People stand in St. James Park in downtown San Jose
The city has to go back and rework its design plans for St. James Park in downtown San Jose after a court ruling. Photo by Brandon Pho.

The plan to turn a historic-yet-blighted downtown San Jose park into a major event venue as part of the city’s revitalization plans faces a major delay.

After a four-year battle over a redesign of St. James Park between the city and the Saint Claire Club — the second oldest men’s club in California — the state Courts of Appeal has ruled in favor of the club. The court has ruled the city could not approve a permit for the redesign because the park is registered as a national historic site. The court has ordered the city to go back to the drawing board and rework the design so it doesn’t affect its historic features. The city has spent $4.6 million on the design to date.

City officials and advocates for the park’s transformation are grappling with how the court’s unanimous 90-page, March 12 ruling stalls their plan to build a cafe, dog parks and an outdoor pavilion to host 5,000 people and up to 300 concerts and events per year.

“Unfortunately we know this will delay the project, but it’s still unknown by how long. We’re still committed,” city parks spokesperson Ed Bautista told San José Spotlight. “It’s still too early to know and there have been no decisions made yet in response to the ruling.”

For more than a decade, locals have envisioned an outdoor music venue at the 7.5-acre St. James Park, turning a neglected and declining area into an iconic downtown destination. The park was designed in the 1800s and was once a gathering point for the Ku Klux Klan, mob lynchings and mid-century political rallies.

The city’s own analysis prior to the court’s decision said the project could have altered or removed some historical character-defining features, such as existing walking paths, statues and monuments — which would have affected its historic designation.

The Sainte Claire Historic Preservation Foundation’s lawsuit argued this should have prompted city leaders to deny the project under their historic preservation ordinance. San Jose disagreed and a lower court took the city’s side, and the men’s club appealed the decision.

Rendering of the city’s original redesign for St. James Park. One section would be a monument walk to spotlight the park’s history. Photo courtesy of CMG Landscape Architecture.

While the appellate judges sided with the men’s club on the historic impacts, they did not agree the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act in its analysis of the project — meaning the city won’t have to re-endure the often costly and strenuous review process.

The men’s club says it fully supports the transformation of St. James Park — as long as it conforms to the historic requirements and values of the district.

“The historic preservation ordinance serves the city well in protecting its landmarks. The problem with this project is the transformation of the district into a commercial concert venue,” Foundation President Stephen Walwyn told San José Spotlight. “We look forward to working with city leaders in support of a revised project to revitalize the park without detriment to its important history.”

St. James Park in downtown San Jose on March 14, 2024. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Levitt Foundation, a national nonprofit that transformed 26 struggling parks across the U.S. by building outdoor live music pavilions, partnered with San Jose in 2016 to revitalize the park, and Friends of Levitt Pavilion San Jose was subsequently formed.

Fil Maresca, the group’s board chair, said there have been decades of studies, master plans and money thrown at the idea of redeveloping the park to no avail.

“Finally we have something that will work. We finally have something and somebody doesn’t like it, so here we are,” Maresca told San José Spotlight.

Maresca said supporters planned the pavilion’s location to avoid damage to historic structures and trees and said the much needed changes at St. James Park outweighed the historic detriments. He argued the only way things are going to change is by activating the park with events, such as free concerts. His organization is already hosting various events without a shovel hitting the dirt, Maresca said. The concerts are drawing residents from their homes between St. James and Japantown to lay down a blanket and dispel the perception that the park is unsafe.

“Those are the people we are building this for, so they’ll have something they can walk to. We’re starting with locals and they’re starting to recognize St. James as their own,” Maresca told San José Spotlight.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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