Three key lessons from Knight Cities Challenge winners in San Jose, Calif.

Communities / Article

Photo by Travis Wise on flickr.

There is less than one week left to submit applications for the current round of the Knight Cities Challenge. The challenge closes for applications at noon ET on Nov. 3.

These proposed projects must take place in one or more of the 26 Knight communities and be focused on helping attract and retain talent, expand economic opportunity or create a culture of civic engagement.

Past winners in San Jose, California, offered a range of insights for new applicants based on the progress of their initiatives and lessons they’ve learned. The winners are building community through projects that activate streets and connect neighbors through arts and culture. The projects all fit into San Jose’s larger goals as it continues to reinvent itself as a vibrant urban center and move away from being thought of as a car-centric city built around corporate campuses.

Photo by Paulo Philippidis on flickr.

Three themes emerged from past winners.

Think big.

“It’s inspirational to think big and to go for projects that you’re plowing new ground with your city or with your community,” said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association.

Knies is part of the leadership for the San Pedro Squared project, a 2015 Knight Cities Challenge winner. The project will transform 12 parking spaces on the ground floor of a city-owned garage into four retail spaces, a hallway and a loading zone. The garage faces downtown San Jose’s San Pedro Square, an area with vibrant retail, entertainment and dining options – and not far from the SAP Center, an indoor arena where the San Jose Sharks play.

The project “challenged the conventional thinking about what constitutes active space in a parking garage,” Knies said.

The San Pedro Squared project is expected to break ground in 2017 and will activate this central street again, decades after the parking garage was built. The street activation was partially prototyped in early 2016, during the Super Bowl in nearby Santa Clara. San Jose used old turf from Levi’s Stadium to line the street and create a 10-day outdoor environment for the community with vendors and games and other activities.

Build a realistic timeline.

Thinking big brings its own challenges.

Knies characterizes San Pedro Squared as a “very ambitious project” because it involves a variety of organizations and legalities to transform part of a city garage into retail spaces. More than 20 months in, the project still isn’t complete. Since there is no existing process in place in San Jose for this transformation, Knies said charting new territory has extended their timeline. The team is currently accepting public bids for construction and preparing to go to city council for approval in December.

Photo by Travis Wise on flickr.

Listen to your community.

In San Jose’s Mayfair neighborhood, 2016 Knight Cities Challenge winner Demone Carter believes applicants should “think big” but also be ready to do a lot of listening.

Carter is project lead for The MayFeria project, which aims to use arts and culture to connect the community.

“Can we get people to feel more of a sense of ownership about what happens in a neighborhood, how it looks and also celebrating the artistic and cultural vitality of the residents in the neighborhood?” Carter said of the project’s goals.

To do that, Carter is helping organize four festivals in Mayfair, a predominately immigrant community that faces socio-economic challenges. Nicknamed “MayFerias” (in Spanish feria means fair or festival), the events will be a show and tell for the neighborhood with music, dance performances and cooking demos. The first MayFeria is scheduled for Dec. 9, with the following festivals slated for days in March, July and September 2017.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to merge maker culture with the existing arts and culture here in the Mayfair,” Carter said.

Instead of developing a solution and dropping it on the community, Carter believes in developing programming for a community to directly reflect its needs, cultures and linguistics. He recommends “making sure that you’re listening to the community that you intend to serve and all the different stakeholders in that community.”

In planning the MayFerias, Carter has worked with community organizations to identify local resources and needs that make sense for San Jose and the Mayfair neighborhood.

“We’ve taken a lot of time to make sure that the way we roll this out will be meaningful to the community that we intend to serve,” Carter said.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @VigneshR.

For more on the Knight Cities Challenge and to apply, visit, follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter, or attend a virtual or in-person information session.