One of San Jose’s oldest parks that laid the ground for presidential speeches, memorials and even lynchings wants to remake history again after more than 150 years.
St. James Park, located on nearly seven acres in the downtown core, is getting a complete makeover through a partnership between Levitt Foundation, Friends of Levitt Pavilion San Jose and the city. The park has struggled with blight, crime and homelessness for decades, and city officials and advocates see this revamp as the catalyst to revitalizing a neglected section of downtown.
Elizabeth Chien-Hale, a board member of the San Jose Downtown Residents Association, said regular events will result in a cleaner park and the redesign will spur redevelopment in the surrounding area.
“Once they clean up the park, once events start to happen, maybe builders will come back,” she told San José Spotlight, adding that more retail, food, drugstores and shops are needed. “The Breeze of Innovation landmark is going to stand out and has some unique features for Plaza de Cesar Chavez. If we can really get these two parks going, that will make downtown much more desirable.”
The reimagined park will include a music pavilion, picnic grove, garden and monument walks, a fountain, dog park and playground. The fountain will be a recreation of the original Victorian spitting fish design from the 1880s. The playground, which will be ADA accessible and designed for ages 2-12, includes a log-climbing structure, rope swing, forest hut, tree house and fallen tree tunnel.
Concertgoers can enjoy picnics on a lawn sized to accommodate 5,000 people. In addition to 50 free, family-friendly concerts provided by Levitt Foundation, the pavilion can be rented by performing arts and community groups.
Revamping the park will cost approximately $60 million, according to Friends of Levitt Pavilion Chair Fil Maresca. The Levitt Pavilion piece of the project, which includes the concert pavilion, lawn, backstage, cafe and bathrooms, will cost about $20 million. Friends of Levitt is committed to raising $5 million, Maresca said. Part of the remaining $15 million will come from the city’s St. James Park management fund, which currently has about $10 million, he said. Park fees from residential developers within one mile of the park go into that fund, he added.
Maresca said there is a void surrounding the historic park, and that residents are hard pressed to find a cup of coffee or restaurant in the vicinity. He said the pavilion will bring people to the park regularly and businesses will want to be part of that energy.
“Doing something positive to activate St. James Park and motivate change in that neighborhood is absolutely essential,” Maresca told San José Spotlight.
The initial phase begins with the construction of the pavilion. But the timeline is still unclear, Ed Bautista, spokesperson for San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, told San José Spotlight.
Breaking ground depends on the outcome of an appeal filed by Sainte Claire Historic Preservation Foundation claiming San Jose violated the state’s environmental review process and historic preservation rules. The city temporarily claimed victory in the lawsuit last April.
CMG founder and architect Willett Moss and senior associate architect Doug Jones said the timing is right as new homes are going up in the area. CMG Landscape Architecture hopes to complete the project by 2028.
“We aim to revitalize the park as a more inclusive, resilient space that adds value for a diverse community,” Moss told San José Spotlight. “Our goal is to demonstrate investment and commitment to downtown and the existing communities for the next century.”
The transformation of the park could change the entire area, Bautista said.
“The goal is to make St. James Park a safe, fun and desired location,” he told San José Spotlight, “that complements the local neighborhood as well as the broader San Jose community.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].