Coverage of Mexican Heritage Gardens yet another example
January 27, 1993
By Yolanda Reynolds
Alum Rock Union School District Board of Trustees members Alex Salazar, Félix Alvarez, and Juanita Ramírez held a press conference in front of the offices of the San José Mercury News, the city’s lone daily. They held the conference last Thursday noon to protest the newspaper’s coverage of a recent editorial relating to the board’s action on a proposed exchange of their school’s property with the Redevelopment Agency of San Jose.
The new Alum Rock board members, Salazar, Alvarez and Ramírez on January 14th rejected an exchange of land that had been sought by the Mexican Heritage Garden Corp. for their project. The project involves the construction of a senior housing complex, performing arts space, classrooms, retail shops, and “gardens” on 7.8 acres at the corner of King Rd. and Alum Rock Ave. in East San Jose.
The three board members strongly objected to not only the newspaper’s characterization of their actions as “bickering,” but, even more strongly, to the factual errors that were made in an editorial appearing on January 19th.
Ernestina García and her group, “La Confederación de la Raza,” objected to the fact that the editorial writer characterized their criticism of the Mexican Heritage Gardens as “petty bickering.” School Board President Salazar pointed out that it was not bickering that caused him and his colleagues to vote against the swap, it was concern for the education of the children who attend the nearby San Antonio School. They said that the school would have lost valuable playground space if the exchange were to take place.
Salazar said that “Felix, Juanita, (and I) are educators.” He and the others stressed the importance of adequate space for children – particularly the very young. Salazar explained that classrooms are already very crowded in all schools, (especially in the Alum Rock District) and overcrowding at play time is already a problem. He explained that space for the children to run and play is essential in order to reduce stress and help avoid confrontations among the children.
Salazar said that 61 children ranging from K through fifth grades attend classes at San Antonio. According to the State Department of Education consultant, Stan Rose, “Their San Antonio School site is undersized in relation to enrollment. Therefore, further reduction of the site size at San Antonio Elementary would constitute an undermining of program requirements per (State of California standards.”
According to Salazar, the District’s new attorney cautioned them against the exchange and advised that, should they want to proceed with the exchange, a two-thirds vote of the Board would be required.
A question was asked about Salazar’s change of heart in opposing the land swap, which the news media generally interpreted as “opposition to the Heritage Gardens.” Salazar explained that he had indeed, served on the Board of the Mexican Heritage Gardens and was told by the groups attorney that there were “no problems for the school.” Salazar said that, when he became a trustee for the District and informed himself on the exchange from the perspective of the school, he and his new colleagues won discovered that such an exchange would, in fact, cause the school to fall well below standards for playground space. Failure to meet the standards would be detrimental to the schools’ program and to its students.
Salazar and his colleagues said that they also discovered that the District’s attorney had been previously employed by the Heritage Garden Corporation, the Latino Issues Forum, and the Mexican American Community Services Agency.
Salazar, Alvarez, Ramirez and parents attending the conference pointed to this fact as the “real story of conﬂict of interest.” The attorney is no longer employed by the District.
Another “conﬂict of interest” is, they say, the little known fact that Larry Jinks, president and publisher of the San Jos Mercury News is the ﬁscal agent of the Heritage Gardens and that San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer “sits as advisor to the Heritage Gardens while her ofﬁce oversees the Redevelopment Agency.
The school trustees and others at the conference also protested the incorrect statement in the editorial that the previous board “sold the land.” According to the new trustees, that never occurred. They pointed out that what was considered an “exchange” was instead a 100-year giveaway that would have required the District to lease the new exchanged property back to the Heritage Gardens at $1 per year. The net effect would be to give up more than one acre where the children can play.
The Heritage Garden proponents offered to allow the children to use part of the playground as a “reading area for the children.” This use of the space appealed to them because would be important for the planned senior housing at the Gardens.
Salazar said that it was physical activity and exercise that the children needed in conjunction with their classroom studies. Sofía Mendoza, a proponent of the Gardens, commented that “the children would learn a lot from the elderly,” presenting the plan as a benefit for the children. In contrast, Salazar explained that, if the housing were for the frail elderly, it would be very difficult (and undesirable) for the children, since they would frequently be confronted with the death of the elders. He said that, particularly for young children, it would not be good “to experience constant death, even though death is part of life… But death at such a complex would likely be frequent beyond (what’s) normally experienced by children.”
Morales pointed out that, if the housing were for younger seniors, there would be a lot of traffic and increased noise. Further, he pointed out that it appeared that City officials had not properly sought input from the nearby community (including the school) regarding the environmental impact and possible mitigations. He pointed out that there were no suggestions for mitigations during the construction phase –which would not only make a lot of noise, but also create a lot of dust and other dangerous conditions – calling the project, “an attractive nuisance.”
Regarding the “land exchange,” Carmen Johnson, Director of the East side Senior Center, proposed locating the Gardens on the site of several liquor establishments now located on the north side of Alum Rock Ave. In response to that observation, Ernestina García pointed out that indeed liquor is a problem – even in space devoted by the community include the golf course at the intersection of Kammer and King Rd. and the current site of Reid Hillview Airport, which will be closing.
Alvarez says that smoking and alcohol destroys health and families — particularly alcohol. Alvarez has been honored and recognized throughout the state for his work in educating the community to these problems. Like terrible twins, they attack the low income communities of color that are the targets of ever-increasing attention from tobacco and liquor interests in their relentless pursuit of new customers.
Alvarez says that he has not been able to ascertain whether liquor and cigarettes will be sold on the premises of the Heritage Gardens. He contends this would result in an adverse environmental impact on the community – particularly the elementary schools – and would likely violate California liquor laws.
The Heritage Gardens has encountered a wall of opposition from the community, especially those living nearby. There are few who would benefit financially (whether directly or indirectly) from its construction. Supporters say that it is time that the city spent some money in the Latino community and the Eastside. They see the Gardens evidence of much needed attention to that side of town.
Many in the community (besides those who will be displaced for the project) object for a number of reasons beyond the impact to the school. They also object to the displacement of business and to the use of eminent domain to take the property from its current owners.
According to SJSU student John Morales, there are 22 children among the 40 people who will be displaced by the project. The children, he says, attend Alum Rock District schools, including San Antonio Elementary.
The Mexican Heritage Garden Project is touted by its proponents as a “worthwhile cultural center.” The Mercury News editorial written by the staff writer stated that, since the cultural center is “planned for East San Jose [using dollars from the Redevelopment fund that rarely go directly to neighborhoods], it’s unfortunate that petty bickering now threatens to sidetrack a worthwhile project.”
Alvarez says that it is obvious that the writer does not know the community. Alvarez pointed out that there are at least four cultural centers in San José—two of them on the East side.
Both are relatively close to the proposed site of the Heritage Gardens. One is the Barrio Art Gallery, just a block and a half away. The other, on Story Road near the intersection of White Road, is The San Jose Eastside Youth and Family Chicano Cultural Center. The Cultural Center was just opened early this year by members of El Teatro de los Pobres, of which Alvarez is the executive director. The group plans a quiceañera to celebrate its 15th anniversary of community service.
East San José residents have loudly protested the stereotype that has been presented of their community by the local daily. They say that the recent coverage and misinformation do damage to all who live there. Alvarez says, “I do not mind a different opinion than mine, but I do mind incorrect information and irresponsible writing.”
Adding insult to injury, a San Antonio Elementary student named Angelica attended the conference with her father, but was turned away from using the restroom at the Mercury News’ offices. She had to comeback with Papá in tow to gain entrance. There are many inserts to be learned.
Diane Alva, a San Antonio School parent, stated that, since the Mercury News is San Jose’s largest newspaper and its only daily, it is very important that the staff – from the top down — understand its responsibility to accurately report the facts so that readers can form their own opinions.
Alva added that the staff should also understand that the rest of the city gets its view of the Eastside from the reports made in the media—particularly the Mercury News – and that the “sense of community” is altered if there is a lack of trust.
Henry Dominguez of La Confederación says that is another example of how “some media, and, in this case, the Mercury News, manipulate opinions by using false facts.” He went on to it was apparent that the writer had not even attended the board meeting (where the opposition to the Heritage Gardens was almost unanimous) and that to characterize the difference over the Gardens as “bickering” was to belittle to concerns of parents for the well-being of their children and the best interests of their community.
For more information on future school board meetings, phone the District office at 408 258-4923. © La Oferta Newspaper.