May 27, 2007

How downtown San Jose bounced back - despite a new mall

My favorite quote from last week:
"When I travel to another city, I'm not interested in seeing what their Gap looks like."
-- Brian Eder, who owns an art gallery in San Jose, Calif., in a New York Times in a story about that city's re-emergence from the dot-com bust.

One of San Jose's grittier urban districts is experiencing a renaissance, despite the presence of grand new mall just a few miles away. Hmmmm, anything here sound familiar?

Reports the Times:
"On a recent balmy evening, in the South First Street Area, throngs of moviegoers gathered at the California Theater, a renovated Art Deco building. Left for dead for decades, then brought back to life a few years ago with a computer mogul's millions, the theater is now the home of the local symphony and the opera. . . . A block away, salsa lessons kicked off at a corner dance club. Diners filled the booths of a retro-chic restaurant, where bow-tied waiters toted plates of veal piccata and eggplant Parmesan. . . .

"In a city that nurtures its art institutions, an underground art scene has also taken shape. Vacant buildings, which still blemish many downtown blocks, have been transformed into temporary exhibit space for local painters and sculptors, attractive place-holders until permanent tenants arrive. . . .

"Several years before the California Theater reopened and SoFA started showing a vital nighttime pulse, developers cut the ribbon on their own downtown, five minutes west of city hall by freeway. Santana Row, a large mall with high-end retail and residential space, was decried by critics as a kind of Stepford showpiece, a triumph of commerce over culture. Mr. Eder, co-owner of Anno Domini gallery, refers to it today as Satan's Row."

I'm not going to start bashing the "Natick Collection" mall revamp before I've even seen it -- although I'll be exceedingly disappointed if the walking environment between it and the rest of the community isn't any better than the original mall's. The point here is that plenty of people enjoy a more urban, unique experience than a mall can ever offer.

How? An anchor destination that draws people there evenings and weekends is crucial -- note the movie theater in San Jose's SoFA, and the cinema showing foreign and arts films as well as U.S. commercial offerings in downtown Waltham. You also need other destinations that people can walk to, which requires an appealing streetscape.

The Amazing Things Arts Center's plans for a downtown location is a start. Improving downtown Framingham's pedestrian ambiance is also vital if downtown revitalization is going to take hold.

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