Illuminating DowntownSan Jose, CA
San Jose’s llluminating Downtown Program (IDP) is a multi-layered program that combines art, high-tech strategies and environmental sustainability to help realize San Jose’s goal of creating an engaging Downtown that looks, feels and acts like the Capital of Silicon Valley. IDP began with a planning charrette that identified two key downtown areas as project locations and four project types: Beacons, Gateways, Wayfinding and Points of Interaction.
ArtPlace spoke with San Jose Public Art Director Barbara Goldstein about the project.
ARTPLACE: What do you have to do really (really) well to achieve success with your initiative?
GOLDSTEIN: Illuminating Downtown must achieve a strong and lasting visual impact: a new visual image for our downtown. This will be achieved in the form of several pilot projects and it’s our hope that by initiating projects that set a high standard, Illuminating Downtown will go ‘viral’ and more projects will result.
San Jose’s Downtown’s needs help to create a strong visual identity. It’s impossible to develop buildings over 22 stories in downtown San Jose because of the proximity of our airport and the direction of its flight path.
Furthermore, land is limited: like many 20th century downtown’s ours is encircled by freeways. These factors have resulted in a stumpy downtown with many flat-topped buildings developed to the maximum building envelope. With the exception of a few historic buildings and our Richard Meier-designed City Hall, the skyline is fairly bland. In addition, the pedestrian experience is visually impoverished by a lack of consistent ground level retail.
To succeed, Illuminating Downtown must make a major visual impact on both the skyline and the pedestrian experience. This will require not only determination on the part of San Jose Public Art, but strong partnerships with our political leadership, property owners and developers.
ARTPLACE: How do you expect the community to change as a result?
GOLDSTEIN: We believe that if we make our downtown more recognizable and engaging from the air, the car, by bicycle and on-foot, it will become a more attractive place for people to live and work. In a region with a high cost of living, focused on attracting new talent, it is essential that we create an engaging urban center.
Additionally, there is a social aspect to the development of IDP. We are trying to engage and empower a wide array of stakeholders in Downtown to become excited about what can be done collectively to change the perception and engagement of people with the downtown area – sort of an “all ships rise together” approach.September, 2012
ARTPLACE: Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization and the artists who work with you? Are there new skills required?
It’s been very gratifying to hear decision makers respond to the basic concept of Illuminating Downtown as a means of creating a stronger identity for San Jose as Silicon Valley’s only true city center. The response from clean tech industry partners has also been encouraging. We’ve successfully launched our first, and most ambitious, pilot project and we are working toward realizing three others. As a result, we’re very aware of the challenges: building community consensus, jumping through bureaucratic hoops, and convincing investors to participate in the project. Fortunately for us, as frustrating as the first two challenges are, we deal with them every day. The third challenge, attracting building owners to invest in the project, has been a greater challenge.
We’re developing a strategy to tackle the investment challenge. We have decided to initiate IDT by commissioning projects that are within our span of control. Our first project, a major gateway, is building on an approved public art plan to illuminate the underside of a state freeway that forms the west entrance to our downtown. We have partnered with the San Jose Downtown Association’s Beautification Committee and Philips Lumileds, a locally-based LED manufacturer, to commission artist Dan Corson to create an immersive, interactive lighting project for the streets that cross under Highway 87 and over the Guadalupe River Trail.
Highway 87 passes above two streets that draw people from our restaurant row to our sports arena and to and from our train station into the downtown business district. There was general agreement that this dark, dusty scary eyesore needed to be transformed from a challenge to an asset. Now that we’ve enrolled SJDA’s Beautification Committee as supporters and Philips Lumileds is providing in-kind support, we are confident that Dan’s proposal – two interactive environments responsive to movement and sound, will be transformational. Dan is even proposing lighting improvements to the trail alongside the Guadalupe River that will help draw pedestrians and bikes to use the trail during dark times of the day.
Building the case for private developers to invest in lighting their building tops has been a bigger challenge to us for a couple of reasons. First, there are many ways to activate building tops with light, each with a different associated cost. Property owners are anxious to know how a project like ours will translate into a return on investment, and it’s difficult for us to predict this. Our strategy, in this case, is evolving into presenting property owners with strong vision of what could be, attaching a dollar amount to this, and initiating one on one meetings with individual property owners in order to stimulate excitement. As we move ahead with this pilot project, we will be initiating public discussions with lighting experts and public art administrators who have created light-based projects, and will be partnering with our local urban design advocacy organization to promote a public conversation.
PHOTO courtesy of Flickr user Michael Patrick.