As a fan of cities and urban centers, I have greatly anticipated the start of my tour to study more than 100 North American downtown areas. Last Friday I officially kicked off this undertaking, beginning with downtown San Jose, California, our nations’ tenth largest city and the epicenter of Silicon Valley, arguably the technology capital of the world.

Like a social science researcher, my charge was to qualitatively assess at ground level the pulse of downtown San Jose, with special attention being paid to the economic, social and cultural vibe resonating in the area. My wanderings led me to conversations with downtown locals, business owners and tourists to see whether their perceptions mirrored available local data on factors like economic activity and cost of living. I also walked the downtown corridor at night to assess foot traffic levels and perceived crime dangers. And with much credit to the mapping and camera capabilities of my iPhone, I was able to gain a unique perspective of the overall grid and landscape of the urban core.

The quintessential small town in the 20th Century, San Jose has evolved into a major urban center comprised of over a million people. The metro area, popularly known as “Silicon Valley,” is recognized worldwide as the ignition switch for emerging technological innovations. Combined with the San Francisco Bay Area, it constitutes the fourth-largest economy in the United States and one of the largest economic centers in the world.

The core of San Jose’s downtown is compact — only three square miles. This makes it ideal for pedestrians, who tout the benefits of its density and walkability.

San Jose’s downtown area has organically evolved over the years in its identity and makeup, like many of our nation’s downtowns. After experiencing a moribund existence for a number of years, the pro downtown leadership of then-Mayor Tom McEnery and Frank Taylor, head of the San Jose Redevelopment Authority, engineered a turnaround beginning in the ’80s. From this movement the city gained traction with a number of key developments that continue to bolster the downtown today. These include the Fairmont Hotel, the McEnery Convention Center, the Tech Museum and Children’s Discovery Museum, and the HP Pavilion.

Evidence of San Jose’s success in building a solid infrastructural base for its downtown is quite apparent as one walks in the downtown historic district, an area bounded by S. First Street to the west, E. San Fernando Street to the south, S. Third Street to the east, and E. Santa Clara Street to the north. This district also encompasses the south side of E. Santa Clara Street between Third and Fourth Streets.

I stayed at the Hotel Montgomery (soon to be converted to a Four Points Sheraton), which holds the distinction of being the oldest hotel property in San Jose. Its architecture reflects the special character of First Street, replete with historic brick structure, tree-lined walkways and antique street lights. Unfortunately there are a number of closed storefronts along this street, painting a picture of a tepid local economy. In many respects First Street reminds me of K Street in Sacramento, an area facing a similar plight along its arterial spine. While both cities struggle to generate life along the barren stretches of their respective roads, First Street has something going for it that Sacramento is seeking to emulate: the coexistence of vehicular traffic and light-rail passenger trains along a common thoroughfare. While the prevailing philosophy among retail experts seems to support this as a catalyst for storefront business activity, San Jose’s stagnant blocks suggests that the jury may still be out in terms of its viability as an economic attractor.

The Downtown San Jose Historic District Along First Street

San Jose’s downtown, however, shows many signs of vibrancy and life. There is a very prominent cluster of activity on First Street near the Fairmont Hotel, which includes several fine dining venues, coffeehouses, and the San Jose Museum of Art. And near the museum is a world-class ice skating rink that attracts a robust crowd throughout the winter months.

The Downtown San Jose Ice Rink

In the downtown core, San Fernando Street appears to be a hub of nightlife activity. My walk along this stretch late on a Friday night brought me face to face with the demographics and culture that define the local environs. The crowd was comprised mostly of young professionals from many diverse backgrounds. The local establishments appeared to be brimming with business, and there was an abundance of foot traffic along the street.

A major point of interest for me in terms of a downtown like San Jose is the level of personal safety. I was quite intrigued with San Jose’s distinction as having the lowest crime rate of any major U.S. city in the nation with a population of 500,000 or more. My anecdotal observations and discussions were mixed in terms of this contention. One bartender I talked to noted that he and his co-workers have for years walked home after work in the wee hours of the morning with no troubles. On the other hand, friends of mine from the nearby suburban enclave of Mountain View seemed reticent about the prospects of meeting me at my downtown hotel and then walking to a local establishment. Was their hesitancy due to concerns about the lack of quality dining establishments in the area, or was it more about safety? This debate aside, the perception of safety in downtown San Jose would seem to represent a key leveraging chip in the city’s ongoing efforts to attract residents, businesses and tourists.

Another key urban asset is the proximity of San Jose State University to downtown. With a student population of 30,000, the university community undoubtedly brings a wellspring of cultural and economic vibrancy to the urban center. One of the most progressive features of the area is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. library, the first joint city/university library in the nation. This was a brilliant move during a time when municipal cost savings and operational efficiency loom large.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library

So what about the future of downtown San Jose? Prospects seem bright, as it benefits from a spirit of innovation that has long characterized the Silicon Valley. But as is true with the music scene that has come to define Austin, Texas, or the spectator sports niche that Indianapolis has built itself around, downtown San Jose must establish its own unique identity in order to thrive in the ensuing years.

Michael Scott is the president of Visions for Downtown America, Inc, an economic development firm supporting the growth and sustainability of downtown central-cities. He can be reached at