Posted by Steve Skibbie
I’m not a n00b to our downtown, but I’m somewhat new to the downtown revitalization industry. One thing that is apparent to me is that cities can learn a lot from other cities. There’s historical precedent to this even going back to ancient cities like Rome, Athens and Alexandria where trade and travel between major cities brought an infill of business investment, diverse social groups and innovations in design, art and technology. Learning how other downtowns work is smart.
Last week, the Downtown Fresno Partnership made a day-trip to San Jose to meet with the downtown association. Their group has been promoting their downtown for more than two decades and they have both a business improvement district (supported by business owners) and a property-based improvement district (supported by property owners). Their Downtown PBID provides a team of Ambassadors like ours, only theirs operate on a more maintenance and environmental level than ours. Our Ambassador Team also does cleanup, but functions at a “concierge” level, providing all sorts of information to visitors as well as extra “eyes on the street” security. Both San Jose’s and Fresno’s Downtown Ambassadors are trained for making people downtown feel welcome and safe.
While San Jose has extensive development and investment in their downtown, light-rail public transportation and professional hockey and soccer teams, there are commonalities to Fresno’s downtown with its many surrounding older neighborhoods, historic buildings and new ones, Fresno’s diagonally oriented streets boundaried by freeways.
San Jose has comparable challenges, too. Their downtown is surrounded by miles of sprawling suburbs, they have vacant buildings or storefronts (humorously referred to as “missing teeth”) and homeless issues. They are making strides in attracting more downtown residents. Plans are for three new high-rise rentals and an additional 4,000 residents.
We met at the San Jose Downtown Association’s office and their staff guided us on a walking tour through their districts. We asked their staff a lot of questions. We admired San Jose’s amenities like their green spaces, public art and restored architecture. We also noticed the vital elements like parking signage, branding of their events, storefront marketing, public restrooms, streets and curb designs. Parts of their downtown were sectored into districts, offering a significant identity to each area of downtown. I enjoyed the minimal landscaping, their uniformly arbored sycamores along their streets that allow good foliage for shade but also great visibility on the street to the storefronts.
Like our downtown, San Jose also hosts a number of art, music and food festivals throughout the year, a seasonal Farmers Market and a seasonal ice skating rink which we toured and took close operational notes. Their 20-seasons-old ice rink will finish with about 50,000 visitors. Fresno’s Downtown Ice Rink will close its second season with around 40,000 skaters. Not too shabby, Fresno.
While the trip to San Jose’s downtown gave us a reminder of how far Fresno has to go, it was a valuable time to consult with experts and get a nod to Fresno’s progress at the restoration of our downtown. We continue to learn, we continue to borrow ideas that work and phase out the old ones that don’t. I believe we’re on to something big here in Fresno.