A photo of Sylvia Cassell Park in San Jose, where Councilmember Peter Ortiz said a pirate ship play structure used to be. Visible in photo: A blank gravelly space with a play structure and a slide in the background.
An empty space at Sylvia Cassell Park in East San Jose. There used to be a pirate ship play structure, but the city doesn't have the funds to replace it. Photo by Annalise Freimarck.

A multimillion-dollar work backlog in San Jose is leaving empty spaces where playground equipment used to be, basketball courts eroded and turf riddled with holes from squirrels and gophers.

San Jose’s parks department has a more than $554 million infrastructure backlog, according to a 2024 city status report — with many East Side parks in disrepair. Most of the city’s parks budget comes from development fees, and advocates are calling for the city to diversify funding in what they said is an equity issue.

“Many of our families don’t have leisure cash where they could just say ‘Oh, I’m going to take my kids to the mall,’” East San Jose Councilmember Peter Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “They rely on these parks for outdoor activities, spending time with your family, having picnics. Parks on the East Side are the lifeline of the residents.”

The city is working on solutions such as asset management, maintaining parks as they are and improving efficiency, but there is no concrete solution for the 293 playgrounds and 212 parks that are part of an expected five-year capital budget of roughly $385 million for 2024-28.

San Jose parks representatives did not respond to questions before publication, but said at an April 8 Transportation and Environment Committee meeting that the department is continuing to assess needs and create plans to reduce the problems.

A photo of Sylvia Cassell Park in San Jose, where Councilmember Peter Ortiz said a pirate ship play structure used to be. Visible in photo: A play structure and a slide on tanbark with kids swinging in the background.
Sylvia Cassell Park in East San Jose. Photo by Annalise Freimarck.

Jean Dresden, founder of San Jose Park Advocates, said the city’s funding methods are lacking because the budget shifts at the whims of development, which varies by year and district.

“Housing development ebbs and flows. It’s a natural phenomenon,” she told San José Spotlight. “There are peak growth periods and then periods where nothing is constructed. So that’s a very narrow set of resources and the way that it’s allocated is completely inequitable across the city.”

Dresden wants the city to consider a bond or parcel tax, which she said would get a positive response if residents knew there wasn’t enough funding funneling in from San Jose’s existing approach. But Ortiz and his colleagues on the Transportation and Environment Committee said putting a parks bond on the November ballot is unlikely because of the negative responses they’ve received on polls. San Jose last saw a parks bond in 2000, meaning facilities rejuvenated from that bond are aging out with no budget for replacements or repairs.

Bob Levy, a Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation program manager and former San Jose parks commissioner, said parks will continue deteriorating if the city doesn’t expand its funding. He said parks are usually a last priority in the city’s budget, not helped by short staffing.

“It’s at a crisis level and San Jose does not have the fiscal infrastructure in place to make up for the deficit,” he told San José Spotlight. “It’s going to continue to slip farther behind.”

Ortiz said the backlog’s effects are especially stark in District 5 — particularly at Sylvia Cassell and Mayfair parks — where the grounds have gaping holes in place of playground equipment. He said the park funding is inequitable by default because East San Jose is not as development-heavy compared to other parts of the city. He added developers pay half of the usually required fees because most East Side projects are affordable housing.

Parks outside of District 5 are struggling too. Alum Rock Park, San Jose’s oldest park, struggled to reopen fully last year after an onslaught of rain, despite receiving $240,000 from the budget in 2022.

The city’s parks, ranked 32nd in a comparison of the nation’s most populous cities last year, are also funded through grants and earmarks. Even in the face of a large backlog and an expected $52.1 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, the parks department has renovated 14 basketball courts, 20.1 miles of trails and replaced or renovated 21 playgrounds since 2020, according to the report.

Ortiz said he will continue pushing for a more even allocation of money for parks citywide going into this year’s budget cycle while considering other funding methods.

“We have to look in the mirror and point at what’s really the cause,” he said.

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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