San Jose to transform park alongside homeless encampments
Homeless encampments in Columbus Park are pictured in this file photo.

The city plans to transform the dilapidated flatlands at Columbus Park in North San Jose into a premier public park and plaza—complete with playgrounds, sports fields and rest areas. But the “elephant in the room” is the presence of more than 200 homeless residents.

The land surrounding Columbus Park is a sanctuary for unhoused people—and a popular cruising spot with constantly vandalized bathrooms. The baseball diamonds, basketball court and barbecue area at the north end of the park go unused by neighboring residents because of the homeless people right across the street.

“We played at Columbus Park for many, many years until the park really got into bad shape,” said San Jose Village Softball Club member Bob LeFevre during a recent community meeting. “A new Columbus Park would certainly appeal to us.”

San José Spotlight first reported in January that Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services considered demolishing the park’s aging structures in favor of a single bathroom facility. Since then, the city hired consultants from RRM Design Group to aid in the redevelopment and field community questions. Funds for the project come from Measure P, a $228 million bond passed by city voters in 2000. The bond has funded more than 100 projects in San Jose, including renovations of parks, bathrooms, community centers and sports fields.

Hayde Pacheco, department project manager, said during the meeting that the redevelopment of the 12.5 acre park means closing it temporarily, but officials didn’t say when that will happen. Under the preliminary plan, construction won’t start for another two years, which gives the city time to address the encampments of unhoused residents along the same street.

“The elephant in the room is that work is going to happen along Spring Street in the areas surrounding Columbus Park over the next months,” Pacheco said. “The BeautifySJ team actually will be doing community outreach specifically about that.”

The homeless encampments along Spring Street have come under fire by the Federal Aviation Administration for being in the flight path of Mineta San Jose International Airport traffic. The city planned to kick out unhoused residents living on the 40-acre plot of land in June, according to a letter written by the airport’s Director of Aviation John Aitken. City officials delayed the sweep indefinitely, but the FAA is requesting the city remove the unhoused residents from Columbus Park by next April.

Teresa Estrella, an unhoused resident in the park, said the fear of being evicted from the encampments at any moment caused many people to pack up and leave.

City spokesperson Daniel Lazo said the redevelopment of Columbus Park and the city’s plan to vacate the surrounding encampments are two separate initiatives.

“From now until Spring 2022, the conceptual plan will be refined and go through environmental review and park design development,” he told San José Spotlight. “A second community meeting will be held in Spring 2022 to share the updated plan and refine it further.”

Lazo said residents can give feedback through a survey on the preliminary project, available online through Wednesday.

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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