Investing in San José's Parks and Open Spaces Creates a Virtuous Cycle

roosevelt park and community center in san jose

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

It’s time to talk honestly about the funding gap in the operation and maintenance of parks and other public facilities. As of 2020, San José had nearly $400 million in deferred park maintenance and infrastructure costs. This figure does not include the cost of ongoing maintenance, and it has undoubtedly increased over the past two years. Although actual maintenance staffing has risen steadily since reductions between fiscal year 2008–2009 and fiscal year 2011–2012, it has not yet returned to its 2008–2009 peak of 200 positions. Budgetary trends since the Great Recession suggest that the city will likely never again reach that staffing level and will likely never have funding sufficient to close the gap on deferred maintenance or to pay for adequate maintenance going forward.


The result of this funding and staffing shortfall is obvious. Many of the city’s once well-funded and beautiful parks have become unusable in many ways due to chronic disinvestment. The lakes in Lake Cunningham Park and Almaden Lake Regional Park are toxic. Parts of Overfelt Gardens and Guadalupe River Park have been assessed as “beyond repair.” The issues at these and other parks will only worsen if we cannot develop sustainable and equitable funding strategies.


San Joséans Don’t Have to Visit Their Parks to Benefit From Them

All parks have the potential to become oases that can contribute to greater ecological diversity and environmental sustainability, create an attraction for residents and visitors, and mitigate extreme heat and manage stormwater. Well-maintained parks also increase property values and the economic activities in adjacent neighborhoods. According to our report Guadalupe River Park: A Shared Future in Downtown San José, the revitalization of Guadalupe River Park could improve nearby property values by $2 billion. Capturing these values through property taxes — and investing them in open space and other community-building, equity-enhancing facilities and infrastructure — helps create a virtuous cycle that yields broad environmental, economic, and social dividends.


Four Strategies San José Could Use to Realize Its Parks’ Economic and Social Dividends

SPUR has long advocated for parks funding. There are a couple of ways to raise it.


Strategy 1. Form Partnerships

Strong and stable governance, management, and financial resources are the key to revitalizing parks. Experiences in other cities around the country make it clear that successful parks rely on productive and collaborative relationships among public, private, and community partners. Successful parks are physically, programmatically, and socially integrated with the broader surrounding environments; they become an inclusive place for diverse communities and users; and they are funded through multiple sustainable streams of revenue. In Detroit and Minneapolis, partnerships among the city, philanthropy, and conservancies have leveraged public and private dollars to revitalize riverfronts, complete with restaurants and other community amenities.


In February, the City of Detroit, the Joe Louis Greenway Partnership, and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy announced the Unified Greenway Partnership, a pioneering alliance of public, private, and nonprofit partners. This partnership — created through adoption of a resolution and memorandum of understanding by the Detroit City Council — will raise millions in funds to complete multi-year Detroit Riverfront revitalization efforts and will ensure, through an endowment, that these investments are sustained in the long-term and include dedicated city resources. In Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, and the Sioux Chef, a business dedicated to Indigenous foods, partnered to open a riverfront restaurant and food service venue. The project not only expanded outdoor gathering spaces (including a rooftop patio, outdoor seating plaza, tree-sheltered city steps, a playspace for children and families, and an open lawn overlooking the river), but also allowed an Indigenous restaurant to celebrate historic and current Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples on culturally significant land. In 2022, the Sioux Chef’s restaurant Owamni became one of the country’s most celebrated restaurants and a prominent example of Indigenous American cuisine in the United States.


Strategy 2. Create a Special Parks District

Special districts can levy taxes and issue bonds, subject to voter approval. San José could create a citywide special district and levy a parcel tax on homes and commercial properties to support its nine “regional” parks: Almaden Lake, Alum Rock, Emma Prusch, Kelley Park, Lake Cunningham, Overfelt Gardens, Edenvale Park, Japanese Friendship Gardens, and Guadalupe River Gardens. These parks are unique and much more expensive to maintain than the average neighborhood park. With adequate funding, they have the potential to boast “destination” amenities and potentially become iconic, like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.


Strategy 3. Update the Parks Impact Fee

Currently, new residential development in San José is required to either include a new park or community center or pay a parks impact fee, which supports parks in the area. The proposed update of the parks impact fee, scheduled for this year, puts San José in an ideal position to prioritize new funding strategies. The goal of this update and any subsequent program should be to unlock more (and not less) value. One way parks can better access revenues from the parks impact fee program is to expand the fee to include commercial developments (either citywide or within a specific boundary).


Strategy 4. Put a Measure on the Ballot

The city has considered placing a parks funding measure such as a bond or a parcel tax on the ballot several times over the past decade but for various reasons has decided against it each time. Recent polls and surveys have shown that San Joséans love their parks and generally support taxing themselves to maintain them.


Thinking Long Term

Now more than ever, the city must study, assess, and develop long-term funding strategies with clear communication, intentionality, and creativity. We cannot continue making long-term funding decisions based on the latest real or perceived crisis. Otherwise, there will always be an excuse not to fund what everyone agrees is necessary to create a vibrant and beautiful San José for all.


The bottom line is that city parks will continue deteriorating unless significant and sustainable funding mechanisms are employed. To be sure, there is no one solution, no silver bullet. A successful funding strategy will require engaging various partners and securing dollars from diversified sources, including private, public, philanthropic, and programmatic sources, as well as from concessions and rentals. In the event the city cannot identify or commit to such a strategy through policies like a parks impact fee for developers, its leaders must be upfront with residents about the funding gap that exists to adequately operate and maintain parks across San José and approach voters with a sales tax, special district, or other broad-based funding mechanisms. As we’ve witnessed since the Great Recession, piecemeal funding on an annual basis isn’t nearly enough to significantly impact the quality of our parks citywide.