San Jose: Viva Calle on the chopping block of new budget
Photo courtesy of Viva Calle San Jose.

One of the South Bay’s most popular outdoor events is the latest casualty of the coronavirus pandemic — and its return is uncertain.

Viva Calle, which debuted in 2015 and drew more than 100,000 bicyclists and pedestrians to explore the open streets of San Jose, is on the chopping block in City Manager Dave Sykes’ proposed budget as he tries to close a massive $71.6 million budget shortfall due to COVID-19. City leaders suggest withdrawing nearly a million dollars in funding for Viva Calle and other placemaking activities through the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department, which coordinated the twice-yearly event.

This year’s Viva Calle event, scheduled for May 17, was already canceled due to social distancing requirements, but now the city pulling funding for the event leaves its future up in the air. Viva Calle closes miles of city streets for half a day to allow residents to walk, bike, skate and enjoy the outdoors.

“We definitely can’t cancel it. It needs to come back,” said Shiloh Ballard, executive director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. “I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of San Jose’s most beloved events.”

According to proposed budget documents for the upcoming fiscal year, Sykes recommends pulling $998,763 for events such as Viva Calle and Viva Parks, which hosted a series of more than 20 events in San Jose last year. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed budget on June 16.

Despite offsetting some of the event’s costs with sponsors such as Google and Adobe, a large portion of its costs go toward law enforcement personnel.

Ballard said San Jose could save a lot of money if it cut back on police officers at the event.

“The event could be a lot cheaper if we didn’t require as many police at the event, but the city shoots itself in the foot by requiring a ton of police,” Ballard said. “Other cities get by just fine without having a huge law enforcement presence.”

She added that the thousands of bicyclists roaming through San Jose help support small businesses, a boost to the local economy.

Before Viva Calle launched in 2015, organizers weren’t sure if closing some of the city’s busiest streets and expecting people to walk and bike instead would work. But the annual event quickly grew in popularity, reaching a turnout of more than 100,000 attendees in 2016. The city began to host two Viva Calle events last year.

Carolina Camarena, a spokeswoman for the city’s parks department, said Viva Calle was a hit because it allowed people to explore, navigate and connect with the city in a new way.

“Our entire lives we’ve been told to stay off the streets,” Camarena said. “Yet, at the Viva CalleSJ event, you see nothing but people on the streets… So it really gives you the allure of being able to do something that is forbidden.”

Similarly, Viva Parks activates the city’s parks by creating outdoor programming like food trucks, live music, children’s attractions and group exercise activities.

Ballard acknowledged the city needs to prioritize social distancing, but said it should still produce supplemental platforms for recreation. She said San Jose should adopt Oakland and San Francisco’s “Slow Streets” programs — where low-traffic streets are closed to allow physically distant walking, jogging and biking in addition to creating open space for people who don’t live near parks.

The Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition wrote a letter to the city of San Jose proposing a “Slow Streets” program, but city officials responded saying they aren’t pursuing street closures at this time, Ballard said.

San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas also supports the Slow Streets initiative, but said she’s going to fight to keep Viva Calle alive.

“I’m going to be looking to the city administration to reverse course on eliminating this program, and instead find solutions that keep the core program without substantial impact to our general fund,” Arenas said.

Contact Luke Johnson at 18johnson.luke@gmail.com and follow @Scoop_Johnson on Twitter.

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