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August 23-29, 2006

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Good Karma

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Good Karma beats city dogma: Co-owners Ryan Summers (left) and Johnny Manak at Good Karma, the hip vegan eatery that recently moved to South First Street.

Warning: San Jose May Be Cool

Or at least approaching it. So let's not blow the future of downtown.

By Stett Holbrook

SOMETHING unexpected happened to me the other day over a plate of faux chicken curry at Good Karma restaurant. I got excited about the future of downtown San Jose.

Good Karma is a vegan restaurant that recently moved from East Santa Clara Street to South First Street. It replaces a Hip Pop, a doomed-from-the-start popcorn store. The restaurant offers a changing selection of fake meat and vegetable dishes to a loyal clientele of meat eschewers. The food is quite good and a real bargain. But what struck me more than the food was the vibe of the place.

Good music filled the narrow space as a mix of punks, students and business types filed in and sat down to eat. Some pulled out laptops and jacked into the restaurant's free WiFi access. Portraits made from splintered skateboard decks hung on the walls. Fliers for upcoming art shows and gigs were stacked on the counters. In short: the place was cool. What's a cool place doing in downtown San Jose?

In spite of its status as California's third largest city and a university town, San Jose has long lacked a vibrant urban culture. Adobe workers drinking vente lattes at Starbucks don't count.

Good Karma is exactly the kind of place downtown San Jose needs more of. It's small, locally owned, eclectic and distinct, the kind of place you'd expect to find on Valencia Street in San Francisco's Mission district. Even if you're not a vegan it's easy to appreciate the offbeat authenticity the restaurant brings to an area with too many empty storefronts and bland chain restaurants.

Lars Knudson, Good Karma's manager, said the restaurant relocated because it lost its lease and wanted to tap into downtown's lucrative lunch business. And if the restaurant helps spark a downtown scene along the way, San Jose will be the richer for it. In order for a lively downtown culture to take root, Knudson believes it's got to be started by businesses, artists and others who are willing to challenge the status quo and offer something unique.

"The real people who bring a downtown culture are the risk takers," he says.

Once word gets out that there's something real and interesting going on, it can take on a life of its own, he says.

If that's going to happen anywhere downtown, it's going to be the city's SoFA district.

The brief flowering of SoFA's music and street scene in the early 1990s was as close as we got, but thanks to business mismanagement, increasing rents, street violence and lots of cops, the scene died out. But more than a decade later, things are looking up.

Walking further down South First Street, I stopped into the Anno Domini gallery, another risk taker. The year-old gallery is a prime mover behind San Jose's "First Fridays" open gallery night each month and a showcase for avant-garde artists. As with restaurants, artists and galleries outside the mainstream can be urban pioneers in neighborhoods that later become hip and happening.

Let It Be

While gallery co-owner Brian Eder appreciates the help he's received from the city's redevelopment agency (the agency owns their building and impaneled a committee to review business proposals for the building), he hopes the city takes a laissez faire approach to SoFA. If a legitimate downtown scene is to emerge in San Jose, it will have to happen organically and at the grassroots level, he says. He rejects the notion that the city officials can plan a vibrant downtown culture into life.

"They're all looking down on us like we're this ant farm," he says.

Nurture but don't meddle is his advice to city planners.

"Give people enough space and they can do amazing things," he says.

That makes sense. Funkiness can be encouraged by the city through diverse land use, pedestrian-friendly development and more housing, but ultimately a cool downtown is a wild thing that has grow on its own.

Gallery co-owner Cherri Lakey says the SoFA renaissance is already in motion and just needs a chance to grow.

"We're onto something," she says. "It's working."

The city has a plan for SoFA and, at least on paper, it sounds pretty good. Here's a passage from the 2000 SoFA Strategic Development Plan:

"The primary aim of the SoFA Strategic Development Plan is to realize SoFA as a unique and distinct place within San Jose—a social place and space where a variety of businesses, activities and people congregate in an active and heterogeneous environment. ... [As] a destination—accessible, definable, notable and memorable—SoFA needs to be a destination, known as an area unto itself ... Shops, art galleries, theaters, cafes and restaurants should be a destination for students, conventioneers, artists and art-lovers, early evening diners and late night party seekers. By day and by night, SoFA should be a bustling place where local opera fans, music bands and technophiles will mix with visitors to downtown San Jose."

Sounds great, doesn't it? Unique. Distinct. Heterogeneous. Memorable. Bustling. But so far the city's record has been mixed. Publishing the plan as Silicon Valley was sliding into the dotcom dustbowl wasn't the most fortuitous timing. On the plus side, the gorgeous California Theatre has been renovated. The Quilt and Textile Museum opened. And most important, scores of high- and low-rise housing units have opened or are in the works.

More than 5,000 housing units have recently been built, and another 4,500 are in the planning stage. The absence of downtown retail stores and restaurants has been blamed in part on the area's dearth of residents. But without a sufficient number of downtown residents, retailers are reluctant open new businesses. It's a chicken and egg thing.

John Weiss, deputy executive director for the city's redevelopment agency, says getting more people to live downtown is the most important ingredient of a more vibrant city core and he's pleased with the number of housing projects the city has been able to broker.

"We think that's a major step," he says.

The redevelopment agency is also in negotiations with several galleries interested in opening spaces downtown, he says.

But on the other hand, downtown's restaurant and music scenes are pretty weak. While there are a profusion of clubs and "ultra lounges" downtown, the city's live music venues are few and far between. The Blank Club attracts good, up-and-coming bands and HP Pavilion gets big name acts, but for a diverse and consistent lineup of live music, you've got to head to San Francisco or Santa Cruz. And due to what local music fans say is the city's heavy-handed approach to live music clubs, there are no all-ages venues.

As for restaurants, downtown seems to have developed a love affair with chain restaurants. A few chain restaurants are fine. Landowners love them because they typically sign long-term leases. But collectively they don't contribute to a "notable" or "memorable" experience and it should be no surprise when some bomb.

The most recent flame-out was the late and not so great Zyng Asian Grill. After just 10 months of business, the owner filed for bankruptcy in January. Zyng replaced Casa Castillo, an owner-operated eatery that lasted 18 years at the site until the redevelopment agency evicted the business and paid out a seven-figure settlement to the owners. As yet another bland corporate chain, Zyng offered nothing to the city. What's "unique" and "distinct" about a chain restaurant that serves watered-down Asian fast food?

Downtown San Jose is at a critical juncture. In addition to the signs of life on South First Street, there's a new mayor on the way, an improving local economy and a real live housing boom. Some of these new residents may turn their backs on downtown and scamper to the safety of Santana Row for their shopping and entertainment needs, but others will surely venture into the SoFA district and other downtown neighborhoods in search of restaurants, music, art and shopping that offer a unique taste of San Jose. Here's hoping downtown San Jose will be able to offer them more than sports bars, steakhouses and chain stores.

"People want an authentic experience," says Lakey, co-owner of Anno Domini. "Let's be the alternative."

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