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Huge but unidentified new monument proposed for Silicon Valley

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Proposed landmark would appear in San Jose parkland that conservationists say should remain untouched

Downtown San Jose, California.
Photo by Dreamframer/Shutterstock

Silicon Valley movers want to build a new monument in downtown San Jose, but nobody yet knows what it would look like or how big it might be. The San Jose City Council will consider a recommendation to give the green light to the so-called San Jose Light Tower proposal on March 19, which could create a new public face for the world’s tech capital.

The San Jose Light Tower Corporation (SJLTC), a nonprofit founded in 2017, wants to create what it calls a “new, distinctive, and world-class public landmark” in San Jose as a tribute to Silicon Valley’s history and modern prominence.

The light tower name derives from the city’s original Electric Light Tower, an eccentric circa-1881 idea by a newspaper editor that erected a 237-foot illuminated structure that, when turned on, “the night would become as day for the downtown area.” But the structure’s design could be anything from, say, a mouse pointer (as seen in this rendering from the New York Times) to a statue of Steve Jobs.

The new Light Tower Corporation says that the old tower is merely “original inspiration” for their project—a project that could cost upward of $150 million. Financing for the project would be raised privately “as a gift to San Jose.”

The group plans to hold an international design competition for the new installation, which should be “a gathering place that produces civic pride and spurs economic development and a “powerful and enduring icon will be the place every visitor must see when coming to Silicon Valley”—whatever that turns out to be.

A half-size reproduction of the old tower. A storm destroyed the original in 1915.
Photo by Glenn T Simmons

The New York Times characterizes the pitch as an attempt to preserve San Jose’s prominence now that San Francisco has taken the lion’s share of attention during the tech boom.

According to a memo submitted to council members by city staff, “SJLTC would fund all aspects of the design competition through private fundraising efforts,” but “a modest amount of [city] staff assistance will also be necessary.”

The tentative site selected for the monument would be in a park called Arena Green on the Guadalupe River.

Messages sent to council members from San Jose residents ahead of the vote are largely positive about the idea, with the exception of conservation groups, like the Sierra Club, who have already objected to the proposed project site, which they say should be reserved for green space uses.

A letter signed by the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society Santa Clara Valley Chapter, the Committee for Green Foothills and Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, argues that the city should quash any ideas of major new construction in the park:

In a site as important as this, space around the creek is the most critical element. Without a significant buffer between human activities and the creek, the corridor will cease to function as a pathway for animal movement and migratory birds, and will become a hazard instead.

San Jose is already lacking sufficient park space for its residents. With projected increases in our population, committing park space for a structure of unknown size doesn’t make sense. Building on Arena Green decreases the availability of public open space. A different site should be selected.

According to the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy, “Arena Green is the section of the park located between Santa Clara Street on the south, Julian Street on the north, and directly across Autumn Street from HP Pavilion.”

The area includes a carousel (presently out of order), several playgrounds, and some restrooms and other amenities, but is mostly open space.

On the Light Tower Corporation’s FAQ, the nonprofit insists that it is “working closely with the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy to ensure that this project” does not negatively impact the local environment.

If approved, SJLTC says it hopes to finish building whatever the design turns out to be by 2021.