If urban planners in many California cities had their way, every street-level unit in their downtowns would house restaurants, bars, boutiques, and all sorts of other stores, all teeming with life. They might even have a pet store or two. Unfortunately for some cities, "how much is that banker in the window" doesn't have quite the same ring.
But, thanks to zoning changes that some cities are instituting, storefront bankers—not to mention accountants, lawyers, and internet startups—may soon feature more prominently in downtown streetscapes.
Several years ago the City of San Jose adopted an ordinance permitting only consumer-oriented businesses in its street-front units. They were to be the bricks-and-mortar establishments to complement Silicon Valley's internet-oriented economy.
But the recession has, needless to say, taken its toll on those businesses, and with the economy so has gone San Jose's downtown plan. The city reports street-level vacancies of around 30%. That means that one out of every three windows in the city's downtown is blank. Not exactly part of the city's recipe for a resurgent downtown.
"We're simply not seeing it at the street level and it creates a greater sense of blight and sense of lack of safety for folks who simply don't see the vitality on the sidewalk," said San Jose City Council Member Sam Liccardo.
Last month Liccardo introduced an ordinance designed, if not to reverse this trend, then at least to take advantage of it.
"The greatest enemy of urban revitalization is a vacant storefront," said Licardo. Facing demand from offices, Liccardo said he "came to the realization that if you can be with the one you love, love the one you're with."
Liccardo said that successful retail requires a round-the-clock presence of both residents and workers. San Jose is pursuing a plan to add 10,000 residents to its downtown, but that plan is in its infancy.
The ordinance does not invite offices to move in en masse. San Jose's includes restrictions: offices cannot fill corner suites; extant tenants cannot be displaced by offices; and the amount of space given to offices will be limited on a per-block basis. Liccardo says that plenty of office-based businesses are eager to fill in some of those gaps.
Nearby Redwood City, itself a hearth for Silicon Valley tech businesses, is doing much the same. Its downtown has struggled to realize its downtown plan. But recent demand for office space there has caused the city council to reconsider its restrictions.
Officials in both cities stress that these ordinances are meant as temporary stopgap measures, meant to take advantage of unique economic times. With the tech industry booming, the office market appears to be strengthening while the consumer market remains soft.
Neither, however, wants to sell their cities soul simply to get the lights back on. Laurel Prevetti, San Jose's assistant director of Planning Building and Code Enforcement, said that she is eminently wary of the ways that different kinds of offices present themselves to the street. She cited the co-working office NextSpace as a model for an office that's almost as good as a retail store.
"They did something very different: they essentially opened their windows, used vibrant pink colors, and opened windows," said Prevetti. "It is outward-looking. It is very inviting. That's a great example where office is not a deterrent."
Less appealing scenarios involve closed blinds and the sort of quietude that would cause passers-by to pick up their pace.
"We've had other offices like insurance companies and such where they essentially put their…back office stuff looking out on to the street: computer tables, the backs of desks," said Prevetti. "The worst case is when they completely put up blinds and have no attempt to …do anything that would add to the street life of the city."
Redwood City is looking for the same types of businesses as San Jose is.
"We want transparency," said Redwood City Vice-Mayor Jeff Gee. "We don't want rows and rows of cubes. We want to make sure that the windows and storefronts look alive and are not all black."
Whether or not the cities return to all-retail strategies, the demand that they are seeing may signal a new trend in the way that businesses approach their offices. They may find, in fact, that certain businesses will want to compete with retail establishments even when the rents rise.
Gee said that offices have taken interest in Redwood City because of the downtown's proximity to a Caltrain commuter rail station. The balance among downtown uses may therefore have as much do to with cultural shifts as with economic cycles.
"Today, right now there's a demand for office space from a lot of technology startups," said Gee. "That has been driven, of all things, by the train….the new generation of workers really don't want a car."
Prevetti said that this trend applies not only to youth-oriented internet startups but also to more venerable firms. She cited interest from corporate tenants, such as Oracle software and the accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, who may be seeking office space that appeals to their new recruits.
"We're finding that as we attract more use and recent graduates from college, they want to be part of an active downtown," said Prevetti. "They want to be able to go out, grab a coffee, come back, have a collaborative space."
For both San Jose and Redwood City, relaxing their downtown regulations represents small steps to combat the recession and institute creative, low-impact economic development strategies. Though neither city is responding directly to the loss of redevelopment, it is on city officials' minds.
"We recognize we're in an era of bold ideas about revitalization," said Liccardo. "Without money to incentivize (development), we need to think about how we provide some relief to restrictions that city government often impose on development."
Before every city trades its dining tables for cubicles, the Silicon Valley officials cautioned that these strategies may not be for everyone, especially in places where office demand is weak or nonexistent.
"A lot of it is pretty fine-grained when you look at downtown revitalization," said Prevetti. "Other cities if they're interested in going down this course to do it very mindfully."
Jeff Gee, Vice-Mayor of Redwood City, 650.780.7220
Sam Liccardo, San Jose City Council Member, 408.535.4903
Laurel Prevetti, Assistant Director, Planning Building and Code Enforcement at City of San Jose, 408.535.3555