Big Ambitions : San Jose--Seeking to Come of Age

Times Staff Writer

Tom McEnery leaned casually against a wall atop the 101 Park Center Plaza building, 13 floors above his favorite city, and wistfully pointed toward the future.

“Someday soon,” the mayor said, “we are going to have busloads of schoolchildren unloading at the Technology Museum, and they are going to come back with their parents to enjoy all the museums, theater, shopping and concerts.

“It’s going to be a live downtown again,” he added, sweeping his hand from the rust-orange skeleton of the new Fairmont Hotel to the bare-earth site of a new convention center. “It’s going to be great.”

City an Also-Ran


San Jose has long been an also-ran in the civic pride department--referred to as “a city in bib overalls” by one downtown businessman and “the classic mid-20th-Century nowheresville” by a travel writer for Sunset magazine.

No more. San Jose--California’s first civilian settlement, first chartered city and first state capital--is earnestly trying to assume the role of “downtown Silicon Valley.”

With 713,400 people, San Jose has surpassed such cities as Boston, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle--and has a population almost as big as those of Miami and Minneapolis put together. It is soon expected to replace San Francisco as California’s third-most-populous city.

But although San Jose has many people, it has little else. At least so far.

Not one of the state’s 50 largest corporations is headquartered in San Jose, for example, nor is any of the 15 largest Silicon Valley outfits. The city has no big league sports team and only one network-affiliated TV station. Opera San Jose, the San Jose Repertory and other cultural groups have solid local support but no national reputations.

But San Jose does have dreams and ambitions, and they focus on the city center, 27 blocks carved into six redevelopment projects and cluttered with sites for everything from high-rise office towers to nightclubs and theaters to a mass transit trolley line.

Some Wariness

Financed by other urban redevelopment projects and supported by affluent young professionals and Southeast Asian immigrants--urban pioneers, city officials call them--these multimillion-dollar efforts are nothing if not ambitious. Some fear too ambitious.

Some now worry about the amount of city money used to subsidize skyscrapers in a real-estate glut, noting that the pool of vacant commercial buildings in San Jose quadrupled between 1982 and 1985. At the same time, the city’s first billion-dollar budget has sprung a $13-million deficit leak.

McEnery said the city has scaled back some long-term dreams, but that has had little effect downtown, where a maze of construction fencing still bears signs that chirp: “San Jose is growing up.”

Even with its go-go approach and a volume of industrial development matching mighty Los Angeles, San Jose still serves more as the bedroom to the so-called Silicon Valley than as its board room.

Census figures show that San Jose has more jobholders than jobs, while adjoining citadels like Sunnyvale and Santa Clara are the opposite. The result is spendable income spent elsewhere, world-class freeway congestion and a brown haze in the azure sky.

McEnery sees that as a result of San Jose’s “colonial” past, but promised “that is coming to an end because the future is here.” Indeed, by one count, San Jose has 60% of the undeveloped land remaining in Silicon Valley, an area of high-tech firms.

State statisticians estimate that San Francisco has 28,200 more people than San Jose, but San Francisco has shoehorned about as many people as it can into its 46 square miles. San Jose, at 158 square miles, still has plenty of room--and annexation rights to an additional 162 square miles.

Still, almost no one in the Bay Area seriously expects San Jose to supplant San Francisco as the region’s financial, cultural and commercial core. Indeed, many San Franciscans still dismiss San Jose with the nastiest epithet they can think of: “Little L.A.” And visitors snigger that San Jose’s “International Airport” has but three international flights a day--all to Vancouver.

The city’s image was not helped when it recently misplaced a large abstract sculpture that was an early symbol of downtown’s rebirth. Zealous construction workers are suspected of hauling it to a dump in their race to build.

“Sannazay is probably bigger than S.F. already, but who cares? Nobody goes there,” teased Herb Caen in his popular San Francisco Chronicle column. Caen dismissed San Jose as “The Blob That Destroyed Northern California.”

McEnery, like most in San Jose, shrugs off comparisons to other cities. “I understand San Francisco is a great city, just as New York and London and Rome and Jerusalem are great cities,” he said. “And as much as I’m baited by Herb Caen and others, I never call San Jose a great city. I think another word is much more descriptive and flattering: This is a very good city.”

John M. Findlay, an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and a student of the growth of the Bay Area, shared that sentiment.

“I don’t think it’ll ever catch up to San Francisco in terms of culture or finance. Nor should it, necessarily. San Jose is a different place,” he said. “In many ways, it’s a more manageable city in terms of raising a family.”

Still, city leaders are spending a lot to give San Jose a distinct identity amid the seamless suburban sprawl of the Santa Clara Valley, a region that not long ago supplied the nation with about all the prunes it could eat.

“You could say San Jose is entirely a suburb,” Findlay said, but San Jose simply followed the pattern of growth pursued all over the United States after World War II. San Jose was no worse than any other city in this regard; it was only more successful, he said.

The city was founded in 1777 as a farming outpost to supply presidios in San Francisco and Monterey, but eventually established itself as an important city both politically and culturally. It was the first state capital and home of the state’s first symphony orchestra.

San Jose also became the home of the state’s oldest public college, San Jose State University. The university, founded in 1857, helped mold the city’s early identity and still does so today, having educated more Silicon Valley engineers than Stanford, UC Berkeley and Santa Clara University combined.

But while such institutions as the symphony and the university were giving San Jose an identity, former City Manager Anthony P. (Dutch) Hamann, who ran the city from 1950 to 1969, gave San Jose its current character.

Under Hamann, San Jose became a conglomeration of single-story ranch-style houses, eight to the acre, interrupted by shopping malls and light-industrial parks that resemble suburban high schools. Hamann, a former car dealer, used highways to knit these elements together.

Population Explosion

During Hamann’s reign, the city population grew from 95,000 to 445,000, largely due to wholesale annexations. Hamann paid particular attention to the west and south, where there were no established towns seeking to out-grab San Jose in a frenzy of eat-or-be-eaten “annexation wars.” Downtown virtually died; even City Hall was moved to an outlying area in 1958.

The result was pleasant neighborhoods, but serious traffic problems, costly urban services and a certain cultural blandness. “There is nothing to pull off the freeway for,” an anonymous correspondent once complained to the local visitors’ bureau.

Voters revolted in the 1970s, turning out pro-growth incumbents and electing politicians pledged to limiting development to vacant parcels within the “urban services boundary"--that is, areas already served by sewers and roads.

Those same politicians, led by former Mayor Janet Gray Hayes and continuing with McEnery, also sought to give San Jose a new image, one more befitting the 15th-largest city in the country. Culture and commerce were the foundation of this new city, and cash was the mortar to hold it together.

The city merged the financing of all 10 of its redevelopment areas in the early 1980s “to put financial muscle behind the (downtown) plan,” said redevelopment chief Frank Taylor.

Symbiotic Growth Relationship

Both elements of the new downtown--culture and commerce--are growing symbiotically. Construction of the Center for the Performing Arts and the donation of land for a new repertory theater gave the new office buildings nearby a certain panache unavailable elsewhere in the Silicon Valley.

As the office buildings started drawing workers downtown again, restaurants reappeared; the restaurants make expanded downtown shops more appealing; shops and restaurants have attracted a few pioneer nightclubs.

The process of using commerce and culture to build upon each other still is in its infancy; the congestive hubbub of simultaneous construction projects is, at least temporarily, discouraging downtown traffic and not everyone is certain it will ever live up to its promise, but its proponents are hopeful.

“As big accounting firms or venture capitalists or law firms come down (to the Silicon Valley) as their client bases here expand,” said Steve Tedesco of the Chamber of Commerce, “we want them to come to downtown San Jose, not Palo Alto or Campbell.”

Officials also note that Southeast Asian immigrants have revitalized moribund downtown shops and given new life to residential neighborhoods next to downtown--areas that city officials said are critical to making the new San Jose viable.

Cultural Interests

Arts boosters say the San Jose Repertory Co. now has more subscribers than does San Francisco’s much-heralded American Conservatory Theater, the San Jose Ballet has formed an exchange relationship with the Cleveland Ballet, and plans for new space--such as an expanded San Jose Museum of Art--already are paying off in a renewed interest in local culture.

“In the past, we had to go up to San Francisco for culture,” said William Kester, manager of the San Jose City College performing arts department. “San Jose is finally beginning to come into its own in the performing arts. There’s so much going on that there is actually a crying need for theater space.”

Art will also hit the streets. City law requires developers to spend 1% of building costs for art in public spaces, while individuals pursue independent ideas. Artist Jeri Yasakawa, for one, plans to truss a freeway interchange in miles of red and blue neon lights to give this “freeway city” a landmark that he said would be equivalent to the Empire State Building.

City officials also have taken steps to improve popular culture, approving construction of an indoor arena capable of hosting pro basketball. McEnery also tried in April to lure the baseball Giants down from San Francisco, but withdrew after San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein threatened to sue him for encouraging the team to break its lease at Candlestick Park.

Annoying Comparisons

A professional sports team is needed for a city to join the municipal major leagues, McEnery acknowledged. It irks many in San Jose that nearby Oakland, with half the population, has pro basketball and baseball teams, while even Sacramento, with one-third of San Jose’s population, also has the NBA Kings.

In other ways, the city already is in the big leagues. Its major newspaper, the San Jose Mercury-News, won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a probe of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’ overseas investments. The paper has pushed its daily circulation above 250,000 and Sunday sales to more than 300,000 by promoting itself as the “Bay Area’s Best.”

Local residents seem vaguely proud of the new image being erected for their city, but the city is so large that there is not an obvious, bubbling caldron of enthusiasm.

“Right now, people are glad to see downtown being rebuilt, but it’s not as if they are walking around yelling, ‘Whoopee!’ ” said Henry Cruz, a drug-abuse counselor who has lived in San Jose for 36 years. “It is not a major topic of conversation.”

Indeed, when local television station KNTV aired a two-hour documentary on redevelopment last June, news director Ken Walker said the station was flooded with calls from San Jose residents who were flabbergasted to learn of the plan several years into its execution.

Cornerstones of the entire $500-million downtown redevelopment package are the 19-story, 583-room Fairmont Hotel and the 410,000-square-foot City of San Jose Convention Center, both of which are under construction.

Then there is the Technology Center of the Silicon Valley, an unusual, new kind of hands-on museum and learning center based loosely on a similar museum in Toronto and already touted as the “Smithsonian of the West.”

Other Projects

Many other new projects also are in the works--a children’s discovery museum patterned after one in Boston; a river-front park similar to one in San Antonio; a granite-paved, tree-canopied transit mall; several theaters and concert halls.

These aesthetic elements will be buffered by millions of square feet of new high-rise office and retail space, as well as a large supply of old, renovated retail stores, office towers, theaters and other buildings.

Expanded transit facilities also are being built, including a new downtown freeway and a light-rail trolley system connecting homes in the southern part of the city with downtown in the center and Silicon Valley to the north. Officials already have plans for two more trolley lines.

It is a heady wish list for a city that four years ago saw its schools slip into bankruptcy because of overly optimistic city-income estimates, then two years ago dropped $60 million of its own by investing poorly in the bond market--and earlier this month announced another mistake in estimating tax income that resulted in a $13.2-million budget shortfall.

The schools are now solvent and the general fund recovering, but the dizzy downtown pace has some people asking the city to catch its breath, especially after reading a cautionary report from the research firm SRI International that questioned the city’s income estimates.

Developers have overbuilt, even for optimistic times, SRI concluded in its analysis of the industrial redevelopment that finances the new downtown. “Current vacancy levels are sufficient to handle the expected absorption for three to seven years. . . . New construction is expected to be minimal.”

Financial Analysts Unfazed

The study did not especially worry financial analysts. “In general, I don’t see any problem with what they’re doing--in fact, I think they have spent their money wisely,” said Howard Sitzer, director of municipal bond research for the New York firm of Thomson McKinnon Securities.

But the City Council flinched.

“I think there’s a feeling on the board now to slow down and complete what we’ve started,” said Vice Mayor Susan Hammer.

The mayor remains bullish.

“Do I think we’ve overcommitted the city? No, I don’t, and I don’t believe any objective analysis of the revenue figures would agree with that, either,” McEnery said.

But McEnery acknowledges that the race to rebuild downtown has created some sizable cost overruns. The convention center, for example, was budgeted at $90 million when proposed three years ago but is now pegged at $131 million.

“I’m not pleased to see that anything is coming out more expensive than we had first thought,” McEnery said. “But . . . when bids come in, they are much more often a bit higher than lower.”

The city also is having difficulty finding developers willing to put up two hotels next to the convention center. Redevelopment boosters said the inns are critical to the success of the convention hall and other downtown projects.

Dislocated Tenants, Residents

Critics also complain that downtown is being rebuilt at the expense of low-income residents and small-business owners already there. People displaced by convention center construction last year, for example, had to file suit to get the city to provide adequate relocation assistance, as required by state law.

“The whole attitude and orientation of the city redevelopment agency is to create a financial district and tourist center,” said Gen Fujioka, the Legal Aid lawyer who pressed the suit for displaced downtown residents. “They’re not as interested in the part of redevelopment that is supposed to serve the low- and very-low-income residents already here.”

And there are people, even at this point, who are beginning to ask whether the city isn’t leaving itself too vulnerable to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the Silicon Valley economy.

“I think it’s critical to insulate our economy from the fluctuations of any one industry,” said City Councilwoman Patricia E. Sausedo, who heads a committee to look for ways to diversify San Jose’s high-tech business sector.

Ernie Glave, president of the local Small Business Assn., recalling the suffering of such one-industry cities as Detroit, was more blunt: “They got rid of the canneries so they could put up high-rises, trying to get (electronic) chip makers. Now the chip makers are in trouble, so what have you got? You can’t uproot buildings and plant prunes again.”


1. New York 17,800,000 2. Los Angeles 12,400,000 3. Chicago 8,040,000 4. San Francisco--San Jose 5,000,000 5. Philadelphia 5,700,000

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1986


college years graduates San Jose 12.8 21.1% San Francisco 12.9 28.2 California 12.7 19.6

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


White Black Asian Latino* San Jose 74.7% 4.6% 8.5% 22.3% San Francisco 58.2 12.7 22.0 12.4 California 76.2 7.7 5.3 19.2

Source: U.S. Census Bureau *Census figures do not add up to 100%