A developer who I interviewed recently (not the one discussed in this story) described certain buildings as sending "hostile messages" to an urban neighborhood. At first, I thought the notion was quaint. Then I began to understand what he meant. Urban design is all about sending messages. A blank wall of cinder block topped with razor wire sends a very clear message. Most often, the response is antagonism, alienation and graffiti. Other buildings that have social qualities, such as transparency, good landscaping and a level of design beyond mere bottom-dollar functionality send messages of inclusion. Good buildings extend a sense of ownership to the general public, i.e., "this street is yours as well as mine." If this way of thinking is sound, contextualism means much more than simply blending in, or adding some artsy touches to a new building in an older area. Contextualism is also making a conscious decision not to alienate the community, but to engage it. In this way, and I do not mean to sound abstract, contextualism is an act of city-making, insofar as design has a social impact, and has the potential to send messages of sociability, connectiveness and investment of every kind, emotional as well as financial. Now, architectural style is usually not a make-or-break factor in urban design. More fundamental issues — such as the height of buildings, the width of the street and the sidewalk, landscaping and scale — are generally the factors that determine the attractiveness and usefulness of a street. In the 218-unit Cahill Park project near downtown San Jose, however, architecture plays the role of connecting several conflicting building types in the existing neighborhood. Known as The Alameda, the neighborhood is a place where the older part of San Jose transitions into downtown San Jose; the new sports arena is only a few blocks away. This part of The Alameda is a set of uncomfortable collisions between traditional residential and industrial uses. The five-acre site of the Cahill Park development was the contaminated remnant of a pallet warehouse. Wilson Street faces the older, single-family neighborhood of small, bungalow-style cottages. Bush Street, on the other hand, has an industrial character, exemplified by an old, red-brick Del Monte plant, itself soon to be converted to loft housing. Alameda itself is a mix of traditional Main Street-type retail of one- and two-stories, intermixed with light industrial buildings. The city wants high-end housing to fill in the empty spaces in The Alameda. But what kind of housing fits here? The cottages, the lofts, or mixed-use? And if you choose one type of housing above another, what messages get sent to the rest of the neighborhood? The solution devised by the developer, AvalonBay Communities Inc. of Alexandria, Va., and the architect, The Steinberg Group of San Jose, was to embrace the contradictions, and design four different types of housing. Three of those styles reflect the surrounding neighborhood. Along Wilson Street, the developer has built a set of townhouses with conspicuously peaked roofs that blazon their compatibility with the nearby bungalows. Along Bush, facing the old Del Monte building, the developer and architect have offered a very urban, "SoMa" style of housing in concrete-like stucco and corrugated metal. Facing Alameda is a set of mixed-use buildings with stores below and apartments above. Not all the problem-solving here is cosmetic. Like many large-scale housing projects, Cahill Park is built on a "podium" — a concrete slab stretched across a subterranean garage. Excavating the garage is one of the costliest jobs in home building, and developers rarely are willing to put the parking fully underground. True to form, the top of Cahill Park's garage protrudes a few feet above grade, lifting the entire project by several feet. This is a serious design issue, because curbside views of shadowy garages would be depressing and compromise the pedestrian quality of the street. In this case, Steinberg and AvalonBay have made a virtue out of an annoyance by positioning or "wrapping the front stoops of the row housing in front of this unsightly gap. Urban designers have long praised the social qualities of front stoops, which are private or quasi-private spaces that add a layer of protective privacy between the home and the street, and hence make living on pedestrian streets tolerable to home owners. Good urban design is often an accumulation of small, workable ideas like this. As always, we reserve final judgement on Cahill Park until the final product is finished. Whatever the execution, the idea is a good one: Embrace the context, rather than ignore it or hide from it behind a wall. Style alone, of course, cannot save a neighborhood. But consider how destructive it would have been if the developer had built a typical, cost-effective apartment complex with a neurotically busy profusion of identical units, a total lack of detailing, textured stucco, gaping garages, and landscaping that exists primarily to prevent thieves from climbing into windows. You can almost hear the metal bars going up on windows across the neighborhood. Luckily, neither the City of San Jose nor the developer would have settled for such housing, which should be strongly discouraged in any location. If Cahill Park succeeds in raising the ante of the neighborhood just slightly, then surrounding property owners will also ante up by raising their standards of maintenance and landscaping. In this way, the genuinely contextual project is an act of city-making that goes beyond style. If you build the right project, the neighborhood gets the message.