Lost in Space

Do They Know the Way in San Jose?

by Mike Clark-Madison

Most of us can pin- point an Austin spot -- a vista point, a stretch of roadway -- that was empty when we first saw it and now harbors scads of people, jobs, and mini-marts. Envision said spot, double its density, double its expanse, and you know what much of San Jose, California looks like.

As in Austin, San Jose sprawl has scarred the consciousness with both its size and its speed, and on either score, they have us beat. In 1900, the two cities were roughly the same size (just over 20,000 people); by 1950, Austin was 40% more populous than San Jose, which still had less than 100,000 residents. Between then and now, Austin's population has grown by 252% to an estimated 482,000, but San Jose's has mushroomed by 721%, to over 800,000 people.

This obscene growth rate has stressed San Jose in ways that should be instructive to Austinites. The air is dirty, the traffic is appalling, crime is a major concern, the public sector is nearly bankrupt and in many ways ineffective, and home prices are ridiculous (although on each score, San Jose is better off than most California cities). Though there's beauty and charm, the local economy is fairly robust, and the notorious scourges of California life -- fire, flood, earthquake, civic unrest -- have spared the Santa Clara Valley, San Jose exemplifies why many Californians are moving to Austin to escape.

San Jose also has special problems -- it's really a city within a city within a city. It's the largest city in the Bay Area, but has no real economic base or franchise, having to rely on San Francisco for capital and the East Bay for heavy industry and distribution. San Jose claims to be the capital of Silicon Valley, but the high-tech titans and their start-up spawn are almost exclusively based in the adjoining towns. Only in recent years -- with the annexation of Alviso, along the bayfront, and the miles of flatlands in between -- has San Jose acquired significant acreage built out to light industry. The city has far more people than it has jobs for them -- about 78 jobs per hundred residents, compared to the bustling neighboring communities of Santa Clara, Palo Alto, and Sunnyvale, all of which have around twice as many jobs as residents. "This in turn," reads the city's general plan, called Focus on the Future: San Jose 2020, "makes it difficult to provide adequate urban services for its residents, since residential use by itself does not generate sufficient revenues to cover service needs."

Hence San Jose is the bedroom community for its suburbs, both a larger Austin and a much larger Round Rock. This has cost the city dearly, and therein lies our tale. San Jose uses a different paradigm for growth management than do either Portland or Austin. Growth limits used to be largely enviro initiatives to protect the edge -- in Portland's case a productive farm and forest belt, in our case wilderness, watershed, and habitat. San Jose's urban service area boundary (USAB) instead protects the core by directing outside resources back into the central city, where they're needed to revitalize downtown, protect neighborhoods, and create more jobs.

Portland also sees the connection between growth limits and urban revitalization, and we're starting to comprehend it as well, but only after cathartic public initiatives to protect the land and its resources. Since the dawn of the last boom, Austin's "growth management strategy" has been to promote sprawl through a variety of policy instruments. Rather than being seen as a big financial drain, our march on the Hill Country has been instead defined as sound fiscal policy, serving to bolster the tax base. Only now, in the post-Freeport era, do we wonder whether 30 miles of buildout would be desirable even if it didn't degrade the landscape, whether the Save Our Springs (SOS) ordinance is better understood as a growth referendum than as an environmental initiative. San Jose sees the eco-dimension of its growth limits, having established a perimeter open-space reserve called the Greenline. But the Greenline, as described in their "2020" plan, is also "intended to develop clearer identity for San Jose by defining where the city begins and ends... The Greenline symbolizes the fact that planning for San Jose's urbanization has reached a logical practical limit... Community recognition that San Jose will not continue expanding outward indefinitely will encourage the reallocation of financial resources and political energy toward improving the quality of life."

Some of the toys in the San Jose toolbox have been around for a while, the most famous being a decade-long downtown renewal campaign spearheaded by San Jose's longtime (now former) mayor Tom McEnery -- who is not shy about taking the credit. The city and private partners have spent well over $1 billion on things like a sports arena (home to hockey's San Jose Sharks, McEnery's current employers); a mile-long light-rail transit mall; a new convention center (named after McEnery) which also houses the new city library; a civic center housing the city art museum, performing-arts center, and Museum of Technology; and various historical restorations and park projects. In the New Downtown, there is retail, mostly boutique-level rather than big malls anchored by big stores, since there are eight existing malls within 10 miles. There are hotels, including the enormous Fairmont, whose erection was the starting gun for the downtown-revival race. There are two emerging entertainment districts -- San Pedro Square (which isn't really a square) on the north side of downtown, and South First Street ("SoFa") at the other end, both combining some restored structures with larger and, frankly, kinda tacky new construction. (San Pedro Square has a public parking garage that's bigger than all its restaurants combined.) And there are offices, mostly mid-rises grouped in pretentious clusters with names like "World Financial Center."

Where Austin has flirted with downtown developers, San Jose has jumped straight into the sack, offering tax incentives, subsidies, and joint-venture deals to developers to build, and then offering more incentives to companies to relocate. The latest target of such magnanimity was software giant Adobe Systems, approached to move their HQ from Mountain View to a newly built office tower owned by the city and originally intended to house IBM, who bailed from San Jose just as the building was completed. This kind of thing won't be happening in Austin any time soon, but the idea gets the local business and political elite excited -- similar schemes having been advanced for both the Centermark Properties/Trinity Square mall project and the reincarnated Municipal Office Complex. And Lord knows there's no shortage of civic temple-building projects waiting on the shelves at our Municipal Annex.

In relative terms, the San Jose downtown strategy has worked, since it used to be that the central city was ennobled by the description "derelict" and one could not find a Class-A hotel room in the San Jose city limits. In absolute terms, though, it's an open question. Downtown San Jose feels no more active, prosperous, or "central" than does downtown Austin, and arguably less so. The TA light-rail network (TA being the shorthand for Transportation Agency of Santa Clara County) has a fairly high ridership, but much of it is coming from out in Santa Clara or up along the Alviso flats -- the trains are already full when they get to downtown, and don't take on many people at the transit mall. Except for Plaza Park and some streetscaping around it, the central city is no more amenable to walking than is downtown Dallas; parking is scarce and expensive within the center, ample but still expensive around the fringes, and there is no central-city circulator system like Austin's 'Dillo (the best idea Cap Met has ever had, even if they seem incapable of managing it effectively).

Our "24-hour downtown" entertainment options leave San Jose eating our dust, and even our hotel capacity downtown, sketchy though it is, seems greater than San Jose's. (They have more expensive downtown hotels.) Having given up on a downtown mall, San Jose is left with retail similar to what Austin has in its downtown frame, along with stores that verily signify downtown decay -- a dusty Woolworth's, religious curio shops, wig stores and medical-equipment rentals, and places to cash checks and buy alcohol. In sum, except for San Jose's admittedly fine museum complex, there ain't much in their downtown that we can't approximate in ours at a tiny fraction of the price.

Lest one think that San Jose's strategy is to drop trou for commercial interests and vigorously shake the public money tree, parts of the 2020 vision do involve a more hard-assed approach. Urban design guidelines, especially on residential development, are fairly strict, some responding to the omnipresent danger of fire, earthquake, and mudslide, others promoting neighborhood conservation, pedestrian access, noise abatement, green space, and other quality-of-life boosters. (The city's parkland ordinances, which require either greenspace dedication or a steep impact fee for every new residential unit, are often cited as models by planners elsewhere.) And the USAB itself is an unambiguous restriction -- it denotes the limit within which roads, sewerage, and the like are "generally available." Development outside this zone, while not impossible, is tightly circumscribed, seldom approved, and prohibitively expensive, since builders in most cases pay the total cost of all needed services. The city also requires, in almost all cases, that unincorporated areas be annexed before being developed.

But San Jose's planning strategies tend more toward honey than vinegar. The verbs of choice in San Jose 2020 are not "require" or "prohibit," but "encourage," "promote," "foster," "stimulate," and "commit" -- i.e., incentives rather than restrictions. Since you can't really decree that employers must create jobs in your jurisdiction, this makes some sense. But it also reflects the locus of power in a city that, compared to others on the West Coast, is fairly well-controlled by a business and professional elite without a strong counterbalance of populist initiative. Citizens in San Jose are nowhere near as voluble, as demanding of, and as committed to an inclusive growth-and-development process; nor are they as insistent that quality of life belongs to them by right rather than by purchase, as do their brethren in San Francisco, the North or East Bay, Seattle, or Portland. This doesn't mean they're totally apathetic; it means they're like us. We have not yet made the transition from wanting things done right to wanting to do them ourselves, and have not yet fully worked out how to combine progressive planning with Texas' individualist tradition. Our current trajectory seems designed to combine San Jose's means with Portland's ends, using goals and incentives to encourage a rigorous and far-reaching vision of urban livability and a compact city. We may be better off to consider doing the opposite -- adopting more relaxed objectives akin to San Jose's, designed to avert urban catastrophe rather than to create Utopia, but making them happen by making it impossible to do otherwise. As one Portland planner puts it, "We've tried incentives and the community hasn't responded. Nature does not evolve toward goals; nature evolves away from constraints. You have to make the worst things the hardest to do." n

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