Author: Jeremy Attema
Great cities are defined by great parks; with that in mind, St. James Park has enormous potential to be a true asset to the people of San Jose.
During the fall of 2013, San José State students embarked on a CommUniverCity project to re-envision downtown San José’s public open spaces. As a graduate student in the Urban Planning department, I partook in an Urban Design Studio, taught by Ginette Wessel, at San José State. As part of a team of graduate and undergraduate students, we developed a design vision for the historic St. James Park and the surrounding community.
Since then, a group of graduate students, in partnership with CommUniverCity, St. James Park Neighborhood Association, and Neighborhood Housing Services of Silicon Valley (NHSSV), have continued to develop a design proposal, soliciting significant community input and feedback. The final culminating proposal, released this month, recommends that the City and area stakeholders develop a small community café within St. James Park that employs those currently residing in the park.
Currently, neighboring residents and workers often avoid St. James Park because of concerns of safety. As we discovered interviewing community members, people believe that blighted conditions and the presence of a large number of people experiencing homelessness create a negative perception about the park. The more people we talked to, the more a common problem emerged hindering the park from being a well-used city asset. In particular, people often walk around the park instead of walking through or spending time within its perimeters.
Cesar Chavez Park in downtown Sacramento faced a number of similar challenges, and offers an important precedent for our own revitalization efforts. In the past, Cesar Chavez Park, even with its central location in downtown Sacramento, experienced low foot traffic and a negative perception of homelessness. But today, the park is the focal point for many community events including farmers markets, music concerts, and community rallies. Our own efforts have been guided by the transformation of this park as a revitalization effort that worked to activate the park without displacing those who find refuge there.
The St. James Park Neighborhood Association and NHSSV joined the project because of their broader community development mission. In particular, NHSSV, which provides homeownership opportunities for low and moderate-income families, has been interested in this project because of its community focus and the proximity of the park to the NHSSV offices. In addition, over recent years, NHSSV has been promoting the idea of “neighborhood ownership”, that is, a collective of neighbors (including renters, homeowners, business owners, and government officials) taking collective ownership over improving their shared environment. Thus, a focus on opportunity areas within the community, such as St. James Park, can provide a range of neighbors the opportunity to work on improving a shared resource.
Through a number of monthly community meetings with business owners, police officers, heads of churches, and city council and staff representatives, we were able to incorporate community priorities in regards to creating a design initiative in St James Park. A pivotal product from these conversations was the idea to create a permanent community café. An important aspect of this café proposal is to include disadvantaged residents or youth that are attempting to turn their lives around. Organizations such as the Catalyst Kitchens in Seattle, Old Skool Café in San Francisco, and Recovery Café in San José are some of the types of organizations that can help start this community empowering café.
A three-phase plan was developed for the activation of the park. The first short-term phase, already completed, includes focusing on events within the park, such as food truck vendors, music concerts, hosting World Cup matches, and other smaller summer events. The medium-term plan, soon to be launched, will include mobile food truck or coffee vendors in and around St. James on a regular basis. And the long-term phase, to be completed in a few years, involves a stationary light-weight structure that serves as a node of activity for the community.
Just last month, our team presented our design for the Community Café to interested residents, business owners, and neighborhood stakeholders. The feedback we received was very positive and included a strategy to achieve phase two by next spring. Non-profit organizations that employ jobless individuals through vending were also eager to develop our proposal. Community representatives supported the concept of a café to help activate the park. Last, the community showed great gratitude for the work that we have completed. The next steps for our team are to be available if the City or community has any questions about this proposal and to connect the right individuals to try and make this come to fruition.