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Garden Growth

Christopher Gardner

Garden of East: A dirt lot sits at the corner of King Road and Alum Rock Avenue, where the city cleared the land for a Latino cultural center but has yet to build the politically charged redevelopment project.

A rubble lot on Alum Rock Avenue awaits the $25 million Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens. Whether it will be a source of Eastside pride
or a guilt-money pit depends on who you ask.

By Marcus Walton

The stinging memories linger, long after the Nov. 19, 1992, San Jose City Council meeting. Carlos Posada remembers Rodney Feist's tear-streaked face, pleading with councilmembers to spare his family's 50-year-old automotive repair business at the corner of Alum Rock Avenue and King Road. Posada also recalls his own family's feeling of powerlessness upon realizing that the automobile radiator business they had run on that same corner for decades would be reduced to rubble. Despite the appeals, the council voted to use its eminent domain powers to clear the way for a $25.5 million cultural center, reversing its promises not to condemn land along the Alum Rock corridor.

Besides the thorny and emotional eminent domain battle, opponents argued that a showcase project was the last thing East San Jose really needed. Why not spend the money addressing more pressing needs, like child care, youth recreation, health care or drug rehab? Meanwhile, supporters worried that the garden would actually take root. If it never saw a ribbon cutting, it wouldn't be the first announced project to be sucked into San Jose's political quagmire.

The project wasn't helped by the fact that the Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens was viewed as a pet project of then-Councilwoman Blanca Alvarado, whom community activists like Ernestina Garcia accused of abandoning her constituents as a member of the city's political elite. Alvarado was appointed to the county Board of Supervisors in 1995.

"The way this heritage plan is being shoved down people's throats is not justice," Garcia shouted. "They got you into office and you have forgotten and neglected them."

By the time the vitriolic attacks on Alvarado and the council subsided, when the last of the angry speakers had taken their seats or stormed out of the council chambers, some members of the audience were crying softly. Even Alvarado shed tears as she tried to defend her position: "People are here out of animosity toward me ... speaking against a project that means nothing but good. There is no self-interest in this, only community interest."

Six years after that emotionally charged night, the public debate surrounding the project is calmer. Old foes are making peace. Former Alvarado aide Pete Carillo, now president of the nonprofit Mexican Heritage Corporation, confidently declares that "challenges are being met."

The project nonetheless remains controversial and, some say, precarious. After the unanimous vote to clear the lot, the council has split over the project's mushrooming costs and ambitious scope. The Redevelopment Agency still faces a lawsuit from one of the relocated business owners. Outspoken critics within the Latino community continue to suggest that the $25.5 million could go toward more practical programs to benefit San Jose's Eastside community.

There are indications that the project's internal planning process has lagged as well. As of last week, the most up-to-date architectural drawings still failed to reflect the addition of a 500-seat theater approved more than two years ago. Agency officials say they have no recent elevations showing what the finished Mexican Heritage Gardens will look like.

The lack of plans has not slowed the political steamroller, however. On March 7, the City Council voted to push forward with the construction phase and set the opening date for August 1998. All of the buildings that used to occupy the territory at King Road and Alum Rock Avenue have been removed, leaving behind a giant dirt lot. The five businesses and nine families that used to call that corner home have been relocated or bought out.

According to Redevelopment Agency plans, the project's retail portion is designed to provide jobs, create business opportunities and help revitalize the area--in the heart of San Jose's original Eastside --by bringing in outside dollars.

Business owner Kathy Chavez Napoli, who ran for mayor in 1994 on an anti-Redevelopment platform, disputes the economic development argument.

"You don't put out other Latino businesses to bring in new ones," Napoli reasons. "You are displacing rather than enhancing."

Carlos Posada remains the only displaced merchant to reopen his business. The others took the agency's $20,000 buyout and scattered. One moved to South America, another lives in Texas and a third, Jim Feist, has relocated to a ranch in Hollister.

Across the street from the bulldozed lot which will become the Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens and Plaza is a dated, hot pink strip mall. At the west end of the garish building sits Bob's Lounge, which attracts a rowdy bar crowd, locals say.

Police officials view the corner as a magnet for cruisers. Redevelopment Agency Deputy Executive Director Richard Rios cites past complaints about drug-dealing and prostitution on the corner.

Taggers have left their initials on all the open walls in the area. Trash collects along the cyclone fence that surrounds the site.

Garden proponents say the concrete heavy project will not only change the character of this important intersection; they predict it will serve as a catalyst for the transformation of the Eastside's economic fortunes.

"We think this project, combined with our other efforts in the Alum Rock Neighborhood Business District, will revitalize this area," Rios said. "We are helping the neighborhood businesses do better."

The Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens and Plaza is an eight-acre cultural cornucopia which has grown substantially over more than five and a half years of planning. In its current version, it contains retail shops, low-income elderly housing, a 500-seat performing arts theater, a garden, an outdoor plaza, office space and classrooms to contribute to understanding California's Latino culture.

"We have a lot of history and culture that we know very little about," said Fernando Zazueta, the tort lawyer who chairs the Mexican Heritage Corporation's board. "We hope this gives us a small window to learn a little about it."

Christopher Gardner

Boon or Boondoggle?: This dated elevation of the Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens and Plaza was the most recent conceptualization available, despite the fact that a theater was added to the design two years ago.

Only in the past five years has San Jose's Latino community seen any official recognition of its cultural icons, despite the fact that Latinos represent about one-third of the city's population.

Younger Eastside residents queried about the project offer positive comments. To them Mexican Heritage Gardens represents a visible symbol not only of overdue cultural recognition, but also of the Latino community's maturing political power.

"We don't have a [cultural] center on the Eastside. If we want something like that we have to go to San Carlos or San Francisco. Now, with the garden, we can bring those things to our community," said 27-year-old Alfonso De Alba, a 10-year resident of the Eastside. "[The gardens] may not fill all the wants and needs of the Latino community, but it establishes a political presence. If the Latino community was able to get the gardens, then the community will say we can get other things we need as well."

De Alba, who has a BA in political science from San Jose State University and currently works as the transportation assistance program coordinator for the college, agrees with the Redevelopment Agency that this project can be the beginning of true investment in the area. Instead of traveling to other communities for high-quality entertainment and community events, residents will have a place in their own back yard.

But for some other, older Latinos, the gardens are too high a price to pay for that political power. Ernestina Garcia, one of the original members of the Committee to Stop Bureaucratic Land-Grabbers, along with Napoli and others, believes the project is too grandiose and that it will rob resources from other priorities, like health care, social services and ridding the area of blight.

"This money could be used for services; they could fix up streets and improve homes," Garcia said. "I know we should all have pride in our heritage, but if there's poverty, there's no pride. There's no pride if you're hungry. You can't eat pride."

Garcia once sarcastically called the project a "monument" to Alvarado, who proposed and drove the project through its initial stages. Despite the fact that the garden and center are funded with redevelopment dollars that are legally restricted to construction projects, Garcia believes Alvarado's championing of the project will ultimately mean fewer services for San Jose's poor.

"That money could be put to better use," Garcia said, echoing the concerns of other skeptical members of the Latino community. "Does this mean we will miss out on something we need later?"

While the garden has its share of Eastside foes, there are other people in San Jose who don't want the project either, for entirely different reasons. The issue was raised during the race for the District 2 supervisor's seat between Alvarado and newcomer Scott Mathieson. During candidates' forums in the Rose Garden and Willow Glen, Alvarado was asked: "When will we get away from these ethnic-specific projects like the Mexican Heritage Gardens?" In a similar vein, the Quetzalcoatl statue was targeted in a hit piece by Alvarado's opponent to make an issue out of government waste.

Alvarado saw things differently. She told a KNTV (Channel 11) interviewer on the night of the March 26 election that the constant reference to Quetzalcoatl was an attempt by Mathieson to drive a racial wedge between the Eastside and wealthier neighborhoods to the west.

Sylvia Gallegos, an Alvarado aide, similarly mistrusts the motives behind the exploitation of the statue as a political issue.

"I find it very curious that it's these projects people always point to as being an example of government waste," Gallegos said. "I hope people don't feel threatened by the emerging political power of different ethnic groups, because what they will find is that everyone has similar aspirations."

Councilwoman Pat Dando, who represents Almaden Valley and was one of Mathieson's chief backers, says she has supported the garden project--in theory--ever since her days as top assistant to director Frank Taylor at the Redevelopment Agency. However, Dando has consistently voted against the project, citing the 500-seat theater as being unnecessary and expensive.

"It's not only the $9 million, but also the $1 million a year it will take to operate and maintain the theater," Dando said "I hope the community feels they get $9 million worth of service out of that theater."

One of the major hurdles the Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens has to overcome is a 1995 consultant's report, commissioned by the city, in which the project was criticized for failing to undertake an analysis of users and costs before planning the design and selecting a site.

The Wolf Report, as it is known, also pointed out that arts groups weren't involved in the planning, that the board needed more heavy-hitters to raise funds, and that the center will require an annual city subsidy of around $600,000 a year.

Opponents, naturally, believe that city leaders should heed the Wolf Report and bury the garden once and for all. Supporters just as predictably argue the garden is not unlike other Redevelopment Agency projects (the Fox and the Montgomery theaters are used as examples most often, though they are not being built from the ground up) that must overcome obstacles to reach their day in the sun.

Mexican Heritage's Carrillo, like any good nonprofit exec, addresses the criticisms with a positive spin. "This has been a long and sometimes frustrating process but we have been fortunate to have the strong support of the city council and the community," he says. "The report raised a multitude of challenges we are currently addressing."

Carillo said that the corporation is working to attract arts groups to the unbuilt theater and is developing a marketing plan to lure theatergoers throughout the Bay Area to the East side facility.

Despite the critical report, the Redevelopment Agency has remained publicly supportive of the project, though no doubt some of its brass would prefer to see the funds spent downtown. During the agency's financial shortfall last year, the board voted to forge ahead by using short-term borrowing. When the consultant's report came out, the agency responded by guaranteeing the necessary subsidies.

No matter how high the price tag, the agency has found a way to fund the project. When inflation and construction costs raised original estimates, the agency approved the new spending and added the $9 million theater, boosting the total from an estimate of $16 million in 1993 to the current $25.5 million.

For some, this willingness to do whatever it takes is perceived as the agency's attempt to make up for its past neglect of San Jose's Latino community.

Redevelopment's Rios, however, throws water on the notion of any politically motivated penance.

"I think we have treated the Hispanic community and the Eastside seriously for a long time," Rios said. "If we had put $10,000 over there, then people would have said it was tokenism. To say $25 million is there to do anything else is wrong. This is a substantial commitment to that community."

He added that Redevelopment has plans to remodel the Thunderbird Golf and Country Club on King Road. The Alum Rock Neighborhood Business District has received more than $1 million over the years for facade improvements.

But established business people like Olga Enciso-Smith, who has operated Machu Picchu Gallerias de las Americas for 21 years and co-owns the downtown restaurant Inca Gardens, still believe the agency has failed in its mission when it comes to Latino businesses in San Jose.

"They have a mission to recruit and retain business," she said. "In general, the businesses have been neglected. The proof is that many of the businesses have closed and left."

Enciso-Smith sees the gardens, along with the city's purchase of Robert Graham's serpent sculpture, as an expensive and ultimately counterproductive payoff to the Latino community.

"That's a lot of money to spend. I just wish they spent it more efficiently," Enciso-Smith said. "I think the general public will say, 'They've already gotten a lot, why give them any more?' "

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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