Private management of San Jose park sparks concerns
Music in the Park at San Jose's Plaza de Cesar Chavez in 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

Two businessmen are working to take over management of one of San Jose’s most beloved parks—but concerns are mounting behind the scenes about how the pair will wrangle power over a popular public space.

Dan Pulcrano—owner of the Weeklys media group which publishes a dozen newspapers including Metro Silicon Valley—has partnered with PR guru Dan Orloff to form a nonprofit organization called the Plaza Conservancy to manage Plaza de Cesar Chavez. The idea of a private group overseeing San Jose’s premier public space has sparked concerns about transparency, power and access.

Pulcrano said the conservancy was started because there’s been little investment in the plaza in three decades and amenities are deteriorating.

“Nothing has been done to honor the civil rights legacy of the man it was named for other than engraving his name on the small stage that’s been thrashed,” Pulcrano said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “The process of activating the park for events is complex and requires multiple producers to go to multiple agencies.”

Orloff was not available for a comment.

Emails obtained by this news organization through a public records request show Pulcrano working relentlessly to gain support for his new conservancy from some Silicon Valley power players.

In one message, Pulcrano asks downtown Councilmember Omar Torres’ chief of staff to help him get the councilmember involved with the conservancy. It’s unclear who serves on the conservancy’s board of directors, but the emails show its first meeting happened in October.

A screenshot of an email from Dan Pulcrano asking Councilmember Omar Torres’ office to get involved in his conservancy.

“We are one week away from the founding meeting of The Plaza Conservancy,” Pulcrano wrote in the Oct. 19 email. “I am hopeful that this will one day be a world-renown destination for the community and visitors to Silicon Valley. We are speaking with top people in the field of urban park design who are excited about (Plaza de Cesar Chavez)’s potential and the volunteer-led effort underway.”

Pulcrano also sent multiple emails in late September and October to another one of Torres’ staffers asking for a meeting to ensure the councilmember is “fully briefed” and his feedback is included in the conservancy’s plans. It doesn’t appear he received any response.

Torres told San José Spotlight he’s conflicted over the idea of having a private group manage a public space—especially without the blessing of the city or Cesar Chavez’s family.

“The conservancy would need to be able to work with the greater community,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “There’s a lot of major concerns from our arts community since Plaza de Cesar Chavez is where everybody goes in the summer.”

The downtown park at Paseo de San Antonio hosts the annual San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, free community concerts and events such as Music in the Park and the iconic Christmas in the Park.

San José Spotlight has learned that a major developer—Jay Paul Company—is looking to pour money into improving Plaza de Cesar Chavez. At least one city official is flirting with the idea of funneling that money through Pulcrano’s group to enable the city to spend it faster, according to emails.

A screenshot of the email from city officials about funneling a contribution from Jay Paul through the conservancy.

“We are likely to run it through another organization to make it easier and faster to spend. We talked about the Parks foundation. We’ve also talked about the newly formed Conservancy as a test case to see what they are capable of (meaning let them project manage),” Jon Cicirelli, director of the city’s parks department, wrote in an email to Torres’ office.

Cicirelli did not respond to a request for comment, but his department spokesperson Daniel Lazo confirmed city leaders met with Pulcrano to discuss the conservancy.

“(The department) is looking for opportunities to partner with this new group as we do with emerging groups,” Lazo told San José Spotlight.

A questionable past

Despite the struggle to maintain the park, some downtown leaders worry about Pulcrano’s involvement and made accusations about his management of other events—including Music in the Park.

Mauricio Mejia partnered with Pulcrano in 2022 to put on the city’s Music in the Park series at Plaza de Cesar Chavez, but their partnership quickly soured. Mejia claims Pulcrano opened a new bank account and restricted his access to money—forcing Mejia last year to sell his interest in an LLC they partnered on to Pulcrano. San José Spotlight confirmed the sale through public records.

Mejia claims three vendors and one lender haven’t been paid for services related to the event, including San Jose Conservation Corps. An email obtained by San José Spotlight shows the group was still unpaid as of Nov. 29.

“Do we want someone like him to be entrusted in leading the park and having the Cesar Chavez name behind them?” Mejia told San José Spotlight. “Yes, there might be developers and a lot of wealthy people that are behind the conservancy. But they are not behind (Pulcrano). They are behind an idea, and they just don’t know who the person is that’s truly behind it. And if they knew who they were going to potentially be associated with, I don’t think they would put their money there.”

Fil Maresca of Filco Events said he too hasn’t been fully paid for helping produce Music in the Park last year. He said Pulcrano anticipated making more money on the event but said low ticket sales made it difficult to pay vendors.

“We’ve been friends for a long time, and I wanted to keep it amicable, so it makes more sense to (slowly get paid back over time),” Maresca said. “There were no attorneys.”

Pulcrano said Music in the Park was better managed this year. He added that he’s paid costs listed in the 2022 sale agreement and any vendors Mejia mentions were not included there.

“There has been some discussion and attempts to settle the remaining accounting matters,” Pulcrano said. “With the cooperation of all parties, we’re hopeful that can be resolved shortly.”

Children ride their bikes through the Plaza de César Chávez in downtown San Jose in April 2021. File photo.

Community control

The family of the park’s namesake is also troubled about a conservancy managing it.

A group of organizers are actively fundraising to build a landmark at Plaza de Cesar Chavez called Breeze of Innovation. The family of Cesar Chavez—who originally supported the plans—threatened to back out because of a third party like the Plaza Conservancy operating the park. Three board members from the Chavez Family Vision wrote a letter in October saying the city should conduct a planning process if it decides to have an outside group manage the park and only work with groups whose board members don’t have business or financial ties to the park.

Pulcrano would not reveal to San José Spotlight who his conservancy’s board members are, but promised they are diverse.

“It is a nonprofit public benefit corporation whose sole purpose is dedicated to the park, and it is the only organization with that exclusive mission,” Pulcrano said. “Public meetings and Brown Act compliance will be built into its future to keep the conservancy’s activities inclusive, transparent and accountable.”

As the conversation over the park’s future heats up, some are blasting the city’s upkeep of the cherished downtown spot.

Brendan Rawson, executive director of San Jose Jazz, sent an email to city officials in July—weeks before his group’s summer jazz festival—complaining about dead grass, weeds, broken benches and tipping fountains.

“I walked through Plaza de Cesar Chavez today and I was surprised with the poor condition of the park,” Rawson wrote. “Compared to St. James Park, Plaza de Cesar Chavez is looking like Downtown’s redheaded step child. What happened? We are trying to host a few thousand out-of-towners in a couple of weeks and the ‘City’s front yard’ looks worse than mine at home.”

Rawson told San José Spotlight he’s indifferent about whether a conservancy should run the park, but appreciates Pulcrano’s efforts to improve it. He just wants the community to be in control of the park’s future.

“My only concern about the park is that there is process developed that will allow for a range of voices to be involved in setting what the right vision for the park should be,” Rawson said. “Any changes should be informed by the way the community wants to use it.”

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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