RISHI'S PLAN FOR SARATOGA BUSINESS REVITALIZATION
Driving towards a Thriving Commercial District in Saratoga EXECUTIVE
SUMMARY: This position paper seeks to address some of the current
issues with our commercial districts, and how we can adopt some best
practices, to get them going. How long can we continue to preserve
ourselves out of business? How about creating a healthy business
climate - with successful businesses that will be frequented by our
teenagers and families for a vibrant Saratoga, while still preserving
the character of Saratoga. Can a vibrant Saratoga downtown enhances our
quality of life. A vision master plan for downtown will help to steer us
in the right direction.
Rishi's other position papers are here <- click here
Letters published in Saratoga News supporting Rishi - click here
INTRODUCTION: Saratoga has predominantly five commercial districts. Saratoga Village, Argonaut, Gateway, Quito Village and Prospect. With my Planning Commission experience and Saratoga Chamber of Commerce experience, I was aware of some of the challenges with our commercial districts. As part of my learning and listening earlier this year, I met business owners across all these five commercial districts and held coffee socials with them to see what is working and what needs improvement. Some of my learning and key conclusions are articulated below. There were empty store fronts in all these commercial districts, and that was not a pleasant sight. Blockbuster went out of business in Argonaut Plaza, and we still haven't found a replacement. Buy and Save has been vacant for a few years now, now occupied by a dance school. We just have to improve the business climate of our town.We are a residential community with very limited sources of revenue, working on a tight budget that works well for our minimal service city. But, we cannot afford to go below the $1.2M sales tax revenue, to sustain our programs and resources, though the upside may be limited as well.
Saratoga Village is the heart of Saratoga, and it needs to be healthy and vibrant. Our delightful village with the one main street and a few side streets has hosted a variety merchants over the years, some have done well, especially restaurants, but many have failed, have not done especially well or have moved to neighboring towns. Our Village now has many wine tasting places, nail salons - but they seemingly don't cater for families. The wine tasting creates fantastic ambiance during the weekends, with live outdoor music. But we also need offerings that create a reason to bring our families to our Village on a normal weekday. We need to create a positive environment for our businesses to succeed, and catering for our citizens, our families. How can we fix, "It is dead, there is nothing for us there"
We need a plan for a thriving, vibrant commercial districts that meets the needs of our families. Why do our families have to go to Campbell, San Jose, Los Gatos to grab a quick evening dinner? Why do our high school students have to drive to Los Gatos or West San Jose to have lunch in a time crunch, with parents constantly worried? Why can't we have all options in our own downtown and commercial districts?
CONSTRAINTS: Our downtown has languished, and taken a back seat to Campbell and Los Gatos, once highway 85 was built and we lost 80,000 cars that would go past downtown on Highway 9. Our city did not have access to re-development dollars that neighboring cities did. Our downtown is particularly impacted by a residential neighborhood on one side, a creek on the other, and hilly terrain at the other end - which limits the possibilities. But given the constraints, this is still an opportunity for something unique and make it work for our families. We don't need any new development, just need to focus on filing the empty store fronts with vibrant, successful businesses that are catering to our families.
VISION MASTER PLAN FOR DOWNTOWN: We need to collaborate with our citizens to craft a vision plan for our commercial districts that aligns with the wishes and aspirations of all our citizens. We need to actively solicit feedback, encourage open dialogue and invite participation towards this vision plan. We have to ensure that we do NOT divide our community while going through this process - come up with a plan that works for a huge majority. From this vision plan, will emerge a branding, a call to action, and engage every member of our community into the success of our commercial district.We need to maintain a dialogue between city council, citizens, businesses to ensure that we are pushing the ball further via town hall meetings, and active dialogue. The dialogue will ensure that we make the absolutely best choice that works for all our citizens.
BRANDING, CHANGE MANAGEMENT and INCENTIVES: By engaging our citizens in creating this vision plan for our downtown, we will all have a vested interest in the success of the plan. The branding comes from the vision plan. Our citizens have to embrace our commercial districts. This comes from creating a specific branding, which comes from the focus on families, followed by changing the outlook of our citizens towards our commercial districts. Creating incentives to bring our families to downtown Saratoga would be very helpful. Creating a central place for families to hangout would be key. We currently don't have such a place, like the Los Gatos park. Blaney Plaza being just too noisy to be leveraged by our families. Wildwood Park is a bit isolated from the village. If we built a pedestrian trail next to the creek, that would make it conducive to families to walk over to downtown for an evening dinner. Family centric events like Celebrate Saratoga would draw in the families.
CATERING TO OUR FAMILIES: Key to the success of any commercial district are the people that visit and purchase the good and services offered. People come when there are goods and services they wish to buy. Currently, our families, our teenagers, don't have the goods and services they seek, and businesses are reluctant to make Saratoga their home, due to a lack of foot traffic in Saratoga downtown. It is a vicious cycle. It is time we broke this cycle through some smart choices. There is an imperative need for our citizens to start leveraging our commercial district, create that vibrancy, and the shift will gradually happen. The branding and marketing will be imperative for success.
CATERING TO VISITORS: We have visitors who frequent our fabulous high-end restaurants. But how about packaging a weekend wedding destination, by packaging our offerings together (Montalvo, Spas, wineries, hotels and trails). How about building an app store that would provide a listing of stores, trail maps, bike paths and even parking areas?
DOWNTOWN EVENTS: Our chamber has excelled in creating downtown events that brings the folks. As a member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, I have helped run various Chamber events like Farmer's Market, Celebrate Saratoga, Saratoga Holiday Party and Wine Stroll, Christmas Karaoke and more. As a member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, I have helped run various Chamber events like Farmer's Market, Celebrate Saratoga, Saratoga Holiday Party and Wine Stroll, Christmas Karaoke and more. As an involved member of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, I have been involved running various Chamber events like Farmer's Market, Celebrate Saratoga, Saratoga Holiday Party and Wine Stroll, Christmas Karaoke and more. Are these events helping our businesses? Are these events of interest to our families? They are definitely helpful for the most part, but our energies can be channeled with real data, to indicate success or not. Running successful events that draws in the families on a regular basis would help immensely. The Farmers market on Wednesday afternoon does not work well for our families who are in school, or out working. How about moving it to Friday afternoon when working from home is a norm in Silicon Valley? That would help with the success.
Since 2011, I am the founder/host of a bi-weekly open mic at Blue Rock Shoot, Saratoga to bring in new foot traffic to our downtown, empower the young kids, intermingle in a fun family friendly community event. This event invites participation from as far away as Danville, Belmont, Fremont, San Jose, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos and more. The open mic is one of our monthly events that brings foot traffic to downtown and helps our business climate.We need many more of these? ANCHOR STORE: How do we attract an anchor store? An Apple store or Banana Republic may not be a good fit. Roku is ideally suited to be our anchor store in downtown Saratoga. I have recently met with Roku, a Saratoga company that has its office in Quito Village, and explored options for their presence in Saratoga downtown. That is work in progress, and I hope to explore all options to bring an anchor store to our downtown. Roku can not only sell their merchandise, but also their media boxes, bringing in new sales tax revenue for our city. But how about creating a nice media box centric arcade in that same store, with a karaoke setup for evening parties? The possibilities are endless.
PARKING: The village has limited parking and limited ability to increase the available parking. Very good utilization of the parking already available could produce a moderate increase in visitors and some use of technology could allow visitors to find parking easily, changing the perception that parking is hard to find and/or not available. With limited land and budget, and not wanting to overrun the village with traffic, we need to seek other ways of attracting visitors. Campbell, for example, has seen the reverse of what we have - too much growth and parking/traffic jams. We don't want to create a Campbell like situation where we want to roll things back. We can also create a shuttle system that would ferry people to each of the commercial districts. How about a mobile app that provides parking availability and exact locations for Saratoga visitors? Perhaps we can get our high school students involved on these innovative projects.
PEDESTRIAN/ BIKE PATH SYSTEMS: Saratoga has four other commercial zones besides the village. City hall, the library and the community center form another major center of activity for the community. These different areas have little in common and generally don't feel connected. A pedestrian/bicycle path system connecting the community center, the neighborhoods along Saratoga Creek and the village would dramatically facilitate utilization of the village by non-auto visitors. This path system would also connect Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road merchants with the village, aligned neighborhoods and attract non-auto visitors. A natural realignment of merchants focus would occur as the paths provide a new entry to the establishments.
Cyclists that utilize the village for climbing Big Basin Way or transiting along Saratoga Los Gatos Highway would stop and become visitors when strategically placed water bottle and compressed gas tire filling stations advertised the bike friendly nature of the village. Addition of trail distance markers would further encourage runners using the trail system to stop to refill wall or have a snack. Art lovers and artist alike would like the micro-parks that provide convenient places to create art of the village and surrounding hills. The gallery of locally created art would gravitate to the areas around the micro-parks.
Paths are aligned away from streets and traffic and thus family friendly. The a destination and a path family restaurants and other merchants would naturally evolve. The village retains the character that it is famous for with increased utilization by those on foot or bikes including families and without a major influx of autos.
IDEAS ARE MANY - ARE WE READY FOR IT? My experience on the planning commission and involvement with the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce has provided me a deeper understanding of the inner workings of our city, the good, the bad and the challenges. Our commercial district revitalization emerged as one of the issues I wanted to focus on.
We will all need to collaborate, innovate and be steadfast towards increasing the occupancy percentage of businesses and run the mechanics for their success, making the Village our pride. Yes we can do it! It is not going to be easy, but can be done! A vision master plan is a key component of making this work.
To all my friends, supporters, neighbors, community members/leader - I truly appreciate you being part of this journey. I couldn't do this without you. Thank you for your support! - Rishi Kumar