October 9, 2022
For East San Jose, the introduction of a performing arts space means more than theater. It is a window on the future of the community.
As part of a redevelopment project, a block of mostly vacant stores on Alum Rock Avenue is being redesigned. Part of the plan is a theater that will bring vibrancy to the neighborhood, provide jobs, a place for cultural activities and social gatherings.
The performance space, located at 1783 Alum Rock Ave. in front of Mexican Heritage Square, will be an extension of the School of Arts and Culture. It will provide a venue for theater productions, dance and live music, as well as community events, parties and weddings.
The San Jose Planning Commission unanimously approved a permit to convert 6,700 square feet of a 28,000 square foot commercial property into a 200-seat indoor theater on September 28. Commissioner Charles Cantrell was absent.
Jessica Paz-Cedillos, co-executive director of the School of Arts and Culture, said the endorsement is an example for other communities to see what is possible, even taking into account stark economic divides.
“The only way to ensure that community assets stay in community hands is to take big steps like this,” she said. “By getting into the real estate game and activating that space for the community…we are able to demonstrate to our partners that we can dream big and we can take it across the finish line.”
Paz-Cedillos said the School of Arts and Culture is an important economic driver in the neighborhood and its acquisition of the building will fuel the local economy.
The theater, which includes a cafe and a Garner Health Services wellness center that offers nutrition classes and mental health services, is scheduled to open in late 2023 or early 2024. Approximately 80% of funds are raised for the property, in the $20 million goal, Paz-Cedillos said. A fundraiser is scheduled for October 29. Plans and building permits will be completed next year and construction will follow.
The 200-seat theater will provide a third entertainment option at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. Currently, there is a room with 50 seats and 500 seats. Dianne Vega, production manager of Teatro Visión, which presents events in the plaza, said the new theater will provide an ideal space to add intimate stories to a community focused on social justice.
“We would appreciate that and jump at the chance to do a show there,” Vega told San Jose Spotlight.
Chris Esparza, director of community development for the School of Arts and Culture, envisions the redevelopment as a focal point for the community. With Garner Health and Hills Training Gym nearby, families can take cooking classes, work out at the gym, see a play, and have a cup of coffee at the theater.
“It was something we knew we were ready for,” Esparza told San Jose Spotlight. “We had the capacity to fill it and the group of people to use it. It was also desperately needed here on the East Coast.”
The theater and cafe, with color-changing lights shining on its exterior walls as well as pedestrian crossing murals linking to the square, are intended to evoke a sense of place, creating a cultural quarter of Mayfair. Esparza hopes this will attract people from other regions.
“A lot of times people don’t feel safe enough to come here… It doesn’t get the economic flow of business that other neighborhoods get,” he said. “We want this to be a special stop on BART…an umbrella of cultural representation that makes you feel excited, welcome and joyful.”
In April, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved $250,000 grant for pre-development and consultancy costs. An additional $250,000 was provided by the Hewlett Foundation and another $250,000 by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, along with funds from family foundations and individual donors.
When San Jose invested $1 million in a matching grant, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation rose to the challenge by adding $1 million to its investment.
“It was a testament to what we’re doing here,” Paz-Cedillos said, “but also a testament to the city’s commitment. Along with the work we’ve done in this community, that’s what inspired the Packard Foundation to make a contribution.
Other funding came from the Castellano Family Foundation, Google, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and the Latino Community Foundation. Garner Health Services is also a funding partner.
“When you think about the vibrancy and the different cultures that our community is exposed to because of this space and because of what we’re building across the street, that’s the opportunity,” Paz-Cedillos said. . “We are creating a vibrant, connected and diverse community… That’s what art and culture is all about.”
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