Despite the city’s stated commitment to sunshine and open government, proponents of a proposal to permanently close a block of South First Street concealed documents from affected parties—until the eve of a council vote.
After learning of the street closure effort on March 19, Metro requested information. Written requests were made to economic development officials in the City Manager’s office, the office of downtown councilman Sam Liccardo, the city’s Department of Transportation, the San Jose Downtown Association’s communications director and 1stAct, the quasi-public nonprofit advocacy group the city will name to perform public project design and management functions formerly undertaken by the defunct San Jose Redevelopment Agency.
In response to all of those inquiries, the only document provided until yesterday was an architectural drawing that showed how Gore Park (aka Parque de los Pobladores) would be reconfigured. Never once did anyone reply with or even mention a 42-page book detailing the project.
Metro, which shares ownership with San Jose Inside, was interested in the documents both as part of its journalistic watchdog role and as a directly affected party. The closure of the 165-year-old street would remove all vehicle access and make it impossible for customers, news sources, delivery vehicles, readers and visitors to park in front in metered parking spaces as they have for almost three decades.
The urbanists propose removing half the 40-foot street’s asphalt to plant grass and trees. The remaining 20 feet of pavement would be a locked fire corridor, painted to look like a plaza. The plan is championed by non-profit arts organizations like the Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles and Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), who would have a “living room for the arts” at their front doors. They hope to entice PricewaterhouseCoopers workers three blocks away to spend lunch times at umbrella shaded tables, enjoying meals from food trucks that would park on William Street.
Some of SoFA’s small businesses worry that removing one-third of South First’s on-street parking, which is free on evenings and Sundays, will hurt their businesses. Metro and others have asked whether a flexible closing plan would work just as well.
A March 21 email to two city officials directly involved with the project asked for “any communications you have in your possession regarding or related to 1st Act’s proposal to change traffic flow or parking on the 500 block of South First Street.”
Executive Editor and CEO Dan Pulcrano explained in the email that the park expansion was a “vital matter for my business, and we need to plan accordingly,” adding, “Time for sunshine, not secrecy.”
Despite that blunt message, and multiple other appeals that the city’s plan could put 70 jobs and a corporate headquarters at risk, both city officials and nonprofit execs sat on the documents.
Promoters of the “pavement to plaza” conversion have said that if construction was not begun in May and completed in June, 1stAct would lose the $500,000 grant from ArtPlace, a funder of creative urban public spaces.
San Jose will contribute $98,000 in park and economic development funds, according to staff’s memo to the City Council. Architectural services will be donated by Steinberg Architects.
On Monday afternoon—eight weeks after the first request and barely 24 hours before the fast-tracked council vote on — the city coughed up 1stAct’s grant application in response to a public information request to city Public Records Manager Tom Norris.
The document shows that the project is budgeted at $2 million, but of that only $600,000 is funded. The city did not provide revised cost breakouts.
One document indicates that the evaluation team looked at least three different options, two of which would have preserved parking for SoFA businesses.
“It is still unclear where people will park FOR FREE during the evening and weekend hours to replace the lost spaces IMMEDIATELY,” wrote Downtown Yoga Shala’s Veronica Cruz. “To say that something is ‘being worked on’ is not reassuring to me, because I have heard many promises, many times from the City officials.
“I am not fully convinced of the positive impact of clearing the area for a ‘park’ when the current surroundings are really not that great,” Cruz added.
Another worried business is SoFA’s new mountaineering facility. “I have to say that removing 23 parking spaces would be detrimental to gym,” emailed Diane Ortega of The Studio Climbing. “The number one question that people have been asking me when coming to the gym for the first time is what we are doing about the parking.”
Though described variously as a “test” or “temporary” closure, city officials acknowledge privately that it would be effectively permanent since there would be no money to rebuild the road bed. “I don’t trust any decision that would be made today would be ‘undone’ at a later date as was promised,” said Alexandra Kane-Dorian of Emile’s Restaurant, which would lose use of its First Street driveway. “I personally think that Gore Park should be left alone.”
The pavement-to-plaza plan is endorsed by the San Jose Downtown Association and many district landlords and arts groups and businesses. “We are extremely excited about the prospect of renovating Gore Park and creating a permanent urban plaza,” wrote Institute of Contemporary Art Executive Director Cathy Kimball in a letter supporting the grant.
“We think improving the park, adding a stage and creating an event space is great, and we appreciate the hard work and creative energy that has gone into this,” said Metro’s Pulcrano. “We are insisting on an inclusive, transparent public process that involves everyone, brings out the best ideas and respects a spectrum of interests.”
A grant letter from ArtPlace detailing the grant has not been publicly available.
The City Council will take up the matter at today’s 1:30 meeting.
Updated May 15, 2012, 11:45 a.m. and 12 noon. Earlier versions incorrectly attributed a staff memo to Councilman Liccardo.
Update May 15, 2012: After a contentious public hearing that lasted more than two hours, the council voted in favor of Councilman Liccardo’s resolution to conduct further outreach and return with a revised plan. The council asked 1stAct to include businesses on the 400 and 500 blocks of S. First Street in shaping alternative configurations for the park and street plan. Mayor Reed expressed concerns with a partial road bed demolition that could not be reversed if the project fell short of expectations.
1stAct’s Gore Park Plan was written in May 2011 but released only after repeated requests, 24 hours before the permanent street closure was scheduled for a vote.