Calle Willow is a colorful district just south of downtown San Jose, a neighborhood filled with Latino-owned businesses — panaderías, hair salons, markets and taquerias. With Sacred Heart Church as its towering landmark, the bustling, narrow stretch of Willow Street is the kind of culture-rich district any city should be proud to have.

But the business owners there — mostly Spanish-speaking and renters — are worried about a potential change to the city’s general plan that would increase building-height limits and encourage residential development along the commercial street. A group of them held a news conference and rally Wednesday morning to plead their case to San Jose’s Planning Commission, which will take up the issue next week.

“We want growth but we don’t want it to affect our people,” Judith Constantino, who works at Geovanna’s Salon on Willow and Palm streets, said through a Spanish interpreter. “We want the city to value our culture, and we want accessible rent. If we don’t make our voices heard, no one is going to hear us.”

Miriam Raigoza, who owns Unlimited Barber Shop on Willow Street, speaks at a news conference and rally about displacement in San Jose’s Calle Willow district on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group) 

Everyone I heard from Wednesday agreed more housing is needed, but they just don’t want it to lead to business displacement in Calle Willow — a fate they’ve seen play out at the San Jose Flea Market in Berryessa and the Alum Rock business district in East San Jose. Some business owners fear being forced to shut down during construction, and new buildings would likely mean higher rent that a hair salon or bakery owner can’t afford.

Maria Mendoza has been a small business owner in Calle Willow for 17 years and has lived in the community for 21 years. She said her business hasn’t yet recovered from the pandemic and thinking about this issue is just adding to her stress. “I am concerned with what the city will decide about the future of Calle Willow,” she said. “This is the opportunity for the city to do what the community needs.”

A mix of businesses like panaderias, salons and markets contributes to street life in Calle Willow, a culture-rich district just south of Downtown San Jose. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group) 

The good news is that the city seems to agree, in part because of the strong community response. A staff memo to the Planning Commission recommends removing Calle Willow from the policy framework that would allow residential development in certain neighborhood business districts because of the high risk of displacement of small businesses and residents. The memo even goes a step further, recommending the city council change the land-use designation on some properties to discourage redevelopment there that could lead to displacement.

It’s notable that other neighborhood business districts like Japantown and Lincoln Avenue in Willow Glen already have some level of protection like that now being considered for Calle Willow.

Planning Commissioner Rolando Bonilla said the city needs to be very delicate with communities like Calle Willow, taking into account its culture and vibrancy. “The community as it is today is the heart and soul of the area,” he said. “To change it through a couple of strokes of a pen would be to completely ignore its history and the fabric that makes up that community.”

And while he agrees addressing the housing crisis is a priority, he believes San Jose has to be more deliberative and consider the effect on communities that have been neglected. “Historically, San Jose has never had a problem displacing certain communities,” he said. “What happens is we have these de facto plans that always affect certain communities. The question I ask is, ‘Would you do this in Willow Glen? On Lincoln Avenue?’ If the answer is no, you shouldn’t do it here.”

That being said, Bonilla says he doesn’t believe San Jose needs to pit neighborhoods against each other to achieve its goals.

“We can never be the major, international metropolis that we know we are until every part of the city has a seat at the table and feels part of the process,” he said. “That’s what these fights are about. Ensuring the best of San Jose are all at the table.”

MAKING AN IMPACT: East San Jose’s Somos Mayfair is one of 10 nonprofits that has made the final stage of Google’s Impact Challenge Bay Area, vying for a $1 million prize that will go to the top vote-getting in a public poll open through Nov. 14. A panel will pick four more organizations to receive $1 million each, and the remaining five will get $500,000 a piece. Go to impactchallenge.withgoogle.com/bayarea2021 to learn more about the finalists and vote.

An additional 25 nonprofits already have received $100,000 grants from Google.org, including Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, the San Jose Evergreen Community College District Foundation, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, Sunnyvale Community Services and the San Jose Public Library Foundation.

FLAG SALUTE: Steve Sosnowski contacted me a few months ago about the international flags outside the former Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, which were faded and tattered and not presenting a good look for downtown, not to mention being disrespectful to those various nations (including the U.S.). He emailed this week to say he saw the flags have been removed, which may also be a first step toward the hotel’s expected reopening under a different flag of its own, Signia by Hilton.