When it comes to improving urban parks in San Jose, St. James Park is at the epicenter of the discussion. It is a diamond in the rough, with a pedigree that makes San Joseans want it to be more than what it has fallen to today. But another park in San Jose, Plaza de Cesar Chavez is often overlooked as an essential urban park. It is here that Christmas in the Park is hosted every year with 2013 have a record number of visitors, over 500,000! But that event is only one month. The eleven other months, it sits relatively dormant with the exception of children running through the fountains during the summer.
The plaza has almost no interaction with the buildings around it. Cafes, bars, restaurants and retail found in other cities main plazas are practically non-extent or inconsistent enough to create the desired level of street life activation. It acts more as a pass through to get from the Tech Museum side to the Fairmont and paseo side. Rather than a destination, it’s become an obstacle for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars. But one thing Christmas in the Park proves, this the plaza can draw hundreds of thousands of people, if it has something worth coming to see. So how do we the citizens make it worth coming to?
It starts simply, by thinking beyond grass. One of the rarely discussed and biggest problems that Christmas in the Park presents, is that the Christmas displays kill the grass… every year. And every year in January, the city ropes of the areas with orange mesh and re-seeds the grass. This lasts months, and the sparse grass shows up for a few months, then gets killed again in December, leaving park visitors with little greenery and orange mesh throughout restricting walking, and a visual aesthetic of a construction area, not a park. So if not grass than what?
One easy and mobile solution is to create movable but secure flower planters. The planters have to be movable ready for when Christmas comes, but permanent and secure enough to withstand nearly a year outside. The planters would be large enough to fill in the areas usually seeded by grass, and would be filled with flowers throughout the spring, summer, and fall months, and with green shrubs or vines during the harsher months of winter. The benefit that the planters have is that they are instant. No waiting around months for grass to grow, and no longer dealing with orange tape. Beyond that, flowers bring color, dimension and diversity, all of which add the urban fabric. Look no further than the planters installed along the parking lot on the corner or W San Carlos and Market, they brighten up the otherwise concrete walls and make it enjoyable to walk or bike by.
If the planters prove to be successful at drawing visitors, this idea can be pushed further. The flowers within the planters could be themed, similar to what is done at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. They could be changed out three times a year, with spring, summer, and fall themes. This would create a unique park that people would visit throughout the rest of the year.
But planters is not enough. Street level activation at and around the park needs improving. One of the main complaints of the plaza is that there is very little contributing its activation. To help with this the city could take several of the parking spaces around the park and offer them up as parklets, parking spaces that are converted, usually to extend a cafe, restaurant, or small business. The city could approach the businesses that surround the plaza and ask for sponsorships for the parklets. Hotels, museums, even business could put their name on a parklet with the hope that by activating these spaces, it will in turn bring more business to the area. Each parklet could be built out uniquely, with spaces that provide seating along with plants, flowers, or art. Anything to encourage an extended interaction within plaza. Furthering that interaction, the city could designate other parking spaces as food truck parking on designated nights. Movable Feast events could be held on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and by using the parklets there would be plenty of seating for those looking to eat.
Even though Plaza de Cesar Chavez is used more than St. James Park, it still could be utilized to a higher degree. By simply avoiding grass and using a mobile flower garden, it adds to the diversity and adaptability that modern urbanists are requiring of their parks. Parks should be usable and enjoyable all year round, not just for one event every year. By incorporating a few simple ideas, Plaza de Cesar Chavez will become more active, adding to a growing urbanist culture that is becoming the fabric of downtown.