San Jose says yes to controversial Buddhist temple
Residents packed the San Jose City Council chambers on March 28, 2023 to either speak in support or in opposition to a plans for a Buddhist temple in the city's Evergreen neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Birgit Johnston.

Controversial plans for a Buddhist temple years in the making are moving forward in San Jose’s Evergreen neighborhood.

Following a three-hour discussion Tuesday, the San Jose City Council unanimously approved the development of the nearly 14,000 square-foot Wat Khmer Kampuchea Krom Temple on a 1.86-acre corner lot at the intersection of Ruby and Norwood avenues.

“The Buddhist practice, like other religions, is about bringing peace, harmony, love, kindness and a healthy environment to their families and community,” Councilmember Peter Ortiz said. “I’m confident that this new temple will add value to the surrounding neighborhood, and create a sense of safety and harmony to the area.”

In approving the temple, the council sided with supporters of the project, largely Cambodian immigrants and people of Cambodian descent, many of whom fled wars or genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia. Backers said the project will fill a need for a proper gathering and worship space, and serve as a point of pride for the local Khmer community

The project is backed by the nonprofit A Khmer Buddhist Foundation, led by Lyna Lam and funded by her and her husband, local tech billionaire Chris Larsen.

The council’s decision disappointed some neighbors in the area, who have opposed the temple since its inception and through multiple changes to the plans as the project worked through the city planning process over roughly four years.

Their opposition was built around concerns that the temple is inconsistent with the neighborhood character, that it’s too big for its lot and that it will bring too many cars and people to the area. Some also worry about noise from large events that could span from early mornings through late evenings.

Damien Maker said he lives across the street from the proposed temple, and noted his opposition to the project isn’t about acceptance of Buddhism.

“Our neighborhood is actually very diverse and very accepting, there is no racism, there’s no hate towards a temple or church or anything like that. We actually welcome it,” he said. “We are a very quiet neighborhood and we just want to maintain that, that’s all we’re looking to do.”

While regular worship services during the week and on weekends would likely only see between 20 to 50 visitors, the temple is allowed to have up to 300 visitors on site for special events, along with eight monks who will live on the property, plus event staff, city reports said.

Several neighbors said the size and use of the temple does not fit with the neighborhood, and tried to paint the temple as a commercial facility, because they fear it will be rented out for many special events, which the developer said will not be the case.

“Mr. mayor, you ran on a platform of common sense, and it’s just not common sense to have a large commercial facility in a neighborhood like this,” neighbor Dan Rogy said.

Michael Gabler, president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association, opposed to the project being placed on that lot.

“It’s a big project that has been shoehorned into this little plot of land to give them what they want,” Gabler said.

Councilmember Domingo Candelas, who was recently appointed to represent District 8 where the temple is planned, said the city has placed roughly 40 conditions on the project to ensure it will be respectful of the neighborhood, including some extra rules Mayor Matt Mahan and other councilmembers put in a memo adopted by the council.

They include requiring the temple to have traffic control and security staff on-site for any event with more than 100 people, as well as valet parking programs in place to help people park off-site easily, after the temple’s 67 parking spaces are filled up.

The council also required the regular hours of operation to be set from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., a reduction from the previously proposed 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The temple, during events and holidays, would have hours from 6 a.m. to midnight, with events typically ending by 10 p.m. and cleanup occurring up to midnight, city reports said.

“It is time we do the right thing after four years of work, input, project changes, community discussions and give space for the community to worship and heal from the horrific trauma they’ve endured,” Candelas said.

Mahan agreed, saying the conditions the city placed on the temple “sets a very high bar” while still allowing it to go forward.

“I would like to think that the desire to gather and have community and worship and pass on traditions can be compatible with a high quality of life in a residential area,” Mahan said.

A spokesperson for the project said construction on the temple is expected to start in the fall and should take approximately two years to complete.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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