East San Jose theater planned as community nexus
Jessica Paz-Cedillos, co-executive director of the School of Arts and Culture, and Chris Esparza, director of community development, hope to create a Mayfair Cultural District on Alum Rock Avenue in San Jose. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    For East San Jose, introducing a performing arts space means more than theater. It’s a window into the community’s future.

    As part of a redevelopment project, a mostly vacant block of stores on Alum Rock Avenue is being reimagined. Part of the plan is a theater that will bring vibrancy to the neighborhood, provide jobs, a place for cultural activities and social gatherings.

    The performance space, located at 1783 Alum Rock Ave. across from the Mexican Heritage Plaza, will be an extension of the School of Arts and Culture. It will provide a venue for theater productions, dance and live music, as well as community events, parties and weddings.

    The San Jose Planning Commission unanimously approved a permit to convert 6,700 square feet of a 28,000-square-foot commercial property into a 200-seat indoor theater on Sept. 28. Commissioner Charles Cantrell was absent.

    Jessica Paz-Cedillos, co-executive director of the School of Arts and Culture, said this approval is an example for other communities to see what is possible, even considering stark economic divides. 

    “The only way to ensure community assets stay in the hands of the community is making big moves like this,” she said. “Getting into the real estate game and activating this space for the community… we’re able to demonstrate to our partners that we can dream big and that we can get it across the finish line.” 

    Paz-Cedillos said the School of Arts and Culture is a significant economic driver in the neighborhood and its acquisition of the building will fuel the local economy.

    A cafe connected with a theater is expected to attract customers to Alum Rock Avenue. Rendering courtesy of the School of Arts and Culture.

    The theater, which includes a cafe, and a Gardner Health Services wellness center that offers nutrition classes and mental health services, are scheduled to open in late 2023 or early 2024. About 80% of funds are raised for the property, with a goal of $20 million, Paz-Cedillos said. A fundraiser is planned on Oct. 29. Plans and building permits will be completed next year and construction will follow.

    The 200-seat theater will offer a third option for entertainment at Mexican Heritage Plaza. Currently there is a 50-seat and 500-seat venue. Dianne Vega, production manager for Teatro Visión, which presents events at the plaza, said the new theater will offer an ideal space to add intimate stories for a community focused on social justice.

    “We would value that and jump at the chance to be able to do a show there,” Vega told San José Spotlight.

    Organizers hope a new 200-seat performing space will energize the neighborhood. Rendering courtesy of the School of Arts and Culture.

    Chris Esparza, director of community development for the School of Arts and Culture, envisions the redevelopment as the community focal point. With Gardner Health and Hills Training gym down the block, families can take cooking classes, workout at the gym, see a play and have a cup of coffee in the theater.

    “This was something we knew we were ready for,” Esparza told San Josè Spotlight. “We had the capacity to fill it and the group of folks to use it. It was also desperately needed here on the East Side.”

    The theater and cafe, with changing-colored lights shining on its exterior walls plus crosswalk murals connecting to the plaza, are planned to evoke a sense of place, creating a Mayfair Cultural District. Esparza hopes it will attract people from other areas.

    “A lot of times folks don’t feel safe enough to come here… It doesn’t get the economic flow of business that other neighborhoods get,” he said. “We want this to be a special stop on BART… an umbrella of cultural representation that makes you feel excited, welcome and joyful.”

    The theater planned on Alum Rock Avenue is expected to open in late 2023 or early 2024. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    In April, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved a $250,000 grant for predevelopment and consulting costs. An additional $250,000 was provided by the Hewlett Foundation and another $250,000 by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, as well as funds from family foundations and individual supporters.

    When San Jose invested $1 million in a matching grant, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation took up the challenge, adding $1 million to its investment.

    “That was a testament to what we are doing here,” Paz-Cedillos said, “but also a testament to the commitment of the city. In addition to the work we’ve done in this community, it is what inspired the Packard Foundation to make a contribution.”

    Other funding came from the Castellano Family Foundation, Google, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Latino Community Foundation. Gardner Health Services is also an equity partner.

    “When you think about the vibrancy and the different cultures our community is exposed to because of this space and because of what we’re building across the street, that’s the opportunity,” Paz-Cedillos said. “We are creating a vibrant, connected community that is diverse… That’s what art and culture is all about.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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