San Jose is California’s third-largest city. It is the self-proclaimed “capital of Silicon Valley.” It boasts a well-educated and well-traveled population. And yet, frustratingly, downtown’s dining scene is not what it could be. Or should be. In truth, eating downtown has never been better. There is a growing variety of restaurants and a few real gems. But still. There are far too many chain restaurants that add a trickle of revenue to the city’s tax base but do nothing to help create a distinctive San Jose flavor. In fact, they inhibit it.

That’s why the San Pedro Square Market gives me so much hope. Work on the 50,000-square-foot project is well under way, and completion is set for next spring. The marketplace will house about 30 vendors including a produce market, meat and fish market, wine bars, demonstration kitchen, restaurants, a barbershop, live music and a 25,000-square-foot public square.

The project consists of an outdoor plaza area surrounding the Peralta Adobe plus three buildings: the old El Dorado building on San Pedro (formerly the Laundryworks and a succession of failed restaurants and clubs), currently being retrofitted; the Lusardi building at the southeast corner of St. John Street and Almaden Avenue; and a new prefab metal building with roll-top doors being built at the southwest corner of St. John and San Pedro.

Whereas the city has long subsidized forgettable national chain restaurants and stores, San Jose has committed $6 million in loans and structural improvements to get this project off the ground. Thumbs up on that.

What’s so cool about this project is that it is drawing its 30 tenants from the community. Starbucks and McDonald’s need not apply. To create a distinctive downtown experience, the project has to involve the community. If it’s filled with soul-sucking national chains, it might as well be called a mall.

“We are the anti–strip mall and anti–regional mall,” says project manager Steve Borkenhagen, who has long been an advocate for independent, local business. (You hear that, Santana Row?) He’s the owner of Eulipia restaurant and one of the founders of the Camera One theaters.

Borkenhagen hopes the market will become the “gravitational center” of downtown San Jose, a place that will finally create a destination for shopping, eating, drinking, socializing and just hanging out and reading a book in the plaza. “This will be the quintessential San Jose experience,” he says.

I sure hope so. So far, only six tenants have signed on, and the composition of those businesses will dictate to a large extent what kind of experience visitors have. But several leases are in negotiation, and I believe more will come. 

More than any other project in recent memory, this market has the potential to transform downtown. The ripple effect of the project around downtown may finally give the area the urban experience it deserves.