Strategies for San Jose’s South First Area Arts District
June 5, 2018
Historic storefronts in San Jose's South First Avenue arts district. Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.

This is the second of two blog posts exploring lessons and policy ideas for how to support San Jose’s South First Area arts district. Ourprevious post explored lessons from Wynwood, Miami, where public-private partnerships and zoning strategies created a dynamic arts district anchored by the iconic Wynwood Walls mural project.

San Jose’s South First Area (SoFA) has become the downtown destination for discovering visual art, food, culture, music and more. Over the last year, SPUR engaged with stakeholders and compiled research to guide city and community leaders as they face growth pressures in SoFA. Together we have looked at how the city can thoughtfully add residential units while preserving and enhancing the unique culture of the district.

Characterized by small storefronts and brick facades, SoFA inhabits the stretch of South First Street between San Carlos and Reed streets. While it has never served as a residential hub for artists, the district plays an important role in downtown as the home of theaters (San Jose Stage Company, City Lights Theater), exhibition spaces (MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, Quilts and Textiles Museum, Anno Domini), nightclubs, restaurants, breweries, architecture and design firms, a public market and the elegant, historic California Theater, where the opera and symphony perform.

A walk from one end of SoFA to the other is distinct in San Jose, marked by string lights, curb-side cafes and dynamic ground-floor activities. Adjacent streets are also adding coffee shops, galleries and maker spaces. Within blocks of SoFA’s designated bounds you’ll find anchor cultural institutions such as the Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, the Tech Museum of Innovation and the Hammer Theatre.

From Auto Row to SoFA 

In the mid-20th century, South First Street was San Jose’s auto row. Many of the showrooms had high ceilings supported by curved “bowstring” trusses, a building type that has now become the district’s unique architectural signature. But by the 1970s, dealerships had been replaced by porn theaters and the area was neglected. This decline and disinvestment produced low rents that attracted galleries and independent newspapers to these interesting industrial spaces. At the same time, the city’s redevelopment agency began to clean up the district through reinvestment in infrastructure and zoning changes to shut down the porn theaters. In the early 1990s, neighborhood leaders rebranded the area as “SoFA” and began hosting a yearly street fair of art and music. The beloved SoFA Street Fair now brings local, regional and national live music performances to SoFA twice a year. Since the 1990s, the district’s importance as an arts and culture hub has continued to grow, attracting creative people of all types.

New Opportunities and Challenges for SoFA

Despite SoFA’s current reputation as a dynamic, creative and entrepreneurial district, there is no formal designation or protection to retain the unique qualities of the community. With several large-scale residential developments proposed in SoFA, the community is exploring policies that will add new residential units while preserving and enhancing the unique culture of SoFA.

With a coming wave of change on the horizon, San Jose can learn from the successes and failures of other cities’ arts-centered community and economic development strategies, such as Miami’s catalytic mural project and subsequent rezoning efforts and Cleveland’s initiative to meet social needs and build new audiences. Each city’s approach to planning for arts districts is as unique as the artists who make it up. As San Jose plans for SoFA’s future, the following strategies can offer guideposts along the way. 

First, the physical form of the neighborhood’s buildings and streets can be reinforced and enhanced through thoughtful planning.

Design and Form: Respect what you have and build on it.

One of the unique qualities of SoFA is its concentration of buildings with small footprints, which ensures a streetscape with numerous building frontages and visual variation. This makes for a great neighborhood experience where people stop, shop, talk, take in some music and move to the next storefront to see what can be discovered. These signature buildings, with their recognizable bow truss style, incorporate qualities that should continue to be a part of the identity of SoFA.

As new mixed-use projects are built on South First Street and adjacent blocks, there is an opportunity to add interesting buildings and public spaces that compliment the area’s distinct existing architecture. Likewise, ground-floor facades with visual interest, rather than blank walls, will make or break the neighborhood’s identity. The planning department has an opportunity to set standards for SoFA and guide developers to fill in empty parcels in a way that knits the fabric of the district together. All new buildings should be appropriate for an art and design district and enhance its unique texture and character. The update to the Downtown Design Guidelines currently in progress at the City of San Jose provides a perfect opportunity to solidify such high-level urban design standards.  

Easy Urbanism: Make walking and biking the clear choice.  

SoFA draws audiences from all parts of the South Bay. Therefore, as we recommended in The Future of Downtown, it’s important to make it, and all of San Jose’s broader urban core, a “park once” district. A dynamic public realm will motivate people to park their cars once and then get from place to place on foot. And if it’s easy for visitors to get around downtown as a pedestrian the first time they visit, it will be easier to encourage them to leave their cars at home in the future and come downtown by transit, especially as transit options in downtown San Jose continue to expand.  

Adding mid-block intersections can also encourage walkability along the long blocks of SoFA. Likewise, lighting and wayfinding tools such as updated display cases and maps can better connect the places of interest within SoFA and tie the district to downtown’s broader public realm. For example, the city’s Illuminating Downtown project added lights to the Santa Clara underpass and created a comfortable pedestrian thoroughfare that better connects SAP Center visitors to San Pedro Square’s food and bar scene. A similar approach in SoFA could demonstrate the unique intersection of art and technology, create an iconic symbol of the place, and easily guide pedestrians throughout the main corridor.

Second, SoFA’s artistic and creative culture is at a tipping point as organizations strive to stay in the district and grow their programming, as well as artistic quality. Arts and culture should be carefully cultivated as the core asset for SoFA’s future.

Arts Activation: Use arts and creativity to enliven dead zones.

Temporary uses and activations can showcase SoFA’s creativity and design assets, attract residents and tourists alike to downtown establishments, and cultivate a sense of place. In order to protect and enhance temporary uses, SPUR recommends:

  • Adding bollards or other equipment to make it easier to close streets temporarily for festivals and concerts. Bollards should be well designed for function and should fit the cultural character of the district. In particular, we recommend this at First and San Carlos and First and Reed.
  • Reducing empty storefronts by incentivizing property owners to host pop-up events or mount display installations. The city’s new Vacant Storefront Registry, an 18-month pilot program, fines property owners who neglect their spaces after 30 days of vacancy. One option to avoid the fine is to host temporary activations.
  • Encouraging daytime uses of nighttime venues. Some of SoFA’s nightlife venues are empty at other times. Operating them as artist studio or rehearsal space will expand the presence of creativity in the neighborhood at all hours.
  • Incorporating a café or food truck at Parque de los Pobladores.

Districts and Branding: Carve out a formal and branded cultural district.

District designations are helpful tools to celebrate the successes of a neighborhood and set a vision for the future. With the creation of California’s new Cultural District program, SoFA can represent San Jose in a statewide consortium of neighborhoods that serve as hubs for creativity. In order to qualify for the five-year state designation, a district must be a well-defined geographic area with a high concentration of cultural resources and activities. We recommend that a SoFA-based organization take the lead on applying for cultural district status in the next cycle in order for SoFA to be recognized at the state level as cultural asset and solidify its distinct identity within San Jose.

The San Jose Downtown Association’s SoFA Leadership Team, South First Area Committee and Business Improvement District are all organized to coordinate the existing owners and users to support SoFA activation and provide access to resources. With further public space and art improvements, Team San Jose can elevate SoFA’s brand and reinforce investment in creating a cohesive sense of place that extends beyond locals to regional and national tourists alike.

Affordable Space: Create stable physical spaces for presenting the arts.  

The market is very good at attracting art to a district, less so at retaining it. SPUR recommends creating mechanisms for arts organizations to have affordable rent or ownership of their galleries and performance spaces to insure the district’s sustainability and accessibility. Three of the larger anchor institutions in SoFA already own their buildings. Several other organizations are working toward ownership.

In order to attract artists to San Jose and keep them, a unique partnership could also be appropriate, perhaps between San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs and the San Jose Museum of Art, to create an “artist in residence” program, working with developers to secure a few apartments or storefronts for a set number of years. This type of program would be the ideal complement to the city’s new effort to build an 87-unit residential development of affordable homes for artists on Balbach Street, just a few blocks from the heart of SoFA.

Finally, community leaders can best insure long-term stability for venues and arts organizations that do not already own their land by creating a land trust that acquires properties and either sells them to arts organizations or leases them at affordable rents. A property acquisition organization could also support ownership efforts through technical assistance. For example, San Francisco’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), seeded with a $5 million foundation grant, has been able to acquire two large arts spaces in the Mid-Market area and is now beginning a pilot program to provide technical and financial assistance to artists in Oakland looking to purchase real estate. We recommend creating a new entity to serve as the leader for arts in the district, based on the CAST model. This organization could also serve as the bridge between aligning new development with arts-based community goals.

Incentives and Resources: Grow the arts presence through private sector partnerships.  

Zoning and incentives can be used to encourage active ground-floor uses and below-market rent for galleries and other cultural uses on the ground floor. Especially in the early years of a new development, San Jose developments have had challenges filling retail spaces. Creative sector tenants are an ideal win-win solution for new projects in SoFA. Other cities have incentivized broader arts activities through form-based zoning and height and density bonuses. In Portland, Oregon, developers who contribute at least one percent to public art receive a density bonus that allows them to increase the heights of their developments. Miami’s Wynwood district uses zoning to encourage public art, both by requiring storefronts to have glass windows or art and by approving gallery and live-work projects “by right,” meaning they are not subject to case-by-case review and approval. The 2015 Wynwood rezoning also allows for “manufacturing enabled retail,” providing locations for small-scale artists and artisans to produce and sell their works in the same space. These strategies merit further exploration by the City of San Jose.

With growth pressures increasing in SoFA, the community and city leaders must act now in order to protect and cultivate the district’s unique culture. This can be accomplished by intersecting strategies to insure fine-grained, high-level urban design and grow cultural uses in the district through planning mechanism and private sector partnerships.

Special thanks to Applied Materials for support of this work.

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