SAN JOSE -- In a historic day for the nation's 10th-largest city, San Jose on Wednesday officially topped 1 million residents -- likely for good this time.
The state of California estimated in its annual population report that San Jose had 1,000,536 residents at the start of 2014 -- up 1.7 percent from last year as tech-fueled Santa Clara County continued its run as the fastest-growing region in the state.
The seven-figure milestone is a significant one for a city that has long struggled with its identity, especially as hecklers in more urban areas dismiss San Jose as a run-of-the-mill giant suburb that can't possibly be bigger than San Francisco (it is, by nearly 20 percent). And it didn't help that San Jose flirted with the million-mark once before just to be dragged back down to the lowly ranks of cities with six-figure populations.
The state first estimated San Jose had turned over the odometer to 1 million residents in 2009. But a year later a more thorough count by the sticklers at the U.S. Census Bureau revealed the population was actually below 950,000, forcing the city to retract its status in the million-resident club. Undeterred, the city kept growing, and with the next head count by the Census Bureau not until 2020, officials expect the title to finally stick.
"We've probably been over a million for a long time," Mayor Chuck Reed said Wednesday, adding that the census often undercounts in big cities. "But it is important to have official recognition with that fact. Size does matter when you're dealing with national policy issues."
As the third-biggest city in California, San Jose is still well behind San Diego (population: 1.3 million) and Los Angeles (3.9 million) but San Jose is growing at a faster rate. It's also still trailing the nation's ninth-largest city, Dallas (population: 1.2 million). Reed said the rankings are more significant than the march to a million.
San Jose continues to leave what some city officials call "that smaller city to the north" in the dust. San Francisco now has a population of 836,620, good for fourth-largest in California, but it also grew more slowly than San Jose last year.
Nevertheless, San Jose still struggles to market itself against the internationally renowned City by the Bay.
"When people think of the Bay Area, they think of the Golden Gate Bridge and other San Francisco attractions," said Jim Reed, curator of History San Jose. But San Jose can now say, "We have a lot to offer, a million other people think so -- I think it would be a good marketing tool."
Both cities grew more quickly than Oakland, which expanded by 1.2 percent last year. But Oakland reached a neat milestone of its own, topping 400,000 residents, with a new population of 404,355.
Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, Campbell's 4 percent expansion was the seventh-largest in the state, while Milpitas's was 12th and Morgan Hill's was 15th.
On the Peninsula, this year the city of San Mateo topped the century mark, hitting 100,106 residents, while Redwood City surpassed the 80,000 population milestone.
The California Department of Finance report says Santa Clara County is the fastest-growing county in the state, by percentage growth, for the second year in a row, followed by Alameda County, which was also No. 2 last year. Both counties grew by about 1.5 percent in the last year. Overall, the state grew 0.9 percent in the past year, to 38.34 million residents.
San Jose's biggest advantage in nabbing the title as the most populous West Coast city north of Los Angeles has been its massive size, at more than triple the number of acres as San Francisco. But as San Jose starts to run out of undeveloped land, it has also recently begun packing people in more tightly.
"We're reaching a point where much of the new development is redevelopment -- knocking down or reusing sites that were once lower density, and turning them into higher density," said Ralph McLaughlin, a professor of urban and regional planning at San Jose State.
Mayor Reed said San Jose continues to approve thousands of housing units in undeveloped areas each year as it marches toward 1.3 million estimated residents by 2040, and plans to get more dense downtown and along transit corridors -- but not everywhere.
"The buildings will get taller," the mayor said. But "we're very fond of our suburban character, so I don't see us giving up that suburban character for the vast majority of our real estate."
While San Jose gets a higher share of various state funding pots by gaining new residents more quickly, its city budget takes a hit because most residents cost more in services than they generate in tax revenue.
Caltrans likely won't post the updated head count on those green "San Jose city limit" freeway signs for months, but local welcome signs on city streets should be updated sooner.
The climb to 1 million started when San Jose was incorporated in 1850 as a small farming town of 4,000. After an aggressive annexation strategy under City Manager A.P. "Dutch" Hamann, the city began gobbling up surrounding communities -- growing exponentially in acreage and population in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and the city continued to build more housing in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.