Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wednesday Wishlist: Learn From San Diego

Today's Wednesday Wishlist is actually from Mark at the Think Bigger San Jose Blog. I was just going to link to it, but I really think everyone here should read this. I've been to San Diego many times over the past couple years and agree entirely with Mark. Please also subscribe to his blog over here, and look out for Mark's first published article in the latest issue of Content Magazine!


San Jose’s downtown should follow in San Diego’s footsteps: Urban, dense, and a variety of architecture

After taking a trip earlier this month to San Diego, and seeing a downtown that is vibrant and active, I returned to San Jose with a renewed vision for potential of this city. Though on the outset SD and SJ do not appear to have any useful correlations, one obvious connection on the outset, is that both cities’ downtowns that are near large airports. Though SJ’s downtown is directly in the flight path, SD has also had to deal with height restrictions on many of its buildings. Be that as it may, SD has been able to build most of its highrises around 30 floors, which is taller than anything in SJ, but not too far off from The 88, which stands at 22 floors. Yet despite most of the buildings in SD being under 30 floors, why is there diverse look, not looking flat like SJ’s skyline? The main reason that downtown SD works even at a restricted height is that it is more dense, more urban, and has more variety of shapes and looks than SJ.

Downtown San Diego

According, SJ is listed at 70th in the country for amount of buildings 9 floors or higher, making it the most populous city in the nation with least amount of tall buildings. The next closest city with a million or more people is Phoenix, and it sits at 44th with 91 buildings. SJ is listed with cities like Pompano Beach population 90,000 and Madison, population 220,000. SJ is 7th in the state between the cities of Pasadena and Irvine, both with populations under 200,000. SD on the other hand has 145 buildings, of which only 16 are above 30 floors and only 5 are above 40 floors. But a large catalyst to this growth was the construction of Petco Park, a downtown baseball stadium.

San Diego's diversity of building heights and styles
Since 2005, a year after Petco Park opened, 37 buildings 12 floors or higher were built and 2 more are currently under construction. In that same time frame in SJ, 10 buildings were constructed 9 floors or higher, including the recently finished Casino M8trix and the First Community property on N. 4th.
Part of the slow growth problem is a result of two things. One is that Barry Swenson Builders hold a majority of land slotted for development. Though BSB has done many projects in the past in SJ and knows how to navigate the system of permitting and building in SJ, BSB holds a monopoly. If BSB doesn’t have funding, nothing is being built. So if BSB isn’t building, no one is building. Second, the city seems to have a hand in making it difficult for developers to get the projects going and completed in an efficient and timely manner. This creates hesitancy for outside developers to want to come build in SJ. Recycling the BSB monopoly. Just this week Casino M8trix sued the city of SJ for slow processing of security permits which were applied for in March 2011. The process normally takes 180 days, yet a year later they have not been approved by the SJPD. This move could cost the casino and the city millions. If the city can’t figure out its own permitting process and timetable, then how are developers who have investors’ money on the line, going to plan and build their buildings in a cost effective manner? Also, the city’s permits are outrageously expensive which again is prohibitive to building. One merchant at the San Pedro Square Market was quoted at $1500 for three electrical sockets, an overhead light and a sink. The actually cost was over $4500 when the permitting process was said and done. If this is how the city is treating small businesses than how exorbitant are the fees for large scale building projects?
The answer to SJ’s downtown short comings is to follow SD. Everyone in the SJ development community is in favor of getting the A’s a ballpark downtown. But whether or not that effort succeeds, there are two solutions. First is a more devoted urban approach. For decades, downtown has been built and planned by mostly suburban dwellers. Most if not all lived outside downtown. Urban-ism through the view of a suburbanite doesn’t work. The results are what is standing in downtown.

An aerial view of downtown San Jose
But changes have occurred. Over last half decade, more focus and input has been applied to building a downtown that residents can actually live in. The best example is the 88 condo tower. It has a Safeway on the ground floor and it received a perfect walking score for the residents. It’s location is close to everything important: restaurants, bars, museums, theaters, art galleries, SJSU, and businesses. Another success story is the San Pedro Square Market. Though it is still filling the retail spaces, it has already shown that it will become a very important anchor to the San Pedro area and future housing developments planned around it.
A second solution, is more density and variety. Since SJ is limited on heights- though the height ceiling has not totally been explored- density is the other answer. Because the buildings are both short and spread out, the downtown feels empty and spacious, almost un-urban. Most buildings in SD completely fill the parcel right up to the sidewalk, something vary few buildings in SJ do. Also buildings in SD have modern architectural designs, something that can only be said about the Axis, and maybe the 360 Residences in SJ. The urban artistic community is one thing that SJ is doing really well, and maybe these are the people who should be involved in designing new buildings. As was talked about earlier, BSB holds a majority of the properties, and they have a “formula” for cost effective, quickly built designs. Unfortunately, that manifests in a lot of the buildings that look alike. A similarity of buildings in a city can look good, and helps define the city, but uniformity and repetition is not. Pick any modern building in SJ besides the two mentioned earlier (Axis, 360 Residences), and it can be found in any city in California. In fact many of the designs are so similar, one could argue that the same building does exists somewhere else in California.
The potential of downtown SJ is limitless. But in order to have a vibrant urban center, we need to look at other city’s successful developing stories and use experience from real urban planners. Though SD has a much larger population, SJ is gearing up for 1.25M people by 2040, so looking at how SD constructed the downtown could be a key to turning SJ’s downtown around. It will only be through passionate urban residents demanding a better downtown that change will occur. The focus must be on more density, more architectural variety, and better urban planning.


  1. BSB builds, in my opinion, the ugliest, cheapest looking and uninviting buildings.Prison/Stalinist aesthetic anyone? While this means a nice profit for the developer, for downton SJ it means "Big, Ugly Skyline".

    As a downtown dweller, I cringe at the thought of BSB determining the future of SJ aesthetics. I wish city council would intervene.

    1. I'm relatively new to San Jose and live downtown. I think this city has the lamest city council - and mayor - ever. Where are they, except on the news arguing about pensions or pot dispensaries? What is their vision for the city? The mayor doesn't even live downtown. There's a huge vote of confidence. Where are the neighbors who actively weigh in on what new buildings look like, etc. The general level of apathy is shocking. And yeah, those BSB buildings wouldn't pass in a real, functioning city.

  2. Nice post Josh and hats off to Mark for the thinking.

    One area that I will give San Diego major props over San Jose is that they have studied relocating their downtown airport; to MCAS Miramar or a joint airport with Tijuana BC. long-term city planning, San Jose needs to do the same; either Moffett Field, joint operation at SFO or remote location in South County. Flew to Vegas over the weekend and didn't realize only 22 gates at SJC are in use. You mean SJC's current capacity can't be incorporated at SFO, complete with a modernized Caltrain link from SJ/SV? But I digress: speaking of Vegas...

    San Jose can also learn from Las Vegas: fake can be cool (Retro Mediterranean architecture of The Strip) and multiple shopping districts. I hate hearing people say that because of Valley Fair and Santana Row, downtown San Jose will never have high-end retail or true department stores. I say BS! it would definitely take vision, but why not think big San Jose and put a Dillard's, Barney's of NY or flagship Fry's Electronics in downtown SJ. Going back to San Diego, they have many of suburban malls and retail corridors but still have successful retail in their downtown; See Horton Plaza.

    Perhaps, as Mark alluded to, our San Pedro Square Market, future ballpark and Diridon Transit Center will be the catalysts that downtown San Jose has been waiting for...

  3. Great post! "density, more architectural variety" +1!

    Honestly, I cannot believe there isn't a crane on the skyline right now. Most major cities in the US are really taking advantage of the strong rental market, while downtown SJ lays dorment. Don't we have one of the strongest markets in US? Maybe that's why? We aren't building? I realize there are units being constructed in North SJ, but we need to focus on the core and look to cities like SD (as stated), DC, and Portland. None of these cities have 'tall' buildings but they do a great job of creating a sense of place and focus for their region - attractive, walkable, and lively downtowns.

  4. Mayor Reed is the worst mayor ever! Nothing is built downtown except for River Park 2 in his first year.

  5. seriously. would it be such a crazy idea for him to live in the 88 or frequent downtown restaurants on the weekend? he's invisible and the rest of them are just so damn passive about everything.

  6. @all,
    No offense to Mayor Reed, but I think we need to be patient and wait for Sam Liccardo to become mayor. When Sam's mayor downtown should get the Tom McEnery all over treatment again ;).

  7. Lots of good comments here. I agree that BSB's building don't do anything for the aesthetics of SJ. It is disgusting the city charges so much for permits. The city is only hampering the private investing we so desperately need.

  8. If San Jose had to look at Downtown San Diego's example of a vibrant downtown, San Jose has reached an all time low! San Diego is not a good role model since its downtown is dead during the day, even during work week. The Gaslamp, and, in some cases, along the waterfront are active with people. The rest of downtown is quiet and kind of rundown with all those dark condos/apts. I think Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Philadelphia, and to lesser extent, Denver should be role models of vibrant downtown to emulate. Downtown Salt Lake City, with the help of Mormon Church, created the most successful and vibrant downtown overnight with massive shopping mall built downtown and a complete downtown overhaul in the last 4 years. This one(Salt Lake City) is the hardest and most expensive to do because it requires retail trade arm twisting and completely relocating the region's most popular shopping to downtown and build a mall and completely transform downtown by tearing half of it and rebuilding it with offices, condos, hotels, museums and theater. All of it was done by the Mormon Church with its own money.

    1. Totally agree. San Diego has a nice location and great weather, but it's beat. No real urban feel at all. Not as pathetic as downtown SJ, but not too inspiring.

      PS- What's with all the vinyl banners on downtown businesses? Looks like crap. Can't afford a real sign? Then don't open a new business. Even Chachos has one hanging all nasty. Again, no city leadership or five minutes of attention to aesthetics or zoning. Oh, a pawn shop? Sure we'd love to have you downtown. Ridic...