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San Jose City Council approves preliminary plan for ‘Grand Central Station’ of the West

Tracy Seipel

Calling the opportunity to develop the area around Diridon Station a game-changer that could transform the downtown site into “the Grand Central Station” of the West Coast, the San Jose City Council on Thursday approved a preliminary plan for the area.

The development of a world-class transportation hub is among the city’s top priorities. The hub would be linked to offices, shops and housing nearby.
“All of the ingredients are there to create a great place, a unique destination district within Silicon Valley,” Kim Walesh, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development, said during a special three-hour meeting about the proposed development strategy.

The area includes Diridon Station — which serves Caltrain, VTA light rail and Amtrak — as well as HP Pavilion and, potentially, a BART station and a major league ballpark.

Even if the stadium doesn’t materialize — baseball officials have yet to rule whether the Oakland A’s can relocate to San Jose — Thursday’s vote allows the city staff to move forward with a report about the plan’s impact on the environment. That report is expected to be released next spring.

If the final plan is adopted next year, San Jose officials said, the area could ultimately be modeled after other popular regional destinations, including the L.A. LIVE entertainment complex in Los Angeles, anchored by the Staples Center; Union Station in Denver, near Coors Field; and the Kansas City Power & Light District, near the Sprint Arena.

Development, Walesh said, will have “a major positive fiscal impact for our city” by generating significant property, sales, business and utility taxes.

Planning Director Joe Horwedel said the development would occur in phases and that the future arrival of BART and high-speed rail at the station would lead to job creation nearby. And that, he said, would bring workers to San Jose instead of sending them on trains to work outside the city.

The Diridon Station area is divided into three sections: A business and research-and-development park is proposed for north of the station; entertainment, retail and office space would be located in the central area closest to the station; and residential and retail development would occur to the south.

‘It needs a mother’

But developing the area will be challenging, two consultants told the council Thursday. They noted that the public and private landowners in the area may have different ideas about land use, which could result in helter-skelter development.

A master developer could solve those issues, the consultants said, though others noted that the odds of the cash-strapped city being able to subsidize a master developer is “close to zero,” as Horwedel put it.

Still, if the city cannot pay for a master developer, there would need to be some kind of plan to coordinate the proposed projects.

“It needs a mother, in my opinion,” said developer Seth Bland, a partner at Wilson Meany Sullivan. “It’s hard to advance the ball absent a unified vision.”
Port Telles, development director at The Cordish Companies, which has developed downtown complexes related to sports venues, agreed with Bland. He suggested that public and private landowners form a joint powers authority that would serve as a single entity.

“We see that as a fundamental step in making the project successful,” he said.
Bland, whose firm helped develop San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Mission Bay Master Plan that includes AT&T Park, reminded the council that the success of both was made possible by removing elevated freeways near the area. He advised city officials to consider the negative impact of an elevated high-speed rail track at the station, saying that “in the long run, it’s worth studying alternatives.”

While the city’s plans for the area are filled with potential, the reality is that most of this won’t happen for years. Funding for high-speed rail is threatened, and it could take more than a decade to complete the BART extension through downtown.

Meanwhile, many residents want the city to re-examine whether it’s feasible to bring high-speed rail into downtown via a tunnel — even though the rail authority’s engineers have concluded that it would be technically unsound and prohibitively expensive.

Joining plans together

Under an amendment suggested Thursday by Councilman Sam Liccardo, which has been supported by Mayor Chuck Reed and Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio, the environmental report will account for both an aerial and underground high-speed rail track.

Transportation Director Hans Larsen also stressed that the goal of the plan is to “knit together” the existing downtown core with the expansion, as well as alternative modes of transportation. That means incorporating a pedestrian- and bike-friendly environment even as the city works to establish adequate parking for the area, possibly to the north and south of the station.

A panel that included representatives from the Greenbelt Alliance, Urban Land Institute and Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition seemed to approve of the city staff’s overall direction.

“Diridon must be a place where people matter more than cars,” said Michele Beasley of the Greenbelt Alliance. The proposed ballpark and station, she said, needs “strategic investment in the community outdoor living room,” which would include parks, trails and public plazas.

This article was originally published in the Mercury News.

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