The Levitt Pavilion received support from the San Jose City Council this week, after Sam Liccardo gathered enough interest from neighbors and urbanists to get approval for an “Exploratory Committee.” Will it be “the answer” or “part of the answer” to what ails St. James Park? We shall see.
St. James Park has been here for more than a hundred years. We don’t have ready access to its early years, at least not a conceptual idea of what importance or significance it had, but we do know—simply by looking at it—that it must have been majestic.
Paths that intertwine and surround the spacious lawns, the myriad of trees, and the majestic fountain that now lies dormant—all of these indicate a truly remarkable space that must have encouraged, and perhaps demanded, that people walk to and through St. James Park. Now it remains dormant, as it has for a few decades, a vast neglected expanse in the middle of a revived and bustling city center.
City leaders have only occasionally opined about this park, offering little vision or direction. There has also been little investment, because San Jose grew up and around and beyond the park, making it somewhat superfluous, even to the “new” downtown of the 1980s. Now, as a new generation emerges with more desire to be part of a vibrant urban center than to live in sprawl, times are changing.
Values are shifting toward creating a walkable urban core. Yes, even in San Jose, the idea of a walkable urban center—with restaurants, housing, entertainment, parks and playgrounds, knitted together by a network of trails and convenient transit options—is taking root. And a few people are paying attention.
The timing of the Levitt Pavilion project could not be better, as it answers many of the most basic needs to transform a neglected park into a very unique and magnetic urban space. The concept is simple: Build a new entertainment venue and community stage, which is then professionally designed and operated and must produce 50 free concerts annually. (Editor’s note: This is a far more ambitious schedule than the now-defunct free Music in the Park series.)
The Levitt Foundation first requires that a nonprofit entity be formed to oversee the project, which raises the funds, hires staff, determines the overall policies, etc. Next, the pavilion is built. The “Exploratory Committee” will have to learn how other pavilions (LA, Pasadena, Arlington, TX, Memphis, etc.) were formed, funded and how they operate.
The success of the San Jose Levitt Pavilion, I believe, will lie in the ability of this group to create a community-led planning process, as opposed to just turning the project over to city officials. The kind of buy-in needed to successfully transform St. James Park requires participation at basic level of planning, and to be effective it has to come from residents, businesses and other neighbors of St. James Park.
James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected] or 408.893.PARK