Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Sneak Peek Inside San Jose Little Italy

"It's not about developing, it's about restoring." That's what developer Joshua DeVincenzi Melander says is the true intent of city's new Italian-American community, Little Italy San Jose.

An Italian wine bar will soon be in place at the main piazza.

Anchored in the River Street neighborhood, once a bustling Italian immigrant enclave, this new Little Italy will, in a sense, be an amalgamation of several of San Jose's oldest Italian communities (e.g. Goosetown, Luna Park) which the city either destroyed or neglected over the years. At one time, Italians were the city's largest ethnic group, so this new effort is more about bringing back what the city had (and lost) than creating something from scratch.

An archway on Julian will soon welcome visitors.

Like nearby San Pedro Square Market, Little Italy is ambitious in its scope. And yet, when completed, San Jose's Little Italy will feel very personable. Unlike the expansive Little Italys of New York City or Chicago, San Jose's occupies a relatively small space, primarily between River Street and The Guadalupe River Park. When completed, Little Italy will feel like an intimate Italian community. The intent here is here to create an authentic neighborhood experience with a string Italian-themed businesses, such as restaurants, gelaterias, and wine bars, as well as piazzas, archways, and bocce courts.

Future Italian-themes businesses.

One important milestone for both Little Italy San Jose and The Italian American Heritage Foundation of San Jose comes this weekend with the Italian American Family Festa (Saturday, August 28, 11 AM - 8 PM and Sunday, August 29, 11 AM - 6 PM; admission is free). This year the festival moves to its new home, adjacent to Little Italy, in the Guadalupe River Park. It is also its 30th anniversary, and will include the unveiling of the Piazza Piccola Italia. For the piazza, Little Italy solicited donations from the city's Italian-American community, who, in return, had personalized bricks placed into the design of the courtyard.

The Piazza Piccola Italia will be dedicated this weekend.

Little Italy is definitely a project to keep an eye on. It certainly has its work cut out for it, but the project certainly seems to be in loving hands. Speaking to Joshua DeVincenzi Melander, you quickly get a sense of the cultural pride that runs deeply through the project. They clearly intend to do this thing right. And they're off to a great start.

Buona fortuna.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Major Baseball Vote This Tuesday

The folks at Pro Baseball for San Jose (for whom I blog), are inviting the community to show their support for MLB in San Jose tomorrow night:

Tuesday, June 15th @ 7 PM
San Jose City Council Chambers
200 East Santa Clara Street, San Jose

In anticipation of a stadium initiative on the November ballot, the environmental impact report will finally be voted on by the City Council. Not surprisingly, the Giants-backed anti-stadium group—so ridiculous it need not be mentioned by name—is mulling a lawsuit, so it's important we show a united front in favor of bringing the A's to San Jose.

See you there.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Happy Anniversary, The San Jose Blog

My good friend, Josh, is celebrating the one year anniversary of his site, The San Jose Blog. If you haven't checked it out, it's a must-read.

He's also always been very supportive of this site, so thank you, Josh. And congratulations on all your great work!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tunnel Visions

Californians For High Speed Rail are planning what they call an "Informal SF-SJ Local Advocacy Team Meeting" on May 6th in Palo Alto:

This will be our kick-off meeting of CA4HSR's Local Advocacy Team for the San Francisco<-->San Jose section of the planned high speed rail route. We'll discuss HSR developments in the region and ways we can help bring high speed rail to California. Choo choo, see you there!

Doubtless there will be a vocal contingent of peninsula NIMBYs, so it's important to support events, such as these. To be fair, residents of some of the wealthier communities in the valley and peninsula are fine with HSR in their neighborhoods—they just insist on tunnels and not to have to pay for them. We've seen popular projects tanked by loud interest groups before, and high speed rail is just too important to let that happen again.

Hope to see you there.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

All About Kiosks, Pt II

Last week, I wrote about kiosks as a possible component to downtown San Jose's revitalization. I also wrote that I had a few ideas about where these could go.

So, here are three potential sites:

Fountain Alley

Fountain Alley, between First and Second, is an interesting area. On the plus side, it has historic charm and, due to its proximity between two light rail lines, significant foot traffic. On the down side, it is straddled by a parking lot on one side. In 2006, there were plans to build a 16-story tower in that parking, but those never came to fruition, partially due to neighborhood concerns that it would be incongruent with the area's historical styles.

Regardless of whether that parking lot is developed it or not (and I certainly hope it eventually is), Fountain Alley still serves as an important corridor between First and Second. But as it stands, it's not terribly inviting.

A kiosk or two, maybe on both ends at First and Second, might encourage a more friendly pedestrian environment. A food or coffee kiosk, along with a seating area, could help soften some of the Alley's harder edges. (Curiously, not long ago there was a glass brick kiosk on the Second Street side, but for some reason it was torn down.) With a potential BART stop just around the corner, Fountain Alley could become a significant corridor to and from the station. Why not make it that much nicer of a stroll?

St. James Park

To imagine what St. James Park could be, you must first know what it was...

If you don't recognize St. James Park, it's because what was once a lush urban oasis is now a unpolished jewel in need of some serious attention. To be sure, the residents of The St. James Historical District have done their due diligence in promoting the needs of the park, but as of yet, progress has been slow.

St. James Park is a public space that is missing exactly that, a public. The San Jose Downtown Association's Music in the Other Park series was great, but its no longer being produced. So, the park is largely left to the homeless during the day. It's not that it's a dangerous park, it's just that it is unwelcoming and, despite a beautiful central fountain, lacking a focal point to pull people in.

Despite being cut into two, the park is still ideally situated for kiosks. The western half, between First and Second Streets is anchored by the majestic St. James Park Fountain. The problem here is that the surrounding elements don't beckon citizens to stay and enjoy the beautiful views. Imagine two or three kiosks strategically placed around the fountain, maybe ice cream for kids playing at the nearby playground, or a coffee or danish for mom and dad to enjoy. As in New York City, kiosks could be a way to encourage people to not only visit the park, but more fully engage it. And let's be honest, we have better weather than most cities, so why not?

Fairmont Plaza

This is another interesting area to consider. Across the street from The Plaza de Cesar Chavez, and nestled between The Fairmont Hotel, The San Jose Museum of Art, The Knight Ridder Building, it's difficult to ask for a better location than Fairmont Plaza. And during Christmas in the Park, the plaza comes alive with Downtown Ice.

Downtown Ice is an example of utilizing the best of a location. Of course, many cities have urban skating rinks, but the plaza's Circle of Palms, makes San Jose's unique. Unfortunately, that only happens a couple months out of the year. Most of the time, particularly during the day, the plaza is vastly underutilized.

Some efforts have been made to better utilize this space, namely The San Jose Museum of Art's Cafe Too! and The Knight Ridder Building's Cafe 1850. Both take advantage of the great views and weather. However, both also close at 3:30 PM, so for the better part of the afternoon and all evening, there's little to attract people to this space. A kiosk, perhaps along the hotel side, could entice people to stay longer. A late afternoon coffee or a small snack might entice passers-by to give the plaza a chance. Fairmont Plaza is a nice place to be, we just need to give people a reason to stay.

Final Notes

I would be remiss not to mention that downtown has indeed had two successful kiosks on the Paseo de San Antonio for years. Rosies & Posies Downtown Florist and Circle-A Skateboards are well-situated and offer useful services. Overall, Paseo de San Antonio still needs a lot more work, but theses two kiosks are definitely pluses.

And if you think kiosks are limited to the green, cast iron boxes we are used to seeing in places, like New York City, then their evolution might surprise you. In fact, several cities worldwide have embraced bold designs in their kiosks. Utilitarian or whimsical, contemporary kiosks come in all shapes and sizes, limited only by our imaginations.

I like how the folks at The Pop-Up City put it:

We all know the kiosks on the busy streets of our world cities — those small, neat pop-up booths that sell about everything, from newspapers and magazines to cigarettes and cold drinks. Kiosks mean a lot to me, and to the city itself. At these colourful places, where tourists buy their public transport tickets and commuters grab a fresh newspaper in the morning, is the metropolitan vibe at its best.

They are right. And though kiosks alone are not the answer to downtown's revitalization, they could play an integral part. I've humbly submitted my ideas for kiosk locations, but there are certainly many other possibilities throughout downtown.

Where do you have in mind?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Will San Jose Get an A('s) for Effort?

This week, the San Jose City Council unanimously approved the sale of two downtown parcels to The Sobrato Organization. This is significant because it not only puts the development of two prime downtown locations into motion, but proceeds from the sale will be used to purchase the remaining parcels for a proposed MLB stadium near Diridon Station.

285 South Market Street

The Sobrato Organization has purchased what is arguably downtown's most desirable remaining parcel, 285 South Market Street. Next to The Fairmont Hotel and across from Plaza de César Chávez, any future development on this site will enjoy a key downtown location with easy access to The Tech, The San Jose Musem of Art, SoFA, San Jose State, The McEnery Convention Center, and The Civic Auditorium.

Urban West Associates' proposed Cityfront Square as viewed from First Street

If all had gone according to plan, this parcel would have been the site of a three-tower, mixed-use development called Cityfront Square. Developed by Urban West Associates, the project got marred in a dispute over downtown height limits and eventually fell victim to the bad economy.

Sobrato's purchase opens up a new possibility of an exciting mixed-use project. If done correctly, the site could become a downtown destination. The three items at the top of my wish list for this site: retail, retail, and retail. Dare I wish for an actual ... downtown department store?

8 East San Fernando Street

Currently a parking lot, 8 East San Fernando Street is another high-profile downtown parcel. Adjacent to The 88, the lot was originally slated to be the site of Living Tomorrow's Silicon Valley pavilion, its first in the United States. But even before the current financial crisis, Living Tomorrow was unable to secure funding, so the project was scraped in 2007.

Living Tomorrow's proposed tower, which was to include a hotel, at 8 East San Fernando Street

Even with this site undeveloped, East San Fernando, particularly between San Jose State and Market, has seen a huge increase in foot traffic in recent months, largely due to the opening of The 88. That Sobrato will oversee the property's development bears well for that street. Another excellent opportunity for ground-level retail, wouldn't you say?

The San Jose Redevelopment Agency's render of a downtown stadium for the A's

Which brings us to the purchase of the remaining parcels surrounding Diridon Station. You have to give San Jose credit for keeping its eye on the prize with this stadium. Even when the Fremont deal seemed like a sure thing, San Jose diligently pursued its acquisition of land for a stadium—everyone thought would never happen. With the Fremont deal collapsed (and back to square one), San Jose is literally years ahead of Oakland in its pursuit of a stadium, and the leading contender for the new home of the A's. By the way, you can read more about a potential A's move to San Jose at Baseball San Jose's blog (for which I also write).

All in all, it's been an exciting and significant week of developments in the city.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Sneak Peek Inside The San Pedro Square Market

Latest render of The San Pedro Square Market (Photo: The San Jose Blog)

A couple of weeks ago, a few bloggers and I had the opportunity to meet with San Pedro Square Market project manager Steve Borkenhagen about the progress of one of San Jose's most ambitious projects. Set to open August 1st, 2010, the San Pedro Square Market aims to offer a unique shopping experience for the citizens of Silicon Valley. Akin to San Francisco's Ferry Building or Seattle's Pike Place Market, the San Pedro Square Market will offer a variety of local products ranging from baked goods to fresh produce to artisan chocolates. And taking advantage of the city's amazing weather, the market's Peralta Plaza (surrounding San Jose's oldest building, the Peralta Adobe) will offer San Joseans a place to congregate every day of the week, from a morning coffee to an evening cocktail.

If it can be pulled off—and all indications are that Steve and his team are just the people to do it—San Pedro Square Market will quickly take its place amongst the great public markets of the world. What particularly impressed me about meeting Steve was his thirst for new ideas. He is genuinely committed to creating a unique public space—not just unique to San Jose, but unique to public markets. That's both very encouraging and refreshing. But most importantly, Steve is interested in the opinions of the citizens of Silicon Valley, so much so that there is even a sign hanging from the the site's fencing, on the corner of San Pedro and St. James, soliciting for ideas with Steve's own work number (which, by the way, is 408.813.5984).I don't recall Santana Row ever doing that. But what that sign really speaks to is the philosophy driving the project: San Pedro Square Market is a homegrown effort designed to showcase the best of the valley. And your input is invaluable.

It was chilly and rainy the night when we met Steve. He updated us on the progress, as well as gave us a tour. Han Solo famously quipped, "She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid." And indeed, San Pedro Square Market may not look like much now, but she certainly has it where it counts. Here are some photos I took of the two of the three retails spaces (the third to be erected soon). I'll keep you updated with news and photos as work furiously progresses toward the August opening.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

All About Kiosks, Pt I

Let's talk about kiosks. Not the cell phone or lemonade or sunglasses kiosks we've all become accustomed to seeing in malls, but the urban kiosk found on city streets.

I was recently in downtown Santa Cruz and was impressed by their use of kiosks along Pacific Avenue. There are only a few, but they are well-placed and offer a variety of services, such as flowers and food.

It's not surprising that European cities have made great use of kiosks. Taking their cue from the Ottoman Empire over 700 years ago, many European cities have integrated kiosks into their urban landscapes. And, in turn, their citizens have integrated kiosks into their everyday lives.

Paris, for example, lines its great avenues with kiosks selling everything from newspapers to tobacco to crepes. London, too, has a vibrant mix of kiosks in its urban core. In these cities and others, citizens visit regularly, places they gather. Tourists also have come to rely on kiosks for food, souvenirs, even theatre tickets, as with TKTS' famous discount ticket booths around the world.

Stateside, several cities have have taken advantage of what kiosks have to offer. Washington DC, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle, amongst others, have dabbled in kiosks throughout their downtowns.

But unquestionably, the American city that has most embraced kiosks is New York City. Gotham is liberally sprinkled with kiosks throughout. New Yorkers and tourists alike have come to expect kiosks as part of the New York experience. One thing New York City has done particularly well is strategically placing their kiosks in the city's heavily-used parks.

Now back to Santa Cruz, their Pacific Avenue is an ideal location for kiosks, it's a long street with heavy traffic and a solid retail mix. Now, "heavy foot traffic" and "solid retail mix" aren't typically used to describe downtown San Jose. However, kiosks could be an interesting, and relatively inexpensive, part of the revitalization of certain areas of the city core.

In an upcoming post, I'll identity some areas of downtown San Jose I think would benefit from kiosks.