Downtown San Jose go to exercise soars, Oakland jumps, S.F. nosedives

Downtown San Jose skyline, March 2024. The visible buildings include the 200 Park tower (left), Adobe and Riverpark towers (background) and some Cityview Plaza buildings (center).

SAN JOSE — Visits to downtown San Jose have soared over the last year, providing a welcome counterpart to the forbidding economic trends that have haunted the Bay Area in the wake of the coronavirus.

Downtown Oakland visits have also hopped higher during the 12-month period that ended in March, according to a new School of Cities report produced by the University of Toronto.

A drone view of downtown Oakland, Calif., on Monday, April 8, 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Downtown Oakland in a drone view, April 2024. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

San Francisco’s visitor activity, in sharp contrast, weakened badly, the university’s latest report shows. The nosedive in activity may reinforce the perception that a “doom loop” scenario plagues San Francisco.

The economic “doom loop” scenario has surfaced for San Francisco due to that city’s cycle of a retail exodus, crime woes, office and hotel foreclosures, and sky-high office vacancy rates that have soared to record levels.

San Francisco's skyline silhouettes against a scarlet sunset, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. Weather forecasts predict return of rain to the region on Saturday. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
The sun sets in San Francisco, January 2024. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Downtown San Jose visits, in contrast, jumped 28.2%, the 8th-best performance in North America, the university’s study found.

University of Toronto researchers analyzed cell phone data to determine visits to 64 downtown districts in the United States and Canada.

Visits to downtown Oakland rose 20.6%, giving Oakland the 16th-best increase among the 64 cities that were surveyed.

San Francisco visits, in sharp contrast, plummeted 21.6% over the 12 months that ended in March, which was the worst performance of the 64 cities in the University of Toronto report.

The increase in visits to downtown San Jose may be partly due to an array of unique businesses that have sprouted in the urban core of the Bay Area’s largest city, in the view of San Jose Mayhor Matt Mahan.

“We are seeing a lot of entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks again,” Mayor Mahan said in an interview with this news organization at a recent event in downtown San Jose.

The fading of the coronavirus-linked business shutdowns that devastated the Bay Area and California economies may have helped to spur business formations in San Jose and elsewhere around the state.

“The pandemic had a bit of a chilling effect on new businesses,” Mahan said. “Now that we’re past that, we are seeing people from all over this city willing to take that leap and start a new business, or move from a garage to a storefront.”

Mahan’s efforts to tackle some basic problems that have afflicted downtown San Jose in the wake of the coronavirus appear to be helping to make the city’s urban core more attractive and likely to entice visitors, in the view of Nick Goddard, a senior vice president with Colliers, a commercial real estate firm.

“Mayor Mahan’s actions on homelessness and crime in the downtown has made a marked difference in cleanliness and safety,” Goddard said.

San Jose’s relatively strong performance suggests the South Bay city benefits from a favorable comparison to San Francisco, in the view of Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a San Jose-based think tank.

“Whether wrongly or rightly, San Jose’s reputation hasn’t taken the same kind of hit as San Francisco,” Hancock said. “Recent polls showed a reluctance on the part of many to frequent San Francisco’s downtown. San Jose is still perceived to be clean and safe, and more readily accessible.”

Goddard says he sees a growing amount of anecdotal evidence that a rebound is underway in downtown San Jose, especially in terms of visits to the urban core.

“All of our downtown food and beverage operations are way in excess of their pre-COVID levels,” Goddard said.

Urban Putt, a miniature golf site, is another unique venue that is helping draw people into downtown San Jose.

“I’ve been by Urban Putt a few times and there’s a two- to three-hour wait to get in,” Goddard said. “They are doing very well.”

Several restaurants have opened recently in the downtown, noted Leah Toeniskoetter, president of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce. More are slated to open. Another unique venue, an ax-throwing site called Unofficial Logging, is preparing a new space downtown.

“San Jose’s attractiveness as a destination for evening entertainment is clear,” Toeniskoetter said.

Here’s how other California cities fared that made it into the top 20 and how their visit activity changed during the year-long period:

— Los Angeles, a 24.5% increase, for a ranking of No. 12.

— San Diego, an increase of 21.4%, for a ranking of No. 15.

Also of note, New York City managed an 18.9% increase, for a ranking of No. 20.

The gains in activity for San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities topped the overall trend nationwide, the university stated.

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