Plans to redesign San Jose’s St. James Park move forward despite setbacks
The reimagined St. James Park in downtown San Jose will include a multi-use pavilion. Image courtesy of Friends of Levitt Pavilion San Jose.

    Despite setbacks stemming from the pandemic, steps to create a reimagined St. James Park in downtown San Jose are moving forward.

    Plans to revamp the struggling downtown park include building a performing arts pavilion, playground, dog park, picnic area and café. The idea, organizers said, is to make St. James Park a recreational focal point of downtown San Jose. The park at the center of the city’s urban core in recent years has fallen into disarray, attracting blight, crime and homelessness.

    “My hopes are to see St. James as a hub of public life… a park space filled with children playing and older adults strolling…enjoying entertainment and recreational amenities,” said Nicolle Burnham, a deputy director at the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department.

    The project has completed collecting feedback on the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and is going before city agencies for approval.

    The pavilion will have a main stage with side extensions and a white scaled roof. With a lawn sized to accommodate 5,000 people, Rick Holden, a board member of Friends of Levitt Pavilion San Jose, said he is confident St. James Park will be successful as a music venue.

    Levitt Pavilion is a private foundation which has transformed 26 struggling parks across the nation by building an outdoor live music pavilion. In 2016, it partnered with San Jose to revitalize St. James Park.

    Bringing live music should bring life to the downtown park and reduce blight and crime, organizers say.

    “If you have two or three events a week during the height of the season, that draws people out,” Holden said. “There are no tickets. You walk up, put your blanket down and enjoy the music.”

    A homeless man is pictured at St. James Park in San Jose in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

    But the pandemic has caused some delays with meetings and fundraising.

    Holden said once the pandemic ends, residents are going to be more than ready to head outdoors for live music.

    With the completion of the EIR, the project has moved one step closer to becoming a reality. The plan has gone before various city commissions and heads to the San Jose City Council on Oct. 27 to certify the EIR. After the implementation plan and funding strategy is developed, and the three-way contract is signed, the project will return to the City Council for final approval.

    Although the pandemic has slowed its development, the project’s supporters haven’t waivered.

    “COVID-19 has shown us more than ever the importance of our public spaces and the role they play in a healthy and vibrant community,” Burnham said.

    However, with San Jose facing a projected $71.6 million deficit due to the pandemic, and a total project cost of $63.9 million, funding is a concern.

    The city estimates the performing arts pavilion will cost $20.7 million to $27.1 million. However, Holden said these costs are too expensive, and he’s speaking with contractors to bring it down to the $15 to $18 million range.

    The budget for the project is $52.1 million. Holden said the city has set aside $7 million in management district funds and the Friends of Levitt Pavilion, San Jose, plan to raise about $2 million. Levitt Foundation will put in $500,000 when the contract is signed.

    “The coronavirus hasn’t derailed it, but it certainly hasn’t helped,” Holden said. “It has had an affect on raising money, but we’re going to have to raise it one way or another — coronavirus or not.”

    A contract between the city, Levitt Foundation and Friends of Levitt Pavilion, San Jose is in development. In addition to costs, the contract delineates responsibilities. For example, the Friends of Levitt Pavilion, San Jose would be responsible for picking up the litter, but the city would be responsible for hauling it away.

    Funding for minimal staff and the bands will come from alcohol sales and renting the pavilion. In addition, beyond the 53 free, family-friendly concerts required by the Levitt Foundation, Holden said Friends of Levitt Pavilion, San Jose, which is a nonprofit, can charge for additional shows.

    Holden said he’d be happy if the project started construction in late 2022 or early 2023.

    “Large projects take time,” he said. “Other pavilions have taken seven years to complete.”

    Burnham said with the completion of new residential buildings by the park, there is an opportunity to develop a new generation of park users.

    The Levitt Foundation has created performing arts pavilions across the country to reinvigorate neglected public spaces and create community through the arts. Burnham said amenities that draw the community to St. James Park would help to reduce crime and activate the park.

    “The park needs to be cleaned up,” Holden said. “It’s to the benefit of the developers who are building apartments and office buildings to have something like this. You can’t expect people to live downtown and only have Starbucks and bars to go to.”

    Holden said feedback for the project is mostly positive, but not everyone is on board. Some neighbors worry about loud noise from the outdoor concerts.

    “There were certainly a few negative comments in the EIR,” Holden said. “I think there are people concerned about the noise and crowds. This is not going to be Guns N’ Roses at midnight. It’s family-friendly music late afternoon, early evening. Everything has to be shut down by 10 p.m., which we are definitely going to respect. We think it’s going to be much less obtrusive than what they’re expecting.”

    Noise mitigation measures include the pavilion’s arched design with acoustical panels to channel sound.

    “It’s a real benefit to the community,” Holden said. “There’s not many times you can get involved in a project that’s really going to change the life of downtown.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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