Issue 576 Winter 2024
Q: What If We Get Downtown Right? - Hero Image by Ishita Jain
Illustration by Ishita Jain

What If We Get Downtown Right?

SPUR invited community leaders to envision the future outcome of today’s downtown revitalization efforts.

Urbanist Article

Reports of downtown’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Recently, a major study of American downtowns revised its analysis and found that urban centers have not been as slow to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic as previously reported.

This news is welcome — and not surprising to those who live or work in urban centers and who have witnessed the steady increase in pedestrian traffic, transit riders, and lines at retail stores and restaurants. Housing conversion studies, new cultural events, and initiatives that match artists with vacant storefronts are expanding the understanding of downtown as a central business district, re- vealing the possibility of a welcoming place to live, work, and play.

SPUR asked community leaders in San Francisco, San José, and Oakland the question: “What would it look like if cities were to get downtown right?” We invited them to picture a future in which today’s ideas and policy proposals for downtown revitalization are put into place...and they work.


San José is hiring newly graduated college students at a faster rate than anywhere else in the nation, which means we have a young population that is transforming what downtown looks and feels like. We are the center of innovation, and I see our infrastructure reflecting that in the years ahead. Robotaxis, glydeways, fully electric skyscrapers, and other advancements are right around the corner.

Matt Mahan, Mayor
City of San José

I would like to see San Francisco make a commitment to reconfiguring downtown in a way that speaks uniquely to its values of social, economic, and racial equity and supports, rather than threatens, the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, each of which have deep-rooted identities and soul.

Malcolm Yeung, Executive Director
Chinatown Community Development Center

The downtown San José of the future is a regionally connected place where people live full lives walking, biking, and taking transit. It’s a place where there is always something going on: street fairs, sports and concerts, and new restaurants inspire people. It’s an inclusive place that lets all of San José’s hundreds of subcultures find expression.

Ramses Madou, Division Manager
Planning, Policy, and Sustainability, Department of Transportation, City of San José

I am a believer in the 8/80 concept that says we should strive to provide amenities that can be appreciated by an eight-year-old and an eighty- year-old in equal measure. For a city to get downtown right, it should be welcoming with a lot of trees, parklets, and gardens — and no gasoline- powered vehicles. It should be pedestrian friendly with something for all demographics in terms of culture, arts, language, food, music, and recreation.

Subhajeet Seve Ghose, Executive Director
Yerba Buena Gardens Conservancy

I imagine a vibrant downtown where collective healing is made possible daily through meaningful gatherings, inspiring spaces, and safety for all individuals, beginning with Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, trans, and disabled people. I envision lush green spaces accessible to all, where rustling tree leaves and melodic water streams drown out the monotonous traffic sounds, offering a sanctuary to those in search of moments of peace and connection. I envision flourishing small businesses in every corner, made possible by a diverse collective of passionate dreamers and creators. This is a downtown created by and for the most marginalized among us, thereby making possible the most inclusive, joyous, and liberating space for everyone.

Michelle MiJung Kim, Author
The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change

Less cars, more feet on the street, heads in beds and butts in seats.

Andrew Jones, Program Director
Uptown & Downtown CBDs | Oakland Central

In downtown’s core, dreams unfurl,
Car-free streets, a vibrant swirl.
Skyscrapers tall, co-working’s grace,
Boutiques and parks, a lively space.

Cultural blend, stories told,
Nature’s breath in concrete fold.
Homes for all, connections thrive,
Tech and green, harmonious drive.

Past and future, hand in hand,
Downtown’s pulse, a vibrant land.
Revitalized, hopes brightly gleam,
Downtown’s heart, a vibrant dream.

Khanh Russo, Vice President
Policy and Innovation San Francisco Foundation

If we get it right, downtown San José will show how cities remain critical to the biggest challenges of our time, such as climate change, migration, economic opportunity, social justice, and equity. If we get it right, downtown will achieve a clearly articulated identity as a great place to live/work/play/engage — for all residents. If we get it right, community values such as inclusion, curiosity, education, and creativity will be reflected in the lived experience of both residents and visitors. If we get it right, diverse economic and education opportunities will be defining characteristics of downtown.

Brendan Rawson, Executive Director
San José Jazz

When I picture the future of downtown San José, I see a safe, bustling hub for residents, workers, visitors, and students. The closure of San Pedro Street to vehicles has been a game-changer, transforming it into a vibrant pedestrian mall with street performers, outdoor cafes, and pop-up markets, drawing crowds day and night. The city continues to identify more streets to make pedestrian malls. Collaboration between SJSU and local businesses has led to student discounts, internships, and a stronger sense of community pride. Small businesses thrive, thanks to their inclusion in downtown events and innovative marketing.

Omar Torres, District 3 Council Member
City of San José

In 2050, downtown San Francisco (DTSF) is a place for both work and work from home, a dynamic central activity district providing a rich, carbon-neutral way of life.

DTSF began with clustering residential mixed-use development in priority areas, providing the critical mass of residents needed to support a thriving district with amenities, services, jobs, culture, recreation, and a sense of community. Strategic investment in prime corridors such as Bush Street and Kearny Street catalyzed the remaking of DTSF. Active streets lined with neighbor- hood amenities and cultural spaces, an inviting network of intimate alleys (inspired by Melbourne, Australia), and new residential open spaces for public access to sun and light transformed the area’s physical experience and identity. These improvements jump-started change, then became permanent over time.

Ellen Lou, Principal
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

We treasure the past and realize downtown’s destiny of becoming a more connected and ever more inspiring city center.

Michael Lomio, Senior Land Use & Economic Development Policy Advisor
Office of Mayor Matt Mahan

When cities get downtown right, they not only create physical spaces but also a sense of belonging and shared experience, transforming their cores into thriving, welcoming, and inspiring cultural epicenters. A successful downtown circulates dollars within and to the local economy and builds the capacity of the city to cooperatively own and safeguard its critical human, spiritual, and physical assets. The urban environment becomes a testament to a city’s unique identity, offering an authentic glimpse into its soul.

Ari Curry, Chief Experience Officer
Carolyn “CJ” Johnson, Chief Executive Officer Charlese Banks, Culture and Arts Brand Steward Black Cultural Zone CDC