A plane flies over homeless camps on parkland in San Jose
A plane flying over a former homeless encampment area into San Jose Mineta International Airport. The land below the flight path is being considered for parkland and commercial use. File photo.

Plans for a 40-acre park in San Jose that was previously home to hundreds of homeless residents are shrinking as officials consider other uses for the space.

The San Jose Airport Commission is recommending the City Council scale back building a park on vacant downtown land south of San Jose Mineta International Airport and allow commercial development instead, which could include an auto dealership, dry cleaner or storage facility. Commissioners approved the plan on Monday, reducing the planned 40 acres of parkland to approximately 29.6 acres. It allows for 11.4 acres of commercial development in the area bounded by Highway 880, Coleman Avenue and the Guadalupe River Park.

If ultimately approved by the city council, the commercial development would primarily occur on the northern part of Coleman Avenue and on West Hedding Street.

Ryan Sheelen, senior planning director for SJC, told commissioners the commercial development would provide revenue for the airport and allow for the development of the rest of the vacant land for a prototype park referred to as Guadalupe Gardens that would include a disc golf course, community gardens and agricultural projects. Two acres would also be set aside for a maintenance yard for airport equipment.

No speakers opposed the plan at Monday’s meeting, and commissioners didn’t specifically comment on the new plan for commercial development. No timetable was announced for the completion of the park or the commercial strip.

“Both sides will have to give,” Sheelen said, referring to environmentalists who would have liked to turn the entire undeveloped tract into parkland.

The nonprofit Guadalupe River Park Conservancy has developed several projects in the northern part of the 140-acre Guadalupe Gardens tract, including the Heritage Rose Garden and the Rotary PlayGarden. Conservancy officials were not immediately available for comment.

The 40 acres of land have been a thorn in airport officials’ sides for more than two decades because they haven’t been able to find money for the park.

Homeless residents formed a large encampment in 2021 that spread throughout the 40 acres. An estimated 400 unhoused people lived there at its peak. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned city officials in 2022 they could lose millions in federal aid if homeless residents remained in the airport’s flight path.

The city removed unhoused residents from the site in September 2022.

The encampment areas once housed the Coleman Loop Neighborhood. In the mid-1970s, the city began relocating hundreds of residents whose houses were demolished under an $80 million federal program to build a noise buffer zone for the airport.

In 2002, the city agreed to create the Guadalupe Gardens Master Plan, which envisioned low density, open space and recreational uses for the noise buffer zone. That agreement took 15 years to reach.

Little has been done since. Sheelen said the airport wanted to develop the parkland for years, but didn’t have the money. He said as part of a new agreement with the FAA, the agency will designate the area as a community benefit district, enabling nonprofits to acquire the land for park-related purposes at less than market value.

The airport does have one success to show: a recently completed five-acre dog park in the area where other park projects are slated.

The park plan will also provide the airport with a new revenue stream. Sheelen said any funds generated from the planned commercial strip are designated for aviation use only under FAA rules.

Declining passenger numbers in recent months, combined with expected increases in wages for airport workers, have put SJC under financial pressure.

Documents from airport officials presented at the commission meeting show commercial development could take many forms in the airport noise buffer zone. In addition to an auto dealership, dry cleaner and storage facility, other uses could include a health club, restaurants, a financial institution, caterer and farmers market.

One prohibited use, the documents show, would be residential housing.

The city council is expected to consider the development plan for the land adjoining the airport by next winter. The FAA approved the plan last year, which was developed by airport officials and the city’s Parks Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department.

The new plan would require an amendment by the city council to remove the 11.4 acres slated for commercial development from the original 2002 parkland plan.

If the city council approves the change, it will go out to bid for a developer for the commercial strip. The initial estimate of when the city will accept bids is mid-2025, with the start of construction in late 2026, according to airport spokesperson Ana Maria State.

Randy Diamond can be reached at [email protected].

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