St. James Park holds a unique status among San Jose’s parks. It is not the largest, nor does it attract the most visitors. It is not most people’s favorite. Its uniqueness lies in three key areas.
First, it is the only truly urban park in San Jose, by design and by location. St. James Park was created as a central downtown crossroads in an era when having a showcase park in the city’s heart was considered essential to an American city.
Second, St. James Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who invented landscape architecture. Olmsted is best known as the creator of New York City’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and hundreds of similar spaces across the country.
Third, St. James Park has more potential to become something wonderful than any other San Jose park. This is the result of inadvertent neglect over several decades, as San Jose grew away from downtown and downtown’s heart moved. It is this potential that has many of us very excited about the possibilities for a metamorphosis.
There are currently at least three efforts to change the landscape and ambiance of St. James Park. It has become a refuge for homeless people, a location for criminal activity and a space that average citizens avoid.
Several different groups and individuals have looked at the park for what it could be and should be, as opposed to settling for what it has become. A simple tour of the park on a sunny day reveals an urban space with multiple walkways that connect the park to the surrounding community, as well as encourage walking within the park.
Around the various sidewalks are areas of vast green space that invite a variety of recreational activities—running, soccer, Frisbee, tossing a football or baseball, sun bathing, picnicking reading or simply people-watching.
This summer the city manager’s office began a concerted effort within City Hall to change the atmosphere of St. James Park. Plans call for the showing of World Cup matches on a large screen television and movies showing on other days. These large activities require daily effort to get people who otherwise might avoid St. James into the park. Food trucks, games of all sorts, Zumba, aerobics and Tai Chi are all being considered.
Meanwhile the Levitt Pavilion Exploratory Committee is investigating the very real possibility of creating a permanent concert facility that would provide free concerts and a variety of family-friendly offerings. If all goes well, this will happen within three or four years.
Separately, under the guidance of San Jose State professor Ginette Wessell, who teaches in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, students, faculty and neighborhood activists have developed preliminary plans for St. James Park Cafe.
All three of these efforts support each other and it feels like something good is about to happen for St. James Park.