When word of President Lincoln’s assassination trickled into California in 1865, a tiny community called Willow Glen changed the name of its main street to Lincoln Avenue. In the years that followed, local businesses sprouted up along Lincoln and thrived, making it the commercial anchor of the unincorporated township. Since then, its residents have fought to keep it intact.
In 1925, the city of San Jose proposed a railroad cutting straight through the community, but the residents rallied, incorporated the town, and voted it down. Willow Glen eventually rejoined sprawling San Jose, but in the 1960s, a highway that would bisect the neighborhood was proposed, and again, residents successfully blocked it.
Kahn Design Associates stepped into a deep local tradition when Alex Byer of Paja Investments brought this Berkeley-based architecture firm in to rebuild the commercial corner of Willow Street and Lincoln Avenue. Yet the resulting Willow Glen Town Square has been a huge success with even the community’s most protective residents because of its subtle touches and sensitivity to Willow Glen history.
Kahn Design Associates created a blend of public and private space that attempts to reverse troubles faced by the waning main streets of America. The firm needed to make an area that would bolster the commercial district for the long-term—during a recession, no less—while stitching the development into the existing fabric of Lincoln Avenue, and the corner of Lincoln and Willow already housed one beloved local institution—Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza. So important is the eatery, that Byer was determined to keep it.
“Alex Byer isn’t a typical developer,” says Charles Kahn, principal and founder of Kahn Design Associates. A long-term resident of the South Bay area, Byer has a tendency to hold on to his properties instead of flipping them for a quick profit. The short-term trouble of a recession, then, didn’t deter him.
Throughout the project, Byer and Kahn Design Associates maintained a uniquely populist perspective. The Willow Glen Town Square Plaza was a purely public space with a gently splashing fountain and native landscaping, and it has new but old-fashioned lampposts with state-of-the-art HID bulbs by Sternberg to help set off the evenings. Kahn says that corner is prime leasing space in the area. “Alex’s decision to give that back to the community was really great,” he says.
Demolishing several city blocks to build a mall was like creating something from whole cloth, Kahn says, but the history was a defining factor for the project. “To try to fit a project like this into the existing fabric of the neighborhood requires real subtlety and close attention to what that existing fabric is,” he says. The 1991 Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza brick building was successfully preserved and remained open as the construction went on around it; it also got a new outdoor patio in the rebuild. Willow Glen Creamery, a frozen yogurt shop that stood where the corner plaza is today, stayed open until the final phase of construction and then moved into the new development.
The plaza is a deep notch in the street-facing corner of the L-shaped building. From there, shoppers, diners, and customers enter through a lobby, which is floored with a 60 percent recycled terrazzo by San Francisco’s Associated Terrazzo and lit by a custom glass chandelier designed by Neidhardt, another California firm. Both the lighting and flooring feature a willow leaf pattern—the graphic identity Kahn Design Associates created for the space.
The lobby is located behind a three-story tower, envisioned as an iconic lighthouse structure that would stand at this busy intersection for decades to come. “I think the single most sustainable feature was creating a building that the community loves and has embraced that will be part of this community long after I’m gone,” Kahn says. “The greatest energy cost for any building is building it. If we can build something that will last 100 years or longer, that’s one of the best things we can do for the environment.”
The tower is clad in a distinctive, partially recycled-content red tile by Crossville, which, along with the tiled roofing and stucco exterior, evokes a lightly modern Mediterranean architectural style. Bike racks are also on the site and so are showers for tenants and employees, in which low-flow bathroom fixtures by Kohler and Symmons reduce water consumption by more than 42 percent.
On the Lincoln Avenue side of the L-shape, the street level houses restaurants and retail, and above that are office spaces in a variety of shapes and sizes; some are as small as 200 square feet. “We actually designed the offices so someone could have a home office,” Kahn says. “They wouldn’t have to get in the car and drive all the way to San Francisco, if they were able to work locally most days of the week.” This, Kahn says, is true mixed-use where people can be working, living, shopping, and eating all in the same immediate area.
Before construction began, a community meeting was called. Residents came out to hear Byer and Kahn speak about their plans for the historic commercial district. When they finished with the slideshow, there followed a beat of silence, and then one of the residents said, “I just have two words for you. Bra-vo!”
That seal of approval from Willow Glen propelled the project forward, and in turn, the project has revitalized the community. The opportunity to officially celebrate came during a grand opening block party in November 2012. Willow Street Pizza and Willow Glen Creamery passed out samples from buildings old and new, retail shops opened their doors for the first time, painters daubed designs on children’s cheeks, and Willy Wonka and Italian chef figures on stilts entertained the crowd.
During the festivities, a community newspaper reporter asked Byer what was next for the square. He replied, “We’re going to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”