The Santana Row conundrum: Is San Jose’s future urban density, suburban sprawl or both?

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Clocking in at just over 175 square miles, San Jose is triple the size of San Francisco and seven times bigger than Silicon Valley’s most recognizable tech hub in Palo Alto.

Over the last half-century or so, San Jose’s sprawling footprint has translated to geographically and economically disconnected hubs in neighborhoods like Willow Glen, Alum Rock, downtown and East San Jose. More recently, the city has shifted its strategic focus to increasingly dense, urban development, implementing a downtown high-rise incentive program, fast-tracking new residential towers and adding citywide bike lanes.

But on Wednesday, the announcement of a major real estate deal in the area of mixed-use shopping center Santana Row — which industry sources say is primed for redevelopment — once again raised the issue of San Jose development priorities in a city with many potential opportunities.

Increasing housing costs in a tight real estate market, coupled with the return of Silicon Valley boom-time freeway gridlock, are further pushing the city toward transit-oriented development that better links jobs and housing.

The question moving forward: Will San Jose be able to execute on its ambitious vision for citywide urbanization, or will the city continue to function as a collection of disparate developments with seas of parking?

“We’re a big enough city that we can have multiple focal points,” San Jose Assistant Planning Director Laurel Prevetti told me. “We shouldn’t have to have that kind of competition. Maybe there will be, but at least people will have choices.”

The Santana Row conundrum

Although it’s located less than five miles from San Jose’s downtown core, Santana Row is not connected to the region’s Caltrain rail line, nor the area’s lesser-used light rail system. Instead, the mixed-use complex and adjacent attractions like Westfield Valley Fair mall and the Winchester Mystery House rely on buses and parking garages.

Santana Row was designed as a model for mixed-use development fostering housing, entertainment and office space in close proximity, which it has carried out more successfullythan many others in Silicon Valley.

Judging by the numbers, however, the development’s 622 luxury residential units and currently limited office space still don’t account for the bulk of its 12 million annual visitors — suggesting that many are still coming and going as they would to other suburban shopping centers.

On Wednesday, Santana Row owner Federal Realty Investment Trust announced that it had leased the 11.6-acre Century Theatres site across the street. Though no development plans have been submitted for the new space, the area is one of several urban villages targeted by the city for job growth and new housing.

“Absolutely it’s a great mixed-use site,” Prevetti said.

But any new development would likely run into old criticisms; Santana Row’s location outside of downtown San Jose has always been a sticking point for advocates of more centralized urban development.

“There was a lot of push from the downtown San Jose people to not let Santana row be built,” said Tom Nelson, a San Jose native and veteran retail broker.  “They’d love to have it, but downtown is fixed. It just doesn’t have the buildings and the inventory to accommodate the larger floor plates that these companies want.”

Development possibilities

Kim Walesh, San Jose’s chief strategist and director of economic development, said that she is intrigued by the prospect of defining a more connected “central San Jose” instead of splitting hairs between small, distinct neighborhoods.

Urban development group SPUR detailed the idea in a new report, which urges the city to better link and promote areas surrounding downtown, like the Alameda, Japantown, Santana Row and Willow Glen, “to reframe the surrounding areas as an asset to downtown, not a threat.”

Walesh added that “the whole city has a hunger for commercial activity,” particularly in walkable settings.

Whether that vision can become reality remains to be seen, but Prevetti said there is no shortage of developers vying to add their piece.

“We are seeing a surge in development applications,” she said. “A lot of people are trying to catch this wave.”

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