This year, SPUR celebrates the 10-year anniversary of its work in San José. To commemorate all we’ve learned and accomplished together, we asked a dozen SPUR and South Bay leaders to reflect on what San José was like at the time, what SPUR brought to the city and how both have evolved over the past decade.
SPUR launched its work in San José near the end of the Great Recession, a time when the city was struggling with fiscal challenges, staff cuts and the recent dissolution of state redevelopment agencies.
San José Mayor Sam Liccardo was then the District 3 City Council Member.
As the downtown council member at the time, I was an enthusiastic member of the welcome party for SPUR. At the time we were grappling with a host of fiscal challenges and a real loss of public capacity. Were we just emerging from the Great Recession. We had a very painful voyage through pension reform. We had lost about a thousand city employees through the turmoil and recession. And we had just watched the elimination of the redevelopment agency from state action. So there was a dramatic diminishment in the capacity of the city to drive impact. It became very apparent to me and others that if we were going to accomplish things in the public sphere, we needed partners who could help to bring a community along.
Fred Buzo, today SPUR’s San José Director, was a Policy Advisor to Councilmember Liccardo.
So much of what we were trying to do was figure out how to stimulate and sustain economic growth while maintaining an adequate amount of city services. Having SPUR on the scene allowed city staff like myself to engage in more academic and high-level discussions about what the city should and could become in the long term. Personally, I was so entrenched at the neighborhood level that attending SPUR’s events and forums provided a much-needed respite from the daily grind. It allowed us to dream, quite frankly.
Leah Toeniskoetter, SPUR’s founding San José Director, was Real Estate Development Manager at Toeniskoetter Development. She is now Senior Manager of Corporate Citizenship at Deloitte.
SPUR arrived just as the city adopted their 2040 General Plan, their vision for the next 30 years of growth. I’d joined many of the public meetings over the four years it took to complete this plan and listened to the city, nonprofits, business and residents weigh in with concerns and ideas. The desire to build a more sustainable and economically balanced city was a consistent theme. It was a new venture to harmonize the needs of an expanding, historically suburban population while prioritizing density, transit, affordable housing, sustainability — urban values.
SPUR had operated in San Francisco since 1910, but the issues it worked on — like planning, housing, transportation and climate — were regional in nature. The organization decided to expand to San José as a pilot project to see if its model of deep local engagement could address regional issues.
Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of the Committee for Sydney, was then SPUR’s President and CEO.
Between 1910 when SPUR first got started and 2010, the geographic footprint of the Bay Area changed a lot, but the geographic footprint of SPUR did not. Over time, SPUR’s continued focus on the City of San Francisco meant that it was working in an important but relatively small part of the urbanized Bay Area. Throughout that time, SPUR had been very involved with regional and sometimes state level issues, but we understood that a lot of the truly region-shaping decisions are actually made by local governments. So we knew that it mattered a lot what other cities did, and we felt that we had something to offer in terms of a model.
Connie Martinez is the CEO of SVCreates and the former Vice Chair of SPUR’s San José Board.
The first time I heard about SPUR was in 2009, shortly before the SPUR Urban Center opened in San Francisco. I had worked in the cultural sector in San José and had formed a new nonprofit called 1stACT Silicon Valley, and we were focused on the urban design and development of our city. I was invited to the grand opening, and when I walked into the Urban Center, I thought to myself, “This is what San José needs. A group of energetic, dedicated urbanists who want great things for their city.” I wanted what they had: the capacity to elevate the conversation about the future. I wanted their research capacity. I wanted their passion.
Part of what we needed to do was to build trusting relationships, which don't happen overnight. I will give SPUR a lot of credit, because they and Gabriel Metcalf, their CEO at the time, came in with a sense of humility and a thirst for learning about our community. So we connected our burgeoning network to their established network. And three years later, after what I would call a thoughtful courtship, we were able to find the seed funding to bring SPUR to San José. Initially we found 1stACT Silicon Valley seed funding, and then we went to the Knight Foundation, the Morgan Family Foundation and the Packard Foundation.
SPUR hired Leah Toeniskoetter as its first San José director and initially worked out of 1stACT Silicon Valley’s downtown office. Early research focused on retrofitting a city that was designed after the advent of the automobile into a walkable, people-oriented urban environment.
There are many strong organizations that focus on research or education or advocacy. What makes SPUR unique is its combination of all three. The research and community input that creates a SPUR report becomes a foundational piece for future advocacy and education. Our first three research reports were on urban design, transportation and downtown San José. Those three topics were of high importance to the community and foundational to SPUR’s future work and advocacy.
SPUR brought a different mindset to San José. It’s reports and programming made it okay for people beyond the hardcore policy wonks to think about what could be. It made it okay to be an idealist when it came to the future of San José. Certain people are always ready to bring organizations like SPUR down because its ideas are “unrealistic.” So what you end up with is mediocrity. SPUR brought to the table the notion that San José need not settle for mediocrity.
Kim Walesh is the former Deputy City Manager for the City of San José.
SPUR gave us the vocabulary to talk about our urban future. While San José had some history of supporting higher-density housing and general plans that headed in the right direction on paper, it hadn’t mobilized people who truly wanted to realize an urban future. SPUR helped us embrace and understand “urban” and our identity as “urbanists.”
Kelly Snider is a Professor of Real Estate Development at SJSU and the Chair of SPUR’s San José Policy Board.
SPUR was really the first organization in San José that was not a booster club or a civic improvement committee but this well-respected third-party advocacy organization that was unabashedly proud of big cities and the benefits of living and working and communing in big cities. San Francisco was considered a city from 1849. But San José never had that. Many people 10 years ago, and even today, thought San José should not be a real city. It should jettison half of its land area and leave those communities to be suburbs. And then along comes SPUR. Here was a whole group of people, including major employers and civic donors, saying, “Big cities are great, and San José already is one, and it’s going to be even greater and even bigger.”
Anu Natarajan is the Housing Initiative Lead at Meta (Facebook) and the former Vice Mayor of the City of Fremont.
A focus on creating great places is important for community building, creating a sense of belonging and pride for any community. But it was especially important for San José as the tenth largest city in the country to focus on urban design, especially in the public realm. As an urban designer, I always looked forward to the conversations hosted by SPUR. When I was on the Fremont City Council, SPUR was one of my go-to organizations for regional land use policy discussions.
In 2013, SPUR’s San José pilot project became permanent with the opening of a storefront office on South 1st Street.
SPUR’s biggest strength is its ability to convene people, and its most interactive activity with the public is its educational programs. Both of those core functions now had an inspirational space in which to discuss, debate and create. Every part of the space was partially or fully funded by our community and supporters. It took a village of people, funders and companies believing in the vision to bring it to life. The office was located in the heart of downtown, along light rail and bike routes in a space that had been vacant for a few years. Drawing people in for programs, convenings, meetings and gatherings could not have been any more aligned with SPUR’s ideals and wishes for our downtown. Opening the office also symbolized that we were putting our stake in the ground — we had passed the test of whether SPUR would take root, and we were here to stay.
In 2015, Sam Liccardo became mayor of San José, running on an urbanist platform that advocated for housing, transit and biking.
The vision was this generational work of retrofitting this car-oriented city into a people-focused landscape. That’s the work of a generation, not of a single political term, and it requires a lot of people pushing together. So you need sophisticated partners who can help drive the conversation that brings people along. It was helpful to have organizations like SPUR providing the intellectual firepower that explains the work. And the brown bag lunches helped to convene and educate in ways that the city could never do alone.
In 2016, Teresa Alvarado became SPUR’s second San José director, bringing a focus on working with government to put SPUR’s research into practice.
Teresa Alvarado, former San José Director at SPUR, is Vice President of PG&E’s South Bay and Central Coast regions.
The first years were really about building the foundation: building the board, building the reputation of the organization, building the connection between SPUR and San José. The foundational policy papers were written during that time. So when I came in, it was really about bringing those ideas to life with my background in community building and working with city hall. Luckily, Leah had hired Laura Tolkoff as planning policy manager, so when I walked in, I had a bad ass partner who really understood how to do the public education and do coalition building with other organizations, who was comfortable with direct advocacy to the agencies we needed to reach out to. It was what Laura calls a virtuous cycle: Us doing work built our reputation for being an organization that could have an impact, which then led to more support, which led to the ability to do more good work.
Lydia Tan is the Chair of SPUR’s Executive Board and the Principal of Tan Consulting.
One issue happening in San José was a pervasive assumption that housing had a net negative impact on the city's budget. The idea was that providing fire and police and other services for one household was actually more expensive than the tax revenue that the city would take in from that one household. Our theory was that wasn't true, but we weren't sure. We felt it would be important to get that issue resolved in order to be able to promote policies that would allow more housing to happen. We had a lot of conversation around the data to interpret the information. Ultimately, our report Back in the Black came to the conclusion that it's a net positive if you are building denser housing, which also has side benefits of wonderful placemaking activation and supporting local businesses in a very meaningful way.
Rosalynn Hughey is Deputy City Manager for the City of San José.
SPUR helped us realize that our urban design guidelines really need to be updated. They hadn't been updated since the mid ’90s. One thing I love about SPUR is they partner with a lot of organizations to push things forward. Our department was able to get a grant from the Knight Foundation to fund a brand-new position. We hired a chief principal urban designer for the city for the very first time, and that person's responsibility was to help initiate the update of the citywide urban design guidelines. That was a huge win.
In 2017, The Knight Foundation and SPUR partnered to organize a multi-city European rail station study tour for decision-makers involved in planning for the expansion of Diridon Station, which will bring together Caltrain, BART, statewide high-speed rail, light rail, and local and regional bus services.
SPUR really was the independent voice driving a more ambitious and holistic and world-class vision for the Diridon Station area, for downtown San José and by extension for the city as a whole. One of our biggest wins was the study trip to high-speed rail station cities in Europe, primarily in the Netherlands. It really showcased the opportunities that San José was being presented with. We spoke to issues like how to collaborate with multiple agencies, how to fund these kinds of complex projects, how to create great public spaces, how to leverage higher density development to support transit, and vice versa. And as soon as we came back, those agencies who were not previously talking started a committee and hired an architect who we had visited in the Netherlands.
That trip set a high expectations bar and also helped cement important working relationships across organizations that needed to collaborate. SPUR’s work helped the planning for the Diridon Station Area ensure an integrated planning effort among transit modes, the new station and the surrounding development.
It was good for all of us to be able to see what could be possible and to broaden our ambitions. When we saw how effectively so many great European cities have created destinations in their urban transit centers, it inspired us to want to reach higher. The idea of public placemaking providing abundant retail, gathering spaces, focusing on the transit rider’s experience and creating iconic design that provides a memorable experience for folks who may be coming through — all of those are elements of a larger vision that the trip helped to inspire.
In 2020, under the leadership of a new CEO, Alicia John-Baptiste, SPUR made an organizational shift to center equity and to foreground advocacy in order to implement its policy research.
SPUR’s early work in San José was very much focused on the physical environment. Many people could agree that the spaces being built in San José were not great. And so SPUR came in, and said, “Let’s create a venue for learning about great spaces, participating in creating great spaces and the process of getting there.” But in the past 10 years, we’ve learned that we can’t just focus on the outcome. When Alicia John-Baptiste was appointed CEO, it seemed that SPUR was acknowledging it wasn’t an “architecture finished outcome” organization as much as it was a good governance and process organization. The reason we were getting bad spaces is because we had a bad process and, frankly, bad governance. You can’t build a great, diverse, welcoming city when it’s all based on racist ideologies and policies from the 1950s.
Candice Gonzalez is Chief Housing Officer at Sand Hill Property Company and the Chair of SPUR’s San José Board.
You could see the organization’s pivot towards more advocacy, which includes partnering with other South Bay policy groups and organizations. The impact of these partnerships and coalitions makes a huge difference when working towards a common goal — it amplifies our voice.
SPUR really helped our decision makers understand that the planning division needed to be better resourced in order to do its job and effectively engage our residents. Our residents really are the experts about their communities, and we need to include them in making decisions. I've seen and heard a lot more conversation, a lot more focus, regarding that. And as a result, we've seen projects now being built that have included some of those influences. Just across the street from City Hall, we have a project that is leasing up now. I’m very proud of that project and what it's bringing to the heart of downtown, activating the ground floor, a mix of uses — everything that our downtown needs.
In 2021, Fred Buzo joined SPUR as San José Director and SPUR published its Regional Strategy, a vision for the future of the Bay Area.
I have always loved how SPUR would tackle big ticket issues like housing, transit and land use and apply it to the local level. The quality of their research and writing has always been impressive, and emerging from the pandemic, SPUR’s commitment to supporting knowledge-building and resource-sharing through community conversations, educational workshops and resource distributions was going to be more important than ever. All of this, along with SPUR’s newly stated commitment to achieving equity and the release of the Regional Strategy, really made me believe this was the ideal time to take on the San José director position.
The Regional Strategy is an audacious 50-year plan. We spent three years working through it, and it took a lot of attention from our board members, friends of SPUR and our staff. We started with the vision of “What could the Bay Area be like in 50 years?” We imagined what the region would be like as a more equitable place with a high quality of life, affordable housing for all, great public spaces, the ability to get around the Bay Area in a way that's seamless in terms of public transportation — all of these things that we want to have happen. And then the strategy is really about how we get there from here to there in an incremental way.
Today SPUR is implementing the Regional Strategy vision through “boots on the ground” work like advocating for improvements to BART’s expansion to San José, finding governance and funding solutions for Guadalupe River Park and exploring new ways to bring community members into planning processes.
The voice of SPUR in advocating for better BART design is resulting in some improvements as we speak as the contractor is sharpening their pencil with VTA and BART to create a better rider experience and hopefully a design that will better support transit-oriented development.
So much lasting policy these days is driven by reactions to short-term issues. I think SPUR’s work has helped foster an understanding that persistent and seemingly intractable problems must be addressed with long-term solutions in mind. Much of the work we are doing in San José right now — BART Silicon Valley Phase II, Guadalupe River Park and creation of a 15-minute neighborhood framework — is about long-term visioning. We believe each of these projects is critical to the region, and SPUR is invested in their success.
We will continue to work on finding sustainable funding solutions for Guadalupe River Park, engaging in long-term planning for the Coleman Corridor and creating connections between the 28th Street/Alum Rock BART Station and the surrounding communities to the east of the station. We are also working on developing a program that helps bridge the gap between community members and city staff when it comes to land use issues. We will partner with residents, academic institutions and grassroots organizations on developing community efforts that promote smart growth and economic security. The hope is that, with the help of partners at all levels, we will cultivate opportunities for residents to shape and lead neighborhood-scale initiatives that influence decision-making on significant issues. A lot of organizations, including SPUR, talk about equity. But, as one prominent planner put it, “Equity will not happen by accident.” We must act intentionally.