By Alan Hess
Mercury News, San Jose Mercury New
At Santana Row, our ravenous consumer culture transcends its dark side. Why should the profit motive generate only idiot television commercials, wasteful fatuous product packaging, cramped crackerjack condos or the inevitable obsolescence of your new cell phone? Santana Row channels consumerism’s impulses into the creation of a living, breathing neighborhood. That’s a real accomplishment. Residents of the townhomes on the upper levels of Santana Row’s blocks can look from their windows and balconies and see something pretty much like real life on the streets below: fitness freaks on their way to the health club at dawn, mothers with strollers sitting in the parks in the mid-morning sun, business people business-lunching at sidewalk cafes at noon, shoppers cruising in and out of stores all day long, and San Jose residents of different sorts arriving to dine, drink, shop, buy a book, watch movies or dance until late at night. Ironically it’s everything that the publicly funded San Jose Redevelopment Agency has been trying to achieve in downtown San Jose for 20 years. The privately financed Santana Row made it happen first.
True, Santana Row is much smaller than downtown San Jose. The real difference, though, is the design. Federal Realty Investment Trust took a calculated risk by reinventing the shopping mall formula. But first it did its homework with master planner StreetWorks; architects Backen Arrigoni and Ross, Sandy and Babcock International, and the Steinberg Group; and landscape architects SWA and April Phillips. They took the roof off the mall so people could hang out in the sunshine. They added housing so it was more than a machine in which to shop. They took space away from retail and gave it to people for parks. Instead of segregating cars and pedestrians, they boldly mixed them together, making it work by narrowing the streets just enough to slow the cars so pedestrians could jaywalk safely. Seems like a simple thing, but it is a level of design that rarely takes place. Sure, if you scratch Santana Row you’ll still find a mall. Its tenant mix is just as precisely tailored as Westfield Valley Fair’s, its misshapen twin across Stevens Creek Boulevard.
But Valley Fair is part of the dark side of consumerism. It sees you and me as cogs in the economy, not as citizens with well-rounded lives. Santana Row realizes that we want to be with our fellow humans for reasons other than selling or being sold to. We dine at sidewalk cafes to enjoy good food and good friends, not to increase the stock price of an agribusiness corporation. We want to be near the action. We want to see what other people are doing – and we want other people to know what we are doing, wearing and saying. The single-minded hard sell is not necessary. Consuming is a part of life, not its totality. Understand that, mix it with imagination and a bit of daring, and you’ve got a good investment and a good piece of architecture.