was a country road, the first dry-land opportunity south of San Francisco to duck across to the east side of the bay. (We had breakfasted in Santa Clara and were on our way to Sacramento via Stockton.) To the south of the road were acres and acres of fruit trees. And I could spy way in the distance the tops of a few office buildings. That was downtown San Jose, basically an agriculture business center.

Thirty years later the orchards were gone and San Jose was part of the Silicon Valley sprawl. Offices for high-tech companies were spreading from Sunnyvale and Santa Clara across the south end of the bay below the Milpitas-Alviso road to a point a few miles north of downtown. There were other office pockets, but not a large amount of development downtown.

Today there are more tall buildings downtown, but not nearly as many as one would expect for a city of San Jose's population.

You see, after around 1955-60, San Jose didn't expand from its center. Rather, it was flooded with largely residential growth from the northwest. Its downtown wasn't the economic growth-engine found in more isolated large cities.

Efforts have been going on for some time to establish a viable downtown. As I mentioned, there are some new-ish office buildings (though their height and location are constrained by the fact that downtown is partly in the flight path of the airport). There is a nice Fairmont hotel and a fine, restored movie house that is now home to a lively opera company.

What the city could use is a really snazzy retail development that would bring in lots of people and dollars.

As a matter of fact, San Jose does have such a development. But it's not located downtown.

The glitz capitol of southern Silicon Valley is Santana Row on Stevens Creek Boulevard across from the Valley Fair shopping center and near the interchange of Interstates 280 and 880.

Santana Row is a mixed retail-residential area atop a street grid. It's three or four blocks long (though the blocks are of unequal length) and two or three blocks wide. The main street is lined with four story structures intended to evoke a European city street. The three upper floors house apartments and condos while street level is for shops and restaurants.

Here are some pictures I recently snapped.

Santana Row - 1.jpg

Santana Row - 2.jpg

Shopping is decidedly upscale -- Wikipedia notes that it was intended to be the Rodeo Drive of the north. Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Furla, Tod, Donald J. Pliner, Tumi, Brooks Brothers and Burberry have their own shops. St. John also gave Santana Row a try, but is now missing in action.

Thankfully for cheapo me, most of the restaurants are reasonably priced.

Santana Row got off to a slow start three years or so ago, but now draws good crowds; being across the street from a mall containing 363 stores including Nordstrom and Macy's doesn't hurt.

I go to Santana Row a lot. No, I can't afford the $300+ shoes I seem to see everywhere. I'm there because it's just a few miles from the San Jose airport. I can grab a decent meal before my plane leaves for Seattle and don't have to worry about getting caught in freeway traffic on the way to the airport -- as I used to when having dinner farther afield before I discovered Santana Row.

All-in-all, a nice place to visit. But, New Urbanism aside, I don't think I'd want to live there. It's in San Jose, after all.



posted by Donald at June 21, 2006


Santana Row: a name brand kind of place. The extreme self-consciousness of such places unhinges me. I hope this isn't reverse snobbism on my part. All I know is that I become very tense in such elite consumerist environments. Underneath the gloss there's something feral going on. Russian wolfhounds sniffing around other Russian wolfhounds are just dogs sniffing dogs, after all.

Posted by: ricpic on June 22, 2006 1:51 PM

San Luis Obispo has suffered the same fate. Must be in the water.

Posted by: citrus on June 22, 2006 1:59 PM

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