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[whitespace] Tale of Two Cities

So what if the best public space in San Jose will be privately owned?

By Dan Pulcrano

BACK WHEN the project now known as Santana Row was first proposed, a protectionist contingent of downtown property and business owners tried to block the mixed-use project, saying it would kill downtown, much like Macy's and Valley Fair did in the late 1950s.

It won't. Back then San Jose had less people than Fremont has today. Our city's bigger than Boston now. And anyway, shoppers with a taste for Gucci or Cartier eyeglass frames have been buying them at Stanford or Union Square, not on South First Street, so San Jose might as well capture the sales-tax revenue.

That thinking, fortunately, carried the day over socialist-style lowest-common-denominator economic development, which sought to enhance downtown by zoning out competition. Instead, downtown will be forced to rise to the occasion, and a more vital city center will emerge.

First, downtown will have to get its act together. And it can learn some valuable lessons from Santana Row. For years, the Redevelopment Agency has edited out the most daring architecture in favor of boxy, glassy buildings or formal neoclassical structures in shades of tan. Apartment complexes with monolithic designs were plunked onto entire city blocks. Santana Row, conversely, articulates rooflines and façades, and introduces color and detail and whimsy to create a changing visual landscape that captures pedestrian interest.

Santana's customer-friendly approach to parking also contrasts with the city's sausage of initiatives crafted by bean counters and traffic engineers. In the mid-1980s, entire blocks of decades-old San Jose businesses were obliterated when city planners wiped out on-street parking on First and Second streets to accommodate a light rail and bus mall. Curbs on other streets were striped in red to appease developers who wanted to capture revenue in their parking structures. Long yellow loading and white passenger zones were left in place even when the business uses changed. Then the city raised the prices on the few metered spots that remained, gobbled up surface lots for development and failed to build new general-use public parking facilities. Santana Row allows urban style on-street parking so you can pull up to a curb and run in and grab a baguette. What a concept! No meters either.

Had the city compensated for the inconvenience to auto travelers by making the downtown a little friendlier to bicycles and pedestrians, it might have been a worthwhile trade. But there are few bike racks and even fewer bicycle lanes. Buildings like the United Artists theater assaulted pedestrian aesthetics with visuals worthy of a prison yard. Across the street, the sidewalk in front of the Montgomery Hotel has been closed for two years without regard to the effect on SoFA businesses dependent on the foot traffic.

By contrast, Santana Row embodies the pedestrian culture of Barcelona's Ramblas (minus the whores and Gypsy sword swallowers) by introducing a wide walkway down the middle of a street that they have filled with copper-roofed kiosks, espresso stands and flower carts. Arbors and oversized chessboards fill the empty spaces.

Instead of the formal streetscapes and politically correct committee-approved public art embarrassments that San Jose installs, the Federal Realty folks hired some imaginative artists and let them have fun. So there are large tiled geckos crawling into fountains clad in broken tiles reminiscent of Antonio Gaudi's Parque Guell. Curved fountains with colorful tiles and patterns. Sidewalks with changing textures to create variety and interest.

Most importantly, the folks from Federal Realty erected apartments above its stores (and unlike many downtown complexes, stores below its apartments), avoiding the planning debacle that occurred when the Pavilion retail mall opened before the city got serious about building downtown housing. Nor did Santana Row have to suffer from short-sighted thinking, like landlords who converted ground-floor retail to office space, apartment owners who closed pedestrian walkways or a police department that sent everyone home at 2am.

Free of compromises and competing interests, Federal Realty synchronized its efforts and engaged in balanced planning to craft one of the most ambitious projects of its type ever built. It didn't stop there, though, and the result is a testament to the power of human imagination and, really, nothing short of a work of art.

Sure, it's all illusion and fantasy. This isn't really Catalonia or Provence or the Old South. But like a good movie, the experience is consuming, and it's easy to forget where you are. Only the old-growth California oaks and a smattering of local stores provide reminders.

When I stopped by on Monday night, the excitement was palpable as I navigated around tarps with piles of sand and gravel, imported stone monuments wrapped in sheets of plastic and cherry pickers with flashing amber lights.

French creperies, Cape Cod chowder houses and other themed restaurants lined the boulevard. At one end, a retailer neatly arranged his stock of colorful Japanese notebooks and paper. Softening its industrial image, the Diesel clothing outlet was appointed with salvaged chipped doors with ornate Victorian knobs, camelback sofas and claw-foot tables.

The owner of Cocola bakery spotted my guide and offered us a chocolate croissant. A nascent pedestrian culture, the seeds of a community, appears so be taking root. Behind the high walls that shut out the valley, this manufactured city somehow seems to be taking on a life. Will Frankenstein have a soul?

For downtown, which does have real history and soul, Santana Row has added new urgency and set higher standards for what it can become. A big city has to think like one. It's time to become smart and sophisticated and let the human spirit run free.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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