Two years after flood, Japanese Friendship Garden awaits repairs
A look at the Japanese Friendship Garden after the Coyote Creek floods in 2017 ravaged it. The garden still awaits repairs. Photo courtesy of San Jose.

More than two years after catastrophic floods ravaged the Japanese Friendship Garden, the beloved garden has yet to be fully rebuilt.

“We’ve been working as hard as we can and working through the process to do what needs to be done,” said Shannon Heimer, general manager for Happy Hollow and Kelley Park — which houses the 84-year-old garden.

When the flood struck in winter 2017, the overflow from the neighboring Coyote Creek flooded out the tea house and the lower pond. Today, two of the garden’s three ponds — once lush with healthy koi and plant life — now more closely resemble skate parks in their emptiness. The park staff estimates that most of the koi survived the disaster but nearly 200 fish now share one pond. A group of lily pads is caged off in that pond so the fish don’t eat them. Covers are installed throughout to provide the fish with shade while the staff waits for neighboring plants to do that job naturally.

Another expensive casualty was the garden’s pump station which provided well water and environmental controls for the koi fish in the garden’s three ponds. Now, the pond that is still in use is operating with a portable filter paid for by donations made to the San Jose Parks Foundation.

It’s a temporary solution — and it’s unclear when the garden will be fully up and running again.

Nicolle Burnham, deputy director of capital programs for San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, says the tea house renovation is out to bid now and the city hopes to hire a contractor for the project before the end of the year. The expected $2.3 million dollar project includes needed repairs to the tea house banquet room along with the deck and main and side entrances, according to a February 2018 city document.

In addition, four feet of flood water warped the hardwood floors and left an inch of mud and debris on everything including the counter tops, said Carolina Camarena, spokeswoman for San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services. The HVAC system under the house, a hot water heater and a commercial refrigerator were all deemed complete losses.

The pump has been a slower process because it requires expertise fish management, noted Burnham.

The city has hired a consultant to advise on the project but has yet to secure the contractors who would complete the construction, she added. “It’s been frustrating and we don’t love it,” Burnham said of the process of getting the repairs. “It looks particularly rough right now.”

Part of delay stems from figuring out how to fund the repairs, added Burnham.

A look at the Japanese Friendship Garden before the Coyote Creek floods in 2017 ravaged it. The garden still awaits repairs. Photo courtesy of San Jose.

Federal and state officials declared the 2017 flood as a natural disaster, so the restoration work is eligible for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Office of Emergency Services. Each agency has completed its own damage assessments and is working with the city to agree on the work that needs to be done. The city pays for any repairs not covered by these agencies.

“In short, the process for funding these projects is complex,” Burnham told San José Spotlight in an email. “As city staff, it is critical that we exert great care in how we proceed so we ensure that we are eligible for maximum payment from the state and federal agencies.”

Burnham says the buildings in the garden are also covered by the city’s private insurance. Sorting out what the insurance will cover and what will be taken on by state and federal programs has been a mess to untangle.

The community has rallied behind efforts to restore the beloved garden which was modeled after the Korakuen Garden in San Jose’s sister city of Okayama, Japan.

James Reber, executive director of the San Jose Parks Foundation, says he holds his own personal reverence for the park and sprung into action to collect the donations after the flood damage.

Reber said $3,000 was raised in the first few days and the foundation shelled out $15,000 for the filter to “keep the fish alive.”

Reber says the foundation has continued to raise money, but won’t make another donation until it’s clear what the money would be used for. Anyone interested in donating can do so here.

Heimer says the park is going to use this opportunity to make additional improvements to the garden. The city recently hired a contractor to suggest improvements unrelated to the flood, including increasing the depth of the ponds or installing new filtration technology.

“So we’re really in the midst of making some good long range decisions for the pond,” said Heimer. “There’s an opportunity here we’re trying to take advantage of.”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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