City Hall Diary: Historic Gem Meets Structural Deficit

Do you remember your 8th grade graduation? I do. I graduated from Hoover Middle School in 1984 at the Municipal Rose Garden Park in the historic Rose Garden neighborhood. I remember the day perfectly. I wore my best collared shirt with slacks and sported a “bowl-style” haircut.  The sun was shining, the smell of roses lingered in the air, and the freshly-mowed grass was dark green. I remember walking through the pristine gardens with the girl whom I had a crush on. Students and parents took family photos in the gardens with the colorful roses as a natural backdrop.

That was 23 years ago.  Things have changed.

On my twelfth day as councilmember, I met with city staff and 18 Rose Garden residents to do a walkthrough of the Rose Garden Park.  Instead of the pristine, well-kept, fragrant park that I remembered, it felt and looked more like one of those movies where residents abandon an area after a major disaster.  I saw weeds that were taller than the rosebushes, crabgrass growing in empty rose beds, and bathrooms you would not want your children to use. 

Rose Garden Park also hosted our sister city from Japan ten years ago.  The delegation from Japan is returning at the end of the month but they will not be visiting the park this time.  The Rose Garden neighbors are ashamed of the state of the park and feel embarrassed to bring our guests there.

Rose Garden Park is not alone.  Newly-built Cahill Park off The Alameda and many other parks throughout San Jose are not receiving the care that they deserve. Budget cuts are only part of the problem.  The bigger issue is that San Jose is not being creative in adopting new ideas to solve these problems.  When I was campaigning—not that long ago—I proposed the idea of a pilot program to outsource maintenance for some of our neighborhood parks. The residents that I talked to—Democrats, Republicans, Independents and others—agreed that such a pilot program for some of San Jose’s parks was a good idea. 

The residents of San Jose want their neighborhood parks back, as they justly deserve.  Let’s put our pride aside. The city can’t do it all anymore and it’s time to quit thinking it can.  It’s time to be creative and solve problems.  Let’s consider outsourcing park maintenance so that the students graduating at Rose Garden Park this year won’t trip over weeds.

Pierluigi Oliverio represents District 6 on the San Jose City Council. This is the first of a series of guest columns that will chart his experiences at City Hall.


  1. Very refreshing view piont from a new council person!

    Big questions are: 

    Could the gardens / parks set up a trust or non profit group that is allowed to use volunteers and or paid employees that focus on the individual parks? 

    What would the unions hacks that have messed up the parks do?

    Keep it up PO.  Don’t drink the water in that building; it will turn you into a zombie.

  2. Seems the problem Pierluigi is that your peers on the San Jose City Council have had other priorities for spending our tax money. Personally, I’d rather see a trained maintenance worker making an adequate wage pruning our roses than seeing the same amount of money paying a job-shop worker at minimum wage with the rest of our taxes going to the profit and overhead of an outside contractor.

  3. Glad to see you are off to a good start.  Can’t wait to see how this project unfolds and how long it takes to implement it. 

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  4. PO—Nicely said. More detail might get to the root of the problem. Not enough money may not be the problem. How long has this neglect been going on? Is a city crew assigned to this park? Others? SJ seems to have lots of $$$ for fru fru—like redoing the landscape plan for the airport, at least twice so far, moving the Montgomery Hotel down the street, keeping the MH Plaza, the arts, etc., etc., subsidized—but not a nickel for the Rose Garden? Hmmm. I’ll bet Santa Clara would let SJCC District 6
    honcho come over for a talk on park mgmnt.
    SC parks, all of them, are terrific, for location, architecture, features, maintenance.
    Would be nice to know exactly how they do it.
    What happens to money sent to “parks?” and wreck—could it be going into a special retirement fund? The city staff hasn’t been supervised for so many years that anything is possible. George Green

  5. It is not just the Rose Garden. It is ALL of the parks.

    When the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County reached agreement with the City of San Jose to renovate the old Paulson House, History Park was a beautiful regional park.  It was well maintained, the grass was cut on a regular basis, weeds were controlled; in other words, it was an attractive place for families! That is no longer true.

    Tall weeds grows around the base of trees, the grass looks as if it has been abandoned, trees and shrubs are in death’s throws, and no one in Parks and Recreation seems to care!

    We, the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, have spent close to $300,000 to upgrade the wonderful old home that Mr. Paulson built for himself in the 1889-91 period.  The house was moved to History Park during the destruction of down town housing by the RDA. Our up-grade includes a marvelous landscaping job contributed by Barry Swenson. Turf, roses, trees, shrubs and vines have all been added to enhance and add to the ambience of History Park. The parking strip has rosemary and all the beds are protected by redwood bark. There is an automatic irrigation system. But just across the street from our new headquarters, the grass is dying, trees are dead, weeds grow profusely without any control and all this because no one downtown cares!

    There used to be one full time person to care for the grounds. Then last year she was transferred to some other place and a part timer who seems to show up maybe once every couple of weeks, who drives across lawns, fails to pick up debris from his own hedge cutting (and a poor job that is), does not do anything other than cut and maybe blow.  Oh, yes, he also can drive his truck over sewer cleanouts and water connections to break them without even a thank you! When “Carla” was transferred, the park went down hill. Was she sent away as punishment for doing a good job?

    We know that part of the problem is the “grey” water that is used to irrigate the grounds. The salts and other chemicals used to purify the water (called by some “Kaka“) hurts redwood trees, junipers, other trees, shrubs and some grasses. Other users have found that by switching to good water for three months just before the rains come allows the bad stuff to leach away and the expensive landscaping is protected.  The other part of the equation is that the City is more interested in providing employee benefits than in providing citizens’ recreation benefits!
    At my age, I don’t do much walking about, but on a short stroll last Saturday, I found the lawns ankle deep especially around the picnic areas where families were gathered. It looked as if it hadn’t been mowed in several weeks. Areas around trees were covered with debris and weeds growing within the circles at the bases. I saw uncontrolled growth climbing into power lines that could pull those wires down. Houses overgrown with weeds and dead plantings, and what looks to be star thistle growing along the fences on the Senter Road side and in other places within the park.

    How can the “Capital of Silicon Valley” allow this to happen?

    Now, there is a solution!  Outsource all of the park maintenance.  On the east side of San Jose, in the Evergreen district, Silver Creek and the Villages have done just that with excellent results and great monetary savings!

    Of course, many undeserving employees would lose their jobs and those deserving to go (management)  would stay, but that can’t be helped. When the Villages outsourced the landscaping department, a savings of a million dollars was realized and many of the former employees were hired by the new company! As my old daddy used to say, “ If you gave the public employees a 10 % cut in pay, not one of them would quit!”

    You need to ask the City for an accounting of the landscaping costs. With that as a basis, investigate outsourcing! I do believe that a saving can be realized and overall our parks will be enhanced. No longer will events be canceled because of the shoddy appearance!

    Jerry Rosenthal, President, The California Pioneers of Santa Clara County

  6. Great opening into the conversation of how we address community/private participation in the problems of public infrastructure.  If you go to the Guadalupe River Gardens Heritage Rose Garden you will see an incredible area of well maintained heritage roses that rivals collections anywhere.  It was developed and is maintained by an incredible crew of volunteers while being a public space, so, we do have at least one working model.

    For too long, citizens have sat around complaining about “When are they going to fix that problem” rather than getting involved.  And, the city hasn’t made it easy to do so, I’ll admit.  There is a general citizen expectation that “somebody else” who is on payroll will be able to take care of any infrastructure need while we are constantly being told the budget won’t stretch that far.

    Other models are in development and I can say this because I’m working on one (with multiple departments) that will allow a better private/municipal/non-profit partnership to be developed and implemented in the construction and rehabilitation of playgrounds.  I look forward to the day when I can hit up the participants of this site to come help us completely build and install a playground in a one-day event.

    Until then, I look forward to more creative thinking to resolve both the short term problems (getting all facilities up to acceptable standards this year) and long term problems (creating partnerships to ensure sustainability) and I expect it to come from my new council member (Thanks, Pierluigi!), others on the council and the many departments around this city.

  7. I think Jerry ‘s description of the current excuse for gardening at the History Park is a great example of the city not even requiring any gardening experience, probably not even an interest or affinity for gardening, in who it assigns to such positions.  Farming this out to an entity that actually has a staff experienced in landscaping and related maintenance would be the best thing that ever happened to the parks in SJ.  I have seen the sloppy work of SJ parks staffers for years, at the Rose Garden in particular.  These people are typical of the genre who seek to receive the highest possible amount of compensation for the least possible amount of work and take no pride in what they do.

    On the flip side, the city of Santa Clara would be the last example I’d choose for how to design and maintain a park.  They are all uninspired cookie cutter and reflective of the Stepford atmosphere that pervades that quirky corner of the valley.  No thanks.

  8. Channel 26 Watcher #3, you drank too much KoolAid.  We don’t have any trained maintenance workers now, judging by the condition of most, if not all, of our parks.  I too want to see a trained maintenance worker keeping up our parks, but I don’t care who employs them.  Do they tell us on Channel 26 how to find, train, and hire such folks, Watcher???

    George #5—The retirement fund may well be where the $$ goes, since, by the condition of the parks, you’d think the entire parks and wreck maintenance crew has already retired.

  9. Problems go way beyond Parks & Wreck Department   –  1) not maintaining parks and recreation facilities –  additional problms with 2) lack of proactive effective oversight by Parks and Recreation Commission who accepts staff excuses and does not insist on solutions or accept many volunteer groups who said they would help maintain parks and rec facilities, 3) city taking for 4 years about using voluteeers to built dozens of needed KaBoom parks while 4-6 childrens parks were lost while they still talk ( recent KaBoom was not city sponsored but state ). 4) poor PRNS grant administration,  5) no or or inadequate public outreach for skate parks and other park projects,  6) public meeting held behind closed locked doors, 7) not releasing public documents or taking public comments,  8) years of delays to update parks impact fees while $76 million underpaid by developers , 9) poor park funds accounting and administration while land cost go up and few parks built and parks overcrowded and many areas lack parks while population goes up , 10) thousands wasted on Aquadics study when we do not have millions for new facilities or maintenance What people wanted was 4 closed pools reopened after being closed for 3rd years 11) children’s water spray areas health hazards and 12) generally bad defensive attitudes to residents who question senior staff or parks comission

    Not a complete list of many problems with PRNS

    There are many fine hard working staffers and it is not just lack of money that causes problems but poor leadership

    Most people when asked can not think of a worse city department when we want it to be one of our best

  10. Dear San Jose:

    I think Perluigi has a great idea.

    Here’s another:
    Why doesn’t each council office have a couple of staff people assigned to doing nothing but getting things done that are brought to their attention by the citizenry? Example, Why do we have to call code enforcement and then have them fill out an application form that is then assigned to a code enforcement officer that maybe gets to it six or seven months down the road?  Out in District One, I tried to get a bunch of private signage taken down from city lamposts and telephone polls.  (Six months have gone by and nothing has happened).  I called the council office a month ago, and still, nothing.  Why can’t city employees “multi-task” like the rest of us? 

    QUESTION:  How many city employees does it take to remove illegally posted signs off public property?
    ANSWER:  None.  They’re all doing something else.

    Pete Campbell

  11. Hey #8, Santa Clara parks are OK in my book.  They are used by their residents (which is the sign of a good park) and are maintained.  It’s fine for me if a park is simple…it’s probably economical.  I don’t need a fancy park when I want to play ball, I just need the lawn to be mowed. 

    While I am on the topic… 

    I can also pass on the numerous overpriced, fancy lighting fixtures (ala Taylor Street overpass/Guad. River Park in downtown) when we aren’t able to replace the burnt out lightbulbs or repair the vandalism.  It seems like a better idea to save the money and add maintenance worker(s) to the payroll.

  12. Pierlugi—

    I agree with you that we should consider outsourcing parks maintenance.  This is one of the things I have proposed studying through the city’s ongoing Sports Fields Feasibility Study, which coincidentally is having its monthly meeting tonight at 6 pm at city hall room W120.  (Meetings are second Monday evenings at rotating locations.)  We are early in the process, so public input is not only welcome, but may actually be helpful at this stage.  Although the study deals with sports fields, and not public flower gardens, some outcomes from the study may be useful for parks generally. 

    The “new opportunities” subcommittee, which I chair, is charged with looking for (1) potential sources of new sports fields and (2) at my request, potential private partnership opportunities.  (The subcommittee meets second Thursday evenings at rotating locations.)  I hope we can bring back recommendations which will be useful for developing partnerships with the private for-profit and non-profit sectors, thereby resulting in better maintenance of our recreational sports fields. 

    For example:  Why shouldn’t the Sharks operate the floundering Roosevelt Roller Rink, the only public roller rink in San Jose, which parks staff have mismanaged?  The Sharks can undoubtedly do it for a profit, just as they operate city-owned LogitechIce profitably.  Moreover, roller hockey ought to be within the Sharks’ business model, especially in terms of developing future fans of the professional ice hockey game.  (Tom McEnery—is this something you’re willing to explore??)

    And why not allow corporate advertising at recreational sports fields?  Again, Logitech Ice provides a model. 

    Another subcommittee is charged with looking at best practices from other jurisdictions. 

    Whether parks staff will allow us to forward recommendations that do not meet their preconceived notions or bureaucratic interests is an open question at this point.  But this study should be the venue for seriously threshing out the concept of creating private/public partnerships for our parks and presenting them to the city council.

  13. Councilmember Oliverio,

    Specifically regarding the Rose Garden condition that you bring up and the related meeting with the interested citizens in your district that you mention, I assume some action has been taken by you and your staff to correct the matter.  Have all appropriate park managers been alerted to the problem?  And getting down to business, when will the Rose Garden problem be fixed?


  14. Is there a friends of the rose garden organization?

    I’m with everyone else, so far as wishing the city would/could do more, but in the mean time, quit whining!

    I, for one, volunteer as often as I can with Friends of Backesto Park (which kicks ass, btw).  And kudos to the group Jerry mentioned and the folks who maintain Guadalupe Gardens.  Another group downtown is Friends of Coyote Creek, who do occasional creek clean-ups.  I’m sure there are others who deserve thanks, too.  THANK YOU!!!

    And, honestly, don’t let PRNS bureaucracy stop you.  What are they going to do—arrest you for pulling weeds and pruning roses?  Hah!  “They” rarely bust the people who put up graffiti, would they really arrest you for cleaning it up?

    Take back your park!!!  Don’t wait for permission.  If you don’t care enough, don’t expect anyone else to either—not the city, and certainly not some outsourcing outfit.

  15. Ditto on Rose Garden. I took a girlfriend there last weekend and found it wasn’t at all what I remember from even 4 years ago. And there was hardly anyone there that day.

    And welcome to the district six seat ~ I look forward to meeting you at community meetings.

  16. Having great parks and recreation along with arts, entertainment, theater and many diverse events is necessary for San Jose to have a great San Jose quality of life which is also necessary to attract the highly skilled and educated people desired by creative and innovative company’s we are trying to attract and retain. 

    The most skilled, educated, creative and desired people can and are choosing where they want to live first based on quality of life and then who they want to work for since companies today will go to where the talented people are in today’s employment market . People in high employment demand do not and will not go to anything except highly desirable places for a job.  Look at the hot job markets, it isn’t by chance these are also the most desirable places to live with high quality of life which we have challenges to achieving in San Jose.

    San Jose can achieve greatness and provide a high income local jobs for all our residents, wide range of housing options for our diverse people and solutions to our many challenges by everyone work together. 

    We expect a city government that views it’s residents as part of the solution not the problem and is bold enough to tell the truth not hide the facts and willing to consider bold and innovative solutions.

    The answers to San Jose’s problems lie in more democracy, open government and all of our people working together, not less. 

    We have some of the best and brightest people in the world who came to San Jose for opportunity for themselves and their families and expect government to help improve not hinder their progress and quality of life.

    Thanks Pierluigi for today’s topic and those proposing innovative solutions.

  17. Outsourcing such things as park maintenance could yield significant savings and much improved park environments. 

    Careful though… you’re messing with a couple of pretty big rice bowls, City employees and the ever-present unions. 

    Go for it Pierluigi; to use a phrase coined by our Governor, “blow up the boxes!”

  18. In his well-written and spot-on post Oliverio calls out a hugely important point—rallying citizens and neighbors to create a Third Way between All-Government and No Action to deal with threats to civic well-being.  To make that work however, government and other large entitites has to empower citizens to put the personal investment into Third Way activities and give up some power to do so.  In addition to park decay, Rose Garden residents are seeking a compromise with San Jose Unified regarding the district’s plans to greatly expand the number of gang-magnet night activities at the Lincoln High Stadium. This would be a c lassic case for a Third Way solution instead of the Winner Takes All scenario currently playing out. WTG Oliverio!

  19. I can see it now.  PO throws down the gauntlet and pits City Labor against open, clean-n-green neighborhood parks and a balanced budget.

    The battle is on.

    Will it be trophy wives of retired city park employees be driving their new Escalade and Lexus to the spa while parks go fallow and swimming pools close…  or will landscape gardeners compete fiercely over each neighborhood park to make it a show case for future opportunities?

  20. Local,

    Oh yes, SC parks are simple and economical . . . yawn.  What about SC and its inhabitants ISN’T simple and economical?  YAWN.

    I do quite agree with you on the Taylor St./SR 87 overpass.  That is a major eyesore, another bloated monument to Gonzo’s hasty and unsuccessful attempts to make something out of the 10th largest city, and is some of the worst architectural treatment of street lighting and signal placement I’ve ever seen.

  21. Last summer I saw kids and PARENTS climb the fence at the fountain at the Rose Garden.  They would be in that dirty water and no one was ever around to tell them to get out.  I was married in the park in 1993 and it was still very nice.  Our son will be married there this August and I guess we better bring our mowers, cutters and trash bags the day before.

  22. Just a suggestion…

    But maybe someone should do survey of the employees of Parks and Wreck…

    How many positions there are occupied by political election staffers and ‘volunteers’ warming benches ‘til the next election…?

    Hey… just askin’… don’t be so sensitive!


  23. As I take my daughter several times a week to several of our neighborhood parks, I can certainly attest to their poor condition. I support considering a range of options in order to improve the maintanance of our city’s open spaces but I’m not yet convinced that contracting out park maintainance is the proposed solution that would ensure cost savings and lead to much-needed improvements.

    Privatization of government services can often lead to unintended consequences. Before our city contracts out park maintainance, I would want to see a thorough qualitative and quantitative analysis of the problem with real evidence of cost savings and improved performance.

    San Jose has a history of failing to develop, monitor and evaluate large government contracts so I believe we should fully engage the public in all facets of the contracting process – including multiple community meetings so that the public can share their perspectives.

    Our parks and recreation programs are essential city services that protect our quality of life and I recommend moving slowly on any privatization of these city services. As someone once said, “If you find a good solution and become attached to it, the solution may become your next problem.”

  24. Mark T (#21),

    I wish I paid more attention to your posts to know your MO.  Conceptually, with all of the overspending in San Jose it seems like one would applaud “simple/economical” approaches that work to meet the needs/demands of its residents. 

    BTW, I don’t consider the International Swim Center, the new soccer park or the Senior Center in Santa Clara simple…but I know everyone has their own opinion.  Can you tell I am biased?

    Glad to know we share the same thoughts about Taylor St…

    Your friend,

  25. #15, Northsider in Northside SJ;

    Actually, the Rose Garden Neighborhood Preservation Association signed up for the “Adopt-a-park” program in January 1994.  The Rose Garden was going downhill big time and like today, there were park staff cuts while the City had spent $500,000 for a dog poop statue downtown.

    With hundreds hours put in on countless volunteer days over the years, in late 1995 the Neighborhood Association received the “Volunteer of the Year” award from the Parks and Rec. Dept.  The park was looking great and the Mercury News was even taking notice.

    Fast forward to a different Board of Directors in 1998.  Maybe it was too much a burden to organize a few volunteer days.  In February, Rose Garden Neighborhood Board Member Karyn Sinunu drafted a letter to the City officially withdrawing from the “Adopt-a-Park” program.

    The park hasn’t been the same since.

  26. Interesting comments, instead of outsourcing and continuing to pay salaries for below standard services, why doesn’t our city at how to create what ALL the other cities in the county, including Santa Clara, have done to create and maintain municipal parks that provide residents with recreation and park facilities and programs that the citizens desire. The answer in each city is leadership. Until our city provides leaders that can solve the basic problems, we will continue to have the same concerns. Check out the salaries or our current city staf leaders. It could very well be time to upgrade and replace our leadership in all departments instead of continuing with the status quo-San Jose should and could be able to change in order to improve and solve our problems. Otherwise, residents will continue to go to our neighboring city facilitites. It is embarrassing that our leadership is so stagnant and incompetent. I fear that those leaders will not be able to manage outsourcing, since they do not seem competent to manage what they are paid to manage now. Or we could outsouce the entire city. Any bets that the pools will not be ready this summer?

  27. #24 Clark Williams: 

    As mentioned in my previous post, the ongoing work of the Sports Fields Feasibility Study, and in particular the New Opportunities subcommittee I’m chairing, is endeavoring to provide the kind of analysis you are seeking. 

    The more public input, the better our analysis will be.  We are hampered by the usual apathy among our citizenry, as well as a very short approximately 6 months time frame within which to work (I am hoping to extend it.)  Folks reading this blog, at least, should not complain that they never heard about these public meetings.

    As previously mentioned, the study is only aimed at sports fields, not parks generally.  But I believe sports fields present perhaps the best opportunity for private partnerships, including corporate advertising and sponsorships.

    I think we already have a successful precedent in the form of LogiTech Ice.  This is a city-owned four-ice rink facility managed by the Sharks, who practice there.  Effectively, there is a monopoly of all of San Jose’s ice hockey “sports fields” under private management.  Just like at HP Pavilion, you will see corporate advertising along the ice rink boards.  And of course the facility itself is named for a tech company. 

    What result?  It is, per Sharks CEO Greg Jamison, the largest and most successful ice complex west of the Mississippi.  There is time and place for numerous ice hockey leagues, figure skating, open skating and private parties.  All done profitably in a well-maintained facility.  In my view, we can learn from this example, and extend it the model to grass- and artificial-turf sports fields across the city. 

    Want another example of why a private partnership might make sense?  Compare the woe-be-gone Roosevelt Roller Hockey Rink run by the city to the phonemenally popular privately-run Rollin’ Ice roller hockey facility in South San Jose.  In my view, the Sharks or another private operator could step in and run the Roosevelt facility (profitably!) and turn it to an asset for the community.

  28. Why is it that private sector tech employee jobs are in the outsourcing crosshairs and public sector jobs are somehow immune?

    I’d like to see the city do a pilot project or 2 and give it to Wipro or one of the other Indian offshore outfits and see how it works out.

    A little competition to get the attention of CH types would be a good thing for taxpayers.

  29. why don’t they use the weekend work program to clean the place up? they’re always at kelley park and a couple of others running out of things to do. i understand they are not qualified to prune roses but they can certainly remove the litter and pull weeds.

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