Why San Jose's Downtown Is So Sleepy and How the City's Trying to Revive It

3 min
Au Nguyen outside Au La La, her newly opened clothing boutique in downtown San Jose. Despite the slow foot traffic due to the pandemic, she says she has still been able to attract some new customers. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/KQED)

That's the very question I've been asking myself since I moved here in January.

San Jose is the third largest city in California, with over a million people — bigger than San Francisco! So, why is there so little foot traffic on the streets of its downtown?

Scott Knies, the executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, says the city has been dealing with this problem for years.

"Our downtown has very low numbers of residents and employees," he said. "You know, the densities aren't there."

Knies says San Jose hasn't been able to build enough housing in its downtown area. Because of that, people have traditionally come from around the Bay Area to visit the city during the weekends, but haven't stayed for any significant length of time.

"Whatever supply (of housing that) has been built, has been filled up, so the demand is certainly there. For whatever reason, it was easier to build out instead of in," Knies said, referring to the suburban sprawl surrounding the city's largely empty downtown.

But Knies and other city planners have been working to transform the downtown into a more exciting destination. And they see an opportunity on the horizon: a host of major corporate players soon plan to move their campuses inside the city, or expand existing footprints, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

"With what Google wants to do in Downtown West, with what Jay Paul wants to do with CityView Plaza at 200 Park, Adobe building their fourth tower — their corporate headquarters," Knies said. "We are on this path of increasing the densities and having people here who are really going to be supporting the businesses."

San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose was a center of commercial activity before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While foot traffic has been gradually increasing, particularly on the weekends, business remains slow. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/KQED)

With those big companies coming in, San Jose has been investing some money in smaller players as well. In 2018, the city launched Moment, a small business incubator program that offers micro-retail spaces in and around San Pedro Square — one of the few happening parts of the city's downtown — an area filled with cafes, restaurants and an indoor food hall.

"(That effort) had really kinda started this, 'Hey, downtown's going to turn the corner' and then it all falls out," said Knies, noting the pandemic's overwhelming impact.

Six months into the pandemic, Knies is just trying to help existing businesses stay alive.

Au Nguyen runs one of the Moment shops in San Pedro Square — a boutique called Au La La that she opened in July.

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"August was a little slower, probably because of the heat wave. The air quality didn't help with the small businesses here," Nguyen said. "But we're doing okay. I'm just grateful to be open!"

At her boutique, Nguyen designs and sells handmade light chiffon and silk summer dresses and blouses. After running her business online for about a year, she wanted to test the market with a brick and mortar storefront and decided to set up shop in San Jose, where she has lived for over a decade.

"I wanted to test out the fit and quality [of the clothes] and was looking for feedback. So, I was looking for a space to be able to do that," Nguyen said. "And then Moment was really supportive with COVID — they were flexible on the lease terms."

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Nguyen admits the foot traffic in the area isn't what it was before the pandemic started, but there are still some people walking around, especially during the weekends. Her proximity to other shops and restaurants doesn't hurt either.

"It has picked up a lot," she said. "My store might not be so busy, but all the restaurants and the brewery — they actually have a lot of visitors."

Nguyen says she has really enjoyed her experience in downtown San Jose, despite the obvious challenges, and if given the chance, would like to stay here.

She's hardly the only business owner betting that downtown will emerge from the pandemic bigger and better than it was before.

Be'Anka Ashaolu and Jeronica Macey are planning to open a self-care themed cafe called Nirvana Soul Coffee a few blocks from San Jose State University at the end of September.

Opening in the middle of a pandemic "was no one's plan," Ashaolu said. "We just happened to close our loan at the start of shelter in place. We've been working on this for over two years."

Ashaolu and Macey grew up in San Jose and have been living downtown for the past decade. They have long dreamed of opening their cafe here and are confident that residents want to see the downtown area grow.

"I think there's a resiliency here, and people want this place to be better," Ashaolu said. "So I expect that, pandemic or otherwise, San Jose will become the city it could be. It has that much potential. It could be something great."