“State of the Downtown” speech by Scott Knies

“State of the Downtown” speech by Scott Knies
October 16, 2015

San Jose Downtown Association Annual Meeting
Title: Addressing the tough issues

While we are not in an over-heated market like some places in the Bay Area, it is good to have downtown San Jose toasty for a change, and I don’t see it cooling off soon. My remarks, however, are not going to be a greatest hits of new development proposals that recount the many exciting projects on the horizon – we’ll cover that at the December Year in Review meeting – but rather this morning I’m going to talk about the three toughest issues the San Jose Downtown Association is presently facing. So my view on the State of Downtown will be framed by progress on our own work plan?

One of the most important factors in any business is having a plan. For non-profit organizations, it is no different. The Downtown Association developed its most recent Strategic Plan at the end of 2013 and refreshed it last year focusing on three priorities: 1) Community policing and homelessness; 2) St. James Park; 3) Downtown’s public image.

We are keenly aware how each of these separate issues interconnects. Our daily reports from San Jose Police officers working Secondary Employment jobs for the PBID show that more than half their time is now devoted to encounters with homeless. In surveys, our members, visitors and residents tell us they do not feel safe on certain streets and at certain times downtown. This, of course, impacts the perception of downtown because even though we are in the business of building community and places full of joy and wonder it is hard to sustain good feelings when our downtown foyers, parks, creeks and sidewalks are de facto beds for dozens of people every night.

Let’s be clear, the Downtown Association is not a social service agency, we are a Business Improvement District. However, as the number of homeless on downtown sidewalks has increased along with demands for action from our members, we have had to step up our game. This began with a thoughtful direction from our board of directors to engage with the organizations already hard at work on ending homelessness in Santa Clara County, starting with our downtown Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

While we dove right in with a highly successful homeless job-training partnership between Groundwerx, the City of San Jose Housing Dept. and Downtown Street Teams, we still had much to learn. One of our 3 organization’s greatest strengths is “high touch advocacy” and how we represent the entire downtown community. Well, it became obvious to us the homeless had become part of the downtown community, too. It is not okay to have mentally ill individuals living on our streets; fragmentation between social service providers; and policies that are not producing nearly enough units for us to achieve our “housing first” objective. We can all see (and too often smell) what isn’t working – just walk First and Santa Clara Streets at 6 p.m. tonight – so to meet our strategic goal, we had to become more involved in the solutions for downtown homelessness.

Education continues to be a focus for us; understanding the different populations of homeless and how services are customized for effectiveness: for instance, the differences between the transitionally homeless, the foster youth, the chronically homeless and those suffering from behavioral illness and addiction. We can be compassionate for these individuals without having to tolerate criminal activity and anti-social behavior.

Some of our property owners and members are frustrated with the lack of progress. They say the homeless problems are just getting worse. As a business organization, we are interested in outcomes, and we plan to stay at the table. There is no easy answer for solving urban homelessness. 4 Short term we need to deal with the social, public safety and behavior issues, while long-term we have to create more housing.

There are encouraging signs with improved coordination between the city and county, a new outreach services model downtown that started earlier this month based on clinicians rather than strictly peer-to-peer contacts and more consistent enforcement efforts with both SJPD and the Sheriff’s Office. Most importantly, there are multiple efforts to create new housing for the homeless around the city – including rehabbing the Plaza Hotel on San Fernando Street for temporary housing and locating a permanent supportive housing project for the chronically homeless with 100 beds in the downtown. Our District 3 councilmember, Raul Peralez, has made it clear he is also looking for a balanced solution for our homeless problems with downtown doing its share, especially in the area of providing housing.

In many ways, St. James Park is the poster child that encompasses all our priority issues: safety, homeless, perception. Where to start with a park that has been mostly blighted for more than three decades? The Downtown Association board reframed its commitment in mid-2014 after another year of civic inaction, changing our emphasis from “support” St. James Park improvement to lead. This was more than semantics.

The park needs revitalization on every level: capital, operations, maintenance, management, security, horticulture and activation. Building on a 2014 recommendation from then councilmember Sam Liccardo, a proposal for a St. James Park Management District is making its way to City Council next month. The Management District would establish a boundary in proximity to St. James Park with any new housing developments paying a portion of their mandated city park fees to the district. Currently city park fees are restricted to capital uses only, but the Parks Management District would allow funds to be spent on non-capital expenses such as maintenance and programming.

Thanks to the strength of the downtown market, there are nearly 2000 new housing units either under construction or planned within the proposed Parks Management District. Each of the new housing developments would like to see their millions of dollars in city park fees go towards making St. James Park a vibrant open space for their new residents (and their dogs). The Management District would provide operational money to be coupled with capital funds (sourced from both within the district and the larger park trust fund, as well as foundation grants and other sources) to ensure a sustainable strategy for re-building and maintaining an exceptional St. James Park.

It is time to launch the community design process now. Let’s bring in some of the top place-makers and landscape architects working in cities today to help us reimagine the park’s future. With direction from the community we can develop the overarching values we want for St. James Park and reach consensus on capital improvements, such as:

Should we rebuild or replace the fountain – or have a different water feature altogether, or none at all? How about a simple stage structure or a grand amphitheater like a Levitt Pavilion? What to do with the historic monuments in the park like the RFK podium? Should the park have a café? Restrooms? Dog runs? A zip line? Formal gardens? A new children’s playground? A decorative wrought iron fence around it? These are some of the questions to be wrestled to the ground as the community design process unfolds.

The idea of the St. James Parks Management District is to completely revitalize a complex urban park, making it inclusive to all. That’s not how St. James Park functions now – except during the hours it’s activated for special events. Otherwise, the park is typically a troubled place for the down and out. This has to change. We will not surrender St. James Park to more years of neglect and anti-social behavior. We want to manage complexity, not lose it.

We have to be sensitive about this approach, and give space for voices to be heard. You can expect we will hear chatter about the “privatizing of public space” and “kicking out the homeless.” A new management model is certainly warranted based on the park’s track record, but under any new operational structure it will remain a city park open to the public, and this includes the homeless. Our objective is to have a more balanced St. James Park that does not primarily cater to one population, but serves families, seniors, workers, residents, visitors, preservationists, transit riders, too. I have been asked what does success ultimately look like. My answer: when St. James Park is no longer the poster child for downtown disorder.

Capital improvements alone will not be enough. As we add fantastic new projects to the park we will need ongoing cleaning, programming, patrolling, planting and pruning. And most critically, a group that gets up every morning giving love to St. James Park, not as one of 200 parks citywide, but as its primary lover. This is how we will turn the fate of this park completely around: with community buy-in on values and design; public and private funding for what I believe needs to be a $50 million dollar improvement program; and strong, new management devoted to the upkeep, security and activation of the park. This will not be an overnight sensation; I 8 am giving the St. James Park renaissance project a six-year schedule until we achieve the complete 180.

Improving the downtown image is weaved into everything the Association does. You are going to hear a number of specific examples of this during the committee reports in a few minutes. While we remain an organization committed to quality downtown promotions and events, this past year, especially in the PBID budget, saw us making larger investments in place making. From art crosswalks to mural projects to the décor at Music in the Park to the promise of converting parking garage stalls into micro-shops, a more animated downtown is a direct investment in downtown’s image.

Just like small scale improvements in lighting can help make a difference in crime, the attention to detail in public places shows that someone cares. Our Street Life Plan is now in its second year and well underway to rolling out several exciting new projects thanks in large part to our partners at the City of San Jose who embraced many of the new ideas and welcomed us to experiment with exercise loops, art installations and repurposing of public spaces. Also, the Knight Foundation, and Danny Harris especially, have championed place-making projects with a focus on people and taking risks.

It is who we are. By virtue of the membership we represent, we are experimenters and in the position to advance change downtown. Big changes – like St. James Park – as we said will take several years; and ending homelessness may be a task we address for lifetimes; but placemaking can happen overnight and be as simple as the colored plastic designs in the chain link fence on Auzerais Street installed by volunteers from Delmas Park and Ernest & Young a couple weeks ago. These can be pilot projects and one-offs. The approaching Super Bowl festivities in February is an invitation for throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. For example, we’d like to close San Pedro Street for a week and roll out some artificial turf striped as a gridiron field with a couple bins full of nerf footballs. A game of touch before lunch at the Farmers Union could be fun.

We know public perceptions are not always in the eye of the beholder but influenced by groupthink, the media – and a lot of people who haven’t even been downtown in like 10 years. The Association’s goal is to keep generating positive stories and promoting urban experiences – like HERCity last night – that contributes to the cool factor. Puts a little more whimsy and there, there into downtown. And we are certainly not alone in this growing movement. 10

There is a spirit with our elected leaders, many urbanists on city staff, residents, artists, merchants, developers and other non-profit partners that downtown San Jose is conducting business at a level never before seen. Translating this energy into memorable projects – whether they’re high rises or seasonal pop-ups – will go a long way towards shaping our buzz as a desirable destination for people, their dreams and the places downtown where we just want to hang out.

Please join us. Get involved and participate in making your downtown better. Start a committee of your own or propose a project that we can help support. The best part of city building is there’s always another idea around the corner waiting to be discovered.

Congratulations to Loaves and Fishes and thanks again to Sysco Food Services generosity and sponsorship of Dine Downtown. I am delighted you could all be here this morning. Thanks for your attention and enjoy the rest of the meeting.

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