Rawson: Now is the time to invest in Plaza de Cesar Chavez
Children ride their bikes through the Plaza de Cesar Chavez in downtown San Jose in April 2021. File photo.

Cities across the country are currently investing in parks and outdoor public gathering spaces as part of economic recovery strategies for their pandemic hammered downtowns. In San Jose, we have a similar opportunity that should not be wasted.

The centenary birthday of Cesar Chavez, March 31, 2027, should serve as a call to action to significantly improve Plaza de Cesar Chavez for all San Joseans and establish it as the grand plaza it should be.

The plaza is our city’s first and longest serving public gathering space. However, it has not seen a significant investment or attention by the city in more than 30 years. In prior generations the area in and around the plaza served as California’s first state capital and was the longtime home of San Jose City Hall. In recent decades the plaza has served as the preeminent location for cultural celebrations of all stripes. For 34 years, San Jose Jazz has presented our summer festival centered in the plaza, and this month it is the epicenter of countless downtown holiday traditions for thousands of families.

Sadly, the plaza has seen better times. This past year, during our annual San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, the shoddy condition of the plaza moved beyond just a bit tattered around the edges. Thousands of visitors found missing and broken park benches, sections of grass left to die, oil drums used as garbage receptacles, trees tagged with graffiti and broken or missing bollards around the fountain. The list goes on.

Despite the plaza’s challenges, there is a good reason for optimism. Prior to the pandemic, San Jose, with the help of design firms SWA and Reed Gilliland, drafted a preliminary design investigation for major improvements to the plaza.

The 153-page draft report provides numerous options and ideas on how to expand the park footprint and improve various functional aspects in the short and long term. The design options largely prioritize the space as our city’s signature outdoor cultural gathering destination while maintaining its year-round role as a green space refuge in the center of the city.

There are innumerable ideas on how the plaza could best serve our community today. For example, in 2017 San Jose Jazz spearheaded a collaborative effort with the San Jose Downtown Association and the Tech Interactive to install a temporary public art installation called the Musical Swings in the south end of the plaza. Developed by Canadian public art studio Daily tous les jours, each of the eight swings would generate musical notes and harmonies in the sound of various instruments when individuals swung on the benches.

Wonderfully accessible and compelling for all ages, the Musical Swings drew more than 110,000 visitors over 10 weeks, generated $2.6 million in direct economic impact and inspired immeasurable joy and memories for thousands. Interactive elements such as this, created at a proper human scale, should inform the planning process.

All of our downtown parks should be a significant part of a strategy for downtown recovery and Plaza de Cesar Chavez should be at the center of that strategy. Now is the time to prioritize the plaza and move forward with determination.

The centenary birthday of Cesar Chavez should be marked by important celebrations of his life’s work and it should happen in a beautiful, updated plaza park. March 31, 2027 should be plenty of time to:

  1. Launch an inclusive community input process on needed park improvements
  2. Establish a representative cohort of community stakeholders to lead the effort
  3. Identify and budget the needed resources
  4. Execute on the plan


What is needed is the leadership and dedicated resources to get it done.

Brendan Rawson is executive director of San Jose Jazz and an incoming board member of the San Jose Downtown Association.

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