We Must Do More to Save Our Commercial Districts

The Town of Los Gatos quickly and proactively created additional outdoor, pedestrian-safe space for socially-distanced dining and shopping.

Our family has started venturing out of the house this summer for weekend hikes and takeout from local restaurants (masks on and sanitizer in hand, of course). On these weekend forays, I’ve been impressed by the transformation that has taken place in downtown Los Gatos, just a 15-minute drive from our home. It should serve as inspiration for other cities, like our own, that have not moved as aggressively to support key commercial districts.

Two months ago — and just one week after the County relaxed its shelter-in-place order — Los Gatos deployed concrete barriers (known as K-Rail) along both sides of Santa Cruz Avenue and other retail-heavy side streets in the downtown area. Following the lead of a couple of business owners, the City painted all of the barriers a uniform and unobtrusive light brown to give the barriers a cohesive look:

In response, restaurants and other local businesses (even including some apparel and homeware stores) have spilled out into the new space with varying amounts of infrastructure, ranging from sophisticated concrete platforms, shade structures and planter boxes to just a few tables and chairs. Some businesses have spray-painted their logos on the K-Rail in front of their shops.

Businesses were allowed to opt out of the program and keep their on-street parking, but the vast majority chose to participate, creating large continuous spaces for pedestrians and shoppers to maintain social distance while eating, shopping and socializing outdoors.

Businesses in Los Gatos have begun expanding into the expanded outdoor commercial space with varying amounts of infrastructure, from sophisticated platforms and shade structures to just a few relocated tables and chairs.

Los Gatos is not alone in moving quickly and decisively to establish new outdoor space and commercial patterns in support of local businesses and residents who want to safely spend time out in public.

Mountain View, for example, has transformed four blocks of its main commercial corridor along Castro Street by closing them to vehicular traffic and encouraging businesses to expand outward. Take a look at the before and after images of the Castro Summer StrEATs program:

Before photo courtesy of Gehl, an architecture and planning firm that worked with Mountain View to execute the open streets pilot project.

And with Castro Summer StrEATs in full swing:

Recent image of Castro Summer StrEATs program. Credit: Gehl

As in Los Gatos, the City of Mountain View proactively invested in the physical streetscape, adapting it to promote safe outdoor commercial activity. It rerouted buses and temporarily established alternative stops just off of Castro Street, established barricades to demarcate space and protect pedestrians, set up hand-washing stations, opened up additional public parking in city-owned lots, and painted streets with visual cues to encourage social distancing.

What I most appreciate about the Mountain View example is the city’s willingness to embrace uncertainty and take measured risks. As the city’s planning partner, Gehl, highlighted in their summary of the project, the city adopted an “Act Now and Adapt Over Time” mindset (or “iterative approach” for those who have spent time in software development). They could not possibly anticipate every problem that would arise in implementing the program, which was all the more reason to launch a reasonable pilot program quickly and then address problems as they arose in real time.

To be sure, San Jose has also put forth plans to support local businesses and create more outdoor commercial activity, but we’ve been slow to translate that vision into the same level of impact. In May, the City was a leader in announcing the “San Jose Al Fresco” Initiative, which encourages outdoor dining. The program allows local businesses to expand into their private parking lots and public sidewalks by simplifying the permit process and eliminating associated fees. To date, as reported at the last City Council meeting, 60 businesses in San Jose have applied for Al Fresco use permits.

While the concept is great, the current level of uptake suggests that this classically laissez faire strategy (i.e. streamline permits, reduce fees and hope that businesses figure it out) isn’t sufficient in the uniquely challenging moment we face. Under normal circumstances, businesses would have the resources to take advantage of relaxed regulations. But in the unprecedented crisis in which we find ourselves, we likely need to go farther by making investments in proactive programs that encourage economic activity for small businesses.

Fortunately, we’re starting to do this. Last week, San Jose cordoned off its first block of retail-adjacent street (N. San Pedro St. between Santa Clara and W. St. John Street) and this week starting adding barriers on S. First Street in the SoFA District. These are exciting developments and the San Jose Downtown Association in particular deserves credit for partnering closely with the city to make these pilots possible (see SJDA’s list of downtown establishments that are operating with takeout and outdoor dining options).

Last week, San Jose implemented its first street closure on N. San Pedro Street between Santa Clara and St. John.

Still, these investments are smaller and have taken significantly longer to materialize than those taking place in Los Gatos and Mountain View (both cities that are a fraction our size and, frankly, generally face less fiscal risk than San Jose). I think there are at least a few lessons we can take from neighboring cities as we look to save our commercial districts:

  1. Urgency: While this seems obvious, we have to act as though every day counts for the survival of our local businesses (because it does). I recently heard from an expert on downtown business that we may lose up to 50% of our restaurants in San Jose due to COVID-19. The faster we deploy new strategies and see how they work, the more likely we are to hit on solutions that save businesses, keep residents employed and preserve our quality of life.
  2. Iteration: Relatedly, leaders I spoke with in Los Gatos and Mountain View mentioned constant small adaptations to their programs after deploying them. Whether it was improving drainage or increasing accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists, these cities didn’t try to have an answer to every obstacle before getting started. Moreover, by starting early and partnering with their local chambers of commerce and small business owners, their programs have evolved organically based on input from the key stakeholders who are witnessing the daily on-the-ground behavior.
  3. Infrastructure: San Jose started with an approach that put much of the onus on small businesses to adapt. In contrast, Los Gatos’ and Mountain View’s programs proactively and physically invested in the commercial space they wanted to help recover. From barriers and signage to hand-washing stations and relocated bus stops, these cities went the extra mile to facilitate new behaviors in these priority areas. These investments don’t have to be expensive, either. In the above examples, key investments mainly consisted of barricades and paint, which our City likely has on hand.
  4. Critical Mass: Los Gatos and Mountain View prioritized areas that already had significant numbers of businesses and foot traffic, and then built on previous success to bring people back out to shop, dine, and so forth. San Jose’s initial forays into blocking off streets and otherwise creating new commercial space has been downtown — no doubt thanks in part to the effective advocacy of the San Jose Downtown Association. But we also have to remember that unlike Los Gatos and Mountain View, most of our shopping and dining happens in commercial zones that serve our neighborhoods (i.e. in distributed retail clusters spread across the city, aligned with the General Plan’s vision for urban villages). Additionally, to achieve critical mass, Los Gatos and Mountain View focused on multiple blocks and, by default, opted all business into the plan, requiring little to nothing from them.

So, what might a more ambitious approach look like in San Jose? Each Council District in San Jose has over 100,000 residents (compared with just 30,000 in Los Gatos and 80,000 in Mountain View). Why not ask each District Office to propose a priority commercial zone for the kinds of pilot projects we’re seeing in neighboring cities? The City would not need a large recovery fund to pursue one pilot per district. The entire program in Los Gatos cost a fraction of the $2 million the city initially set aside to support their small businesses.

In San Jose, such zones would undoubtedly include more traditional “Main Streets,” such as Alum Rock Avenue in District 5, Jackson Street in District 3, and Lincoln Avenue in District 6. But they should also include less traditional yet vibrant commercial areas, such as the Almaden Oaks Plaza and the Sunrise Plaza Shopping Center here in District 10. Purposefully turning our best shopping centers into neighborhood destinations (even more so than they are today) with an outdoor dining scene and areas for walking, socializing and spending time in public might just be San Jose’s innovative contribution to small business economic recovery strategies amidst COVID. We certainly have the weather for it.

At the end of the day, it’s not just individual small businesses that are at risk in this moment. As a city, we risk permanently losing people, investment and long-term growth potential if people feel that other cities can better serve their needs. Historically, we’ve struggled to attract investment in jobs and retail in San Jose, which has meant a less vibrant city and fewer tax dollars for city services. Now, with the accelerated rise of remote work, people have more choices about where to live. They will undoubtedly choose places that provide the highest quality of life, including public space and fun and safe ways to spend time socially. We need to act faster and more decisively to ensure that San Jose is a place that people and employers choose in the years to come.

Sincerely,

Matt

Councilmember-elect, San José District 10; matt@mahanforsanjose.com, 408–891–9708

Matt is Councilmember-elect for San José District 10, which includes Almaden Valley and Blossom Valley. Matt takes office in January 2021 and uses this blog to share what he’s learning about a variety of local issues and his take on those issues. Matt and his wife, Silvia, are proud to be raising their two young children, Nina and Luke, in District 10. You can subscribe to Matt’s updates here: https://forms.gle/ycvcf3fbKSFU2JfA6

Councilmember, San Jose District 10. Formerly Brigade CEO & Co-founder Brigade, SVLG and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Boards, and SJ Clean Energy Commission

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