A park for the next 150 years

Two finalists emerge from St. James Park design competition

Four of the nation’s leading landscape design firms competing to re-imagine St. James Park for its next 150 years presented their ideas on Oct. 16 to a jury that included Councilmember Raul Peralez, city parks chief Angel Rios, Levitt Pavilion representatives and local landscape architects.

The jury narrowed the field to two firms and will reconvene to make a final selection in early November.

Each of the presenting firms formed teams of architects, sound consultants and traffic engineers who have worked on similar projects for cities in the Bay Area and around the world.

Collectively, they weren’t complimentary on the present conditions of the park: no boundaries or edge, no definition, no hierarchy or structure, trash cans everywhere, hodgepodge of lighting and auto/ bus/light rail traffic along Second Street separating the “square” into two.

Their four proposals all shared some common characteristics:

  • Integrated design enhanced by the historic architecture around the park.
  • Levitt Pavilion and large lawn for music viewing, designed to be active and utilized even when events are not scheduled.
  • Make the park “whole” again: light rail through park still OK, but remove autos and buses.
  • McKinley, Naglee and Kennedy monuments remain in place.
  • Heritage trees protected.
  • Newly created water features and playground.

Both of the finalists – !melk fr-ee and CMG – acknowledged their designs are meant to move the 150-year-old park forward to its next century and a half. Here’s how they would do it:
CMG Landscape Architecture, San Francisco: CMG aims to re-create the old-fashioned Victorian strolling gardens that first appeared at the park, protect the canopy of trees of today’s park and blend in new recreational features in a series of “rooms.” “It’s important to keep the sight lines through the park,” said Willett Moss, CMG partner. “The edge of the park would likely have a low fence to keep people out of the gardens and the plantings would have a height of about 30 inches.”

Each piece of the park is meant to stand alone, but each is also mutually supportive of the others, Moss said. CMG’s vision:

  • Victorian gardens on the park edges. u Garden walk that connects the three existing monuments and makes room for two more monuments.
  • Custom playground adjacent to the Kennedy monument. u Large “McKinley Meadow” in the northwestern quarter.
  •  “St. James Plaza” and paseo connect the interior elements, which include café, docent station, restrooms and Levitt hospitality center.
  • A water feature in the middle of the park where a school of fish – playing off the previous fountain – splash water on the children beneath. Passing light-rail trains would trigger a fog-like mist.
  • Dog park and shady picnic grounds near the Naglee Monument on the southeastern quadrant.
  • A multi-tentacled Levitt Pavilion that is a monument in itself, useful as host to “film festivals, puppet shows, dance performances, informal jam sessions or experimental theater productions.” The “directional” sound system integrated into the lighting and sunken lawn keep noise levels under control. “The open colonnade that leads to the stage is also a sculpture,” Moss said. “The underside is perfect for yoga and having lunch.” Estimated cost: $41 million

!melk fr-ee, New York:

The Levitt Pavilion would be designed in tribute to the other iconic domes in the city, such as those at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph and City Hall. “The acoustic shell protects the neighbors and the (Grand) lawn is larger than that of Bryant Park in New York City – a place that holds 5,000 people,” said Yadiel Rivera-Diaz of !melk fr-ee. “But it is also a place for spontaneous events such as poetry readings, small gatherings and discussions. It is a place for exploration. It is the heart of the park.”

A nook in the fanciful pavilion would be a “whispering gallery” for park visitors when the stage is not in use.

All park features would integrate into a unified layout of “petals,” each with a “sub-surface recharge basin” for zero-net water use that turns the park into a “living machine,” Rivera-Diaz said. The “petals” would be connected by walkways reminiscent of the park’s original design.

Some of the “petals” include:

  • Grand lawn, informal sports lawn, contemplation lawn, meditation lawns, yoga/tai chi lawn and “the hill,” which has a slight undulation under one of the large trees.
  • Gardens, recharge garden, redwood grove, flowering (but not fruit-bearing orchards), and bur oak plaza.
  • A “floating” deck of natural woods. u Customized children’s playground with “bumper swings” and “view pods.”
  • Splash pad that also performs water ballet – at time mimicking the water spray of the former (and now dilapidated) fountain.
  • Café and café seating plaza, food truck/farmers’ market plaza, neighborhood plaza with table games and court plaza. “We’re not so worried about the light rail through the park,” said Jerry Van Eyck, !melk founder. “We see people and rail co-exist all the time in Europe.”

Estimated cost: $60 million initially, re-estimated at $43.8 million

“I am hopeful that one day our treasured St. James Park will return to its original intent to anchor the community as a primary gathering site,” said Julie Matsushima, resident and St. James Park committee member.

The designs can be viewed at http://sanjoseca.gov/index. aspx?NID=5235.