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November 3, 2002

San Jose Mercury News – Santana Row Creates Suburban Inroads

By: Alan Hess

“Santana Row’s blend of housing, shopping, restaurants, entertainment, a hotel and parking reflects the multi-dimensional activity of a traditional city”

“Artistic touches evoke the tony feel of Europe or Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive”

It was more than worth the wait.  It should set the pattern for all future developments from Coyote Valley to Moffett Field and beyond. The new multi-use project on Stevens Creek Boulevard is a tour de force in imaginative design, planning and execution.  The audacious concept blends housing, shopping, restaurants, entertainment, a hotel and parking into a fully formed public space in the heart of suburbia. It is a place where different people will come for different reasons throughout the day, creating the multi-dimensional activity – as opposed to just shopping – that we enjoy in a traditional city.

Will it succeed in these bumpy financial times?  That remains to be seen. But its superb exploitation of views and its revelry in outdoor living have already succeeded in capturing the flavor of Santa Clara Valley. A stroll from the top of Santana Row at the new Crate & Barrel store reveals something new in the urban life of Santa Clara Valley and, indeed, the nation. The first block is a fairly narrow auto street with a slender median of trees, and lined with four-and five-story residential loft buildings. Shops line the ground floor’s colonnades. A wide pedestrian walkway cuts through one building to the parking garage behind it.

Urban intimacies

The buildings have a largeness and regularity, though the 140-foot facades are divided into sections, as if they were a collection of individual buildings. It’s a visual trick, but it makes for a street that understands the value of visual interest and human scale. Lower balconies create the urban intimacy of New Orleans’ French Quarter.  The street widens and changes in the next block.  Two monumental buildings frame the street: on the left, a Spanish-style palazzo with townhomes above and stores below, and the 213 – Hotel Valencia (opening early 2003) on the right. Handsome towers anchor the corners. The buildings speak confidently to each other across the boulevard, creating a center of gravity.  On the upper levels, terraces and loggias offer splendid perches to look down on activity of Santana Row and out to the purple-tinged mountains at sunset.

The next block is the heart of Santana Row: a perfectly proportioned square, planted with Oaks, populated with small food kiosks and wide enough to allow lanes of traffic on either side.  The surrounding urban walls give diners and strollers something interesting to look up at. Low stone walls around the plaza create seating and allow diners to feel at ease with the nearby cars. The easy co-existence of cars and pedestrian at Santana Row is a mark of its suburban roots. Still missing is a final retail building to complete the fourth side at the head of Santana Row. But the sense of proportion is so well tuned, so vivid, that we can easily imagine the missing pieces. Equally imaginative is the artwork found throughout in fountains, decorative walls, rough-hewn planters and ceilings. There is a mix of objects from Europe and original confections. The developer has turned its back on the bland aesthetic of most shopping malls and reached for a genuinely fresh, even funky art of mottled textures and antique patinas.

Is Santana Row European? Not really. It’s more reminiscent of parts of Greenwich Village, where small 19th century parks and squares are cozily hemmed in by the cliff-like walls of early 20th-century apartment houses. But Santana Row is significantly more that an imitation. Its historical sources are altered so thoroughly, so creatively, so commodiously to this suburban commercial strip site that it represents a true evolutionary leap in urban design. Those responsible for the project are developer Federal Realty Investment trust, master planner StreetWorks, architects Backen Arrigoni and Ross, Sandy & Babcock International and landscape architects SWA and April Phillips. The master plan is a wonder of subtle proportions and detailed scale. In a manner both pragmatic and sensitive, the planners weave together a remarkable variety of spaces, from the ample boulevard to the small side streets and squares. Parking is designed just as imaginatively as the public spaces. Parking structures, underground or a block off Santana Row, are connected to the main street and activities with walks lined with stores and restaurants; the act of walking from car to store or home becomes an urban occasion, not a hike through a concrete cave.

Evolutionary milestone

Santana Row is the next step in suburbia’s long evolution. More a downtown than a village, it is denser than most New Urbanist proposals. It is far more innovative that the muddled expansions of neighboring Valley Fair, or the watered down New Urbanist pretensions of Santa Clara’s Rivermark. Santana Row is enlightened commercialism – commerce that realizes it does its best when it is part of the daily life of shopping, relaxing and doing business. We really had no right to expect Santana Row would turn out this well. The vision was so far-reaching, the commercial program so unconventional, the design so complex, the execution so painstaking, that most developers are not willing to make that effort or take that risk. What’s next? There’s more of Santana Row to come. Several secondary blocks to the east and northwest are unbuilt, with plans for more housing, A Cineplex is planned. These spaces promise even more richness, variety and delight.