San Jose seeks a gayer downtown
by Matthew S. Bajko
It is not just San Francisco that is seeing a construction boom dot its downtown areas with sky-high residential towers. San Jose's central business district is also undergoing the same transformation.
But unlike its neighbor to the north, where many of the new units are being marketed to straight baby boomers and older couples in outlying suburbs, San Jose is pursuing young gay people to join in "the evolution of downtown San Jose."
The San Jose Redevelopment Agency launched the new marketing campaign this spring. One ad features a gay couple, Andrew Duboff and Justin Donahue, holding hands and walking their dog near the campus of San Jose State University.
The tagline of the ad, which ran in the June issue of the city's monthly LGBT magazine Out Now, proclaims that the couple's downtown keyword is "love it." In an interview with the magazine, Duboff said that despite their apartment's small size and lack of a washer and dryer, it did meet key criteria.
"The location is perfect," he is quoted as saying.
Having moved into the area seven months ago from Miami, Florida to work for Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, the couple ruled out San Francisco due to the long commute they faced. And while they reportedly wish there was more retail options in their new neighborhood, they are enjoying being able to walk to nearby restaurants and shops as well as hop aboard San Jose's light rail system to travel to work.
"San Jose has all the benefits of the big city without all the hassles," Duboff told the magazine. "This is a young city that's starting to develop, and I think the city is doing a great job."
According to the agency's May housing report, 1,982 residential units have been completed or are under construction in San Jose's greater downtown area. Another 4,663 units are either in the planning or permit pipeline.
When the redevelopment agency thought about who would be attracted to the new units, the LGBT community seemed like a natural fit to include in the campaign.
"I think the operative word is 'include.' It wasn't by design but we feel it was a natural subset of the different audiences we were targeting," said Leslie Parks, the agency's director for downtown management and industrial development. "We are also a very diverse community and we take a lot of pride in it."
Parks said the campaign will run through the end of the year and is meant to draw attention to the changing landscape of San Jose's downtown core.
"We think San Jose is a real thriving urban center in Silicon Valley. It is the only one in Silicon Valley," she said. "Our story needs to be told because we are up against competition from other urban centers."
The new ads direct people to the Web site of the San Jose Downtown Association, made up of property and business owners.
Specific properties, such as Axis, a new residential tower next door to the Hotel De Anza and set to open in July, have run their own advertisements geared toward LGBT people.
Axis' spokesman, Spencer Moore, who is gay, said the property also hosted a home-buying seminar targeted at the gay community. Several of the 30 people who attended are expected to become owners in the building.
"There is no doubt that the LGBT audience is early adapters to new neighborhoods," said Moore. "Living in downtown San Jose is so foreign to people down there. You need to get the people who like it, want to be near everything. It is not for a suburban couple who wants to nest; it is for people who want to be more active. The gay and lesbian population seems to be a little more active."
Local LGBT leaders said they are thrilled with the city's push to attract members of the community to San Jose. The efforts coincide with a recent renaissance in gay nightlife, the birth of a local gay chamber of commerce, and local social networking events for LGBT professionals hosted by ActivelyOut.
"I am very excited about the possibilities. I think the city needs to do more," said Ken Yeager, who was the city's first openly gay city councilman and represented portions of downtown and the gay neighborhood of Rose Garden.
Now on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Yeager is hopeful San Jose will continue to focus on attracting entertainment and bars that cater to a gay clientele to coincide with the push to bring more LGBT residents to downtown.
"I am pushi
Aejaie Sellers, executive director of the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center in downtown San Jose, said the new push for LGBT residents coincides with what is already happening naturally among LGBT people who work in Silicon Valley. An increasing number no longer feel that San Francisco is the only place to find a thriving LGBT community in the Bay Area.
"I think it is fantastic. I think that is a reflection of how San Jose is going to get its community. For that young urban professional who is working in the tech community downtown San Jose is a great option," said Sellers. "Some of the new condos are spectacular. We don't have views of the bay but we do have beautiful views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. In winter they even get snowcapped."
Having run the center for more than two years, Sellers said she has noticed a growing number of LGBT people in their 20s and early 30s attending events. The center's weekly Wednesday night bingo games, in particular, draw a younger crowd.
"Where we have seen a huge up tick is in young members who range in age of 25 to 35. Our bingo numbers have been going through the roof," said Sellers, adding that membership now stands at 620 people, which represents a "small spike."
To appeal to the changing gay community in town, the DeFrank center has added more cooking classes and food sampling and wine tasting events to its calendar.
"We've added some of that urban stuff people kind of go out of town for. Now we try to bring them in here," Sellers said.
San Jose has always attracted its fair share of LGBT people. According to the report "Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey October 2006" by Gary J. Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, there were 2,829 same-sex couples living in San Jose two years ago. A majority of those couples, 1,740, were male partners.
The report found that LGB people comprised 5.8 percent of San Jose's population of nearly 930,000 people, based on the 2006 census data. Gates pegged the total LGB population of the city at 37,260. According to data from the secretary of state's office, as of February of this year 829 San Jose couples had registered as domestic partners, the vast majority being same-sex.
"This is a city where GLBT people feel very comfortable. Because of the high tech industry and all the universities, it draws gays and lesbians from all over the country," said Yeager. "It is a place people like to live. I know a lot of people from San Francisco move down here because they can afford a house and have a yard and dogs."
For years a large portion of the community was made up of couples living suburban lifestyles in gay-centric neighborhoods like Rose Garden and Willow Glen.
"We never had a gay district like the Castro. Ideally, we will start to develop a community presence in the neighborhood," said Sellers, who works downtown but lives in the city of Santa Clara. "Will we ever get to a point like in West Hollywood, the Castro, Dupont, or Greenwich Village? I don't think so. Certainly, we do have sections of town with a heavy gay influence."
Yeager said it will take more than one ad campaign to reach the tipping point where a gayborhood will take hold.
"There has never been a real concerted effort like in other cities, like Chicago that puts in a lot of money into a gay chamber of commerce or rainbow signs on the lamp posts. Some cities really figured out there is money to be made by promoting gay and lesbian activities," said Yeager. "San Jose is not there yet. They obviously made a start but have a long way to go."