The park doesn't have an official posted name, but I call it Lou's Community Park after the Lou's Village restaurant that was here from 1946-2005. Lou's park features slides, climbing, bridges, soft play surfaces, benches, picnic tables and even BBQ grills all on a grassy 1/3rd of an acre lot where the enormous restaurant parking lot once stood. The only thing missing is a water fountain and mature trees to lend their shade during the heat of the day.
The bad news is that you might be better off driving to the park than walking. The SummerHill Homes Village Square residents have locked the pedestrian gate at the Yosemite Avenue end of our Shasta Hanchett Park Neighborhood. If you want to walk here with kids it means a 1/2 mile detour unless you have the resident access code or Fire Dept key!
Fast forward 60 years and in 2005 the opportunity to convert the closed restaurant into more neighborhood housing became a possibility. This was a high density infill project where studio style business residences would face San Carlos Street and more family oriented town homes would be built the full length of the lot.
There was great concern over the impact of cars (number of trips & parking) that this high density project would bring. In 2010 Summer Hill Homes of Palo Alto began construction of the Village Square project. While it is a quality project that has helped to clean up Midtown San Jose, not enough thought was given on how to better integrate the townhomes into the walking and bicycle community.
You just need to compare what was done at nearby Fiesta Lanes (former bowling alley turned town homes) where pedestrian sidewalks are fully integrated throughout the project and into the neighboring Shasta Hanchett Park.
Instead the neighborhood ended up with a cul-de-sacs bordering a parking lot and a locked resident gate across the sidewalk. I doubt anyone on either side of the fence knows one another and sadly that just creates more fear and animosity of the "strangers" that brave passing through the gate and another Trayvon Martin incident in the making.
The Yosemite Avenue Cul-de-Sac residents get the joy of cleaning up after Village Square dog walkers coming through the gate, but are denied access to a safe play area for their own kids and instead have to place signs telling cars to watch out for kids at play in the street.
I'm sure many of them would prefer to go back to the restaurant's walled off parking lot before 2005 or the walnut drying yard was there before 1946. Definitely a missed opportunity that could be improved by tearing that gate down and improving the pedestrian connections between the neighborhood, Lou's Park and the nearby businesses on busy San Carlos Street.
Community Parks vs City Parks
Summer Hill met that park requirement by building a "community park" in exchange for being allowed to build 95 units on a lot that would have only fit 30 traditional houses.
1 - The Village Square town homes project should have extended the cul-de-sac Yosemite Avenue to San Carlos Street like its sister streets have. Willard Ave, Buena Vista Ave, Dana Ave, Shasta Ave and Hester Ave all added San Carlos Street connections when they converted the DiFiores cannery and pear orchards into housing in the 1940s.
2 - Getting the developer to build a community park that is on private space with public access and keeping it maintained through ongoing $300 a month home owner association fees is a recipe for conflict. While I love the thought of enjoying a well maintained public access green space that is paid by others, I can see that it will only breed resentment over usage vs ownership and it won't be long before a Village Square resident tacks up private park signs on private space that has public access rights
There is no escaping the additional strain on our shared schools, roads, power, water and sewer that high density infills give our neighborhood, but arguing that we got a pseudo privatized park as the exchange is a raw deal for both the Village Square residents who pay for the upkeep but can't legally forbid access but probably will anyway, and it's a bad deal for Yosemite Ave residents that get a high security locked metal fence bordering their homes with no ability to access the park unless the gate is accidentally left open, or broken (as is frequently the case).
The latest trend of turning having the housing developer build pseudo community parks and getting the local home owner association to pay for their upkeep is letting the city walk away from its obligations to building true city parks for everyone using the developer fees it already charges.
When Summer Hill built our neighborhood's Georgetown town homes they contributed towards the public Cahill park and did not put locked pedestrian gates restricting folks walking through the St Leo's neighborhood into the Cahill townhouse development between Park Ave and The Alameda.
Despite the locking of the gate and the placing of a No Trespassing "Private" sign I doubt that the Home Owner's Associations can legally ban the public from using Lou's Park because the city requires housing developers to add community green space or pay huge fees that are supposed to go for new city parks. Many of the larger housing developments have resulted in the creation of Lenzen Park, O'Connor Park, Newhall Park - all city parks nestled in new large developments, and all missing bathrooms! This latest round of "community" parks that are not city maintained include Lou's Park, and the Cinnabar Commons Toddler Play area. They don't prohibit neighbors from using the facilities, but locking the gate at Village Square from easy pedestrian access isn't exactly public access either.
In most cities it is the department of city planning that oversees privately owned public spaces and works to ensure public access. Let's hope it doesn't take an irrate group of citizens to lodge a complaint or lawsuit to get our newest neighbors to do the right thing and allow free pedestrian passage.
So who was Lou? and why is it called the Village?
Started by three retired San Jose Firemen, Lou Santoro, Lou Ferro and Paul Polizzi in June 1946 @ 1465 West San Carlos Street in what was previously a Walnut orchard. It quickly grew to become the top spot in town for 50's style floor shows, dancing and a great steak. Crazily it even featured its own weekday morning radio show live from the dance floor! Top performers like Lucille Ball, the Mills Brothers, Scatman Crothers, the Drifters would find their way to San Jose to either perform or be seen at the restaurant.
Taking the celebrity photos was famous San Jose Pioneer T.S. Montgomery's grand niece Shirlie Alice Montgomery (1918-2012). Shirlie was a news photographer and took thousands of celebrity photos at Lou's Village. She was also raised in our neighborhood over on Chapman Street and considered Lou's Village to be the neighborhood restaurant.
In 1961 there was a fire that allowed the restaurant to rebuild and take full advantage of their long skinny lot. Gone was the popular dance floor, but the new Lou's Village could now accommodate large meetings luncheons, wedding banquets, large family dinners and other community group get togethers. The staff excelled at handling large parties and making one feel the whole village was sharing a meal together. With the remodel went a change from being a steak house to adding seafood.
It was Lou Santoro's daughter Gloria and her husband Frank Muller that took over after his death in 1967.
Each year more and more nautical paraphernalia was added that by the end you would have thought you were in Santa Cruz!
In the mid 1990s it was the Muller's kids that took over, Tim and Tom, the grandsons of Lou Santoro.
In 2005 it was announced that the restaurant would be closing to make way for townhomes and that the last day would be December 31, 2005. Over 900 people showed up to give thanks to a restaurant that meant so much to them. History of San Jose stepped in and collected many of the memoriabila, and hosted a Shirley Mongtomery photo exhibit featuring many of the photos she took as a celebrity photographer at Lou's Village.
The restaurant property was so big that nearly 100 townhomes were to be built on the 5 acre site. In 2005 Lou's grandchildren sold the property to Palo Alto's Summer Hill homes for $15 million. The old restaurant was torn down, an agreement with the city on developing the lot as part of the Mid town high density project was made. Thankfully the city got the Summer Hill to agree to set aside some green space for a "community" park.
The city agreed to let Summer Hill build super high density housing along the San Carlos Street corridor in hopes of linking downtown San Jose with its shopping district that fled to Valley Fair and Town & Country (today known as Westfield Mall and Santana Row). Lets hope that future midtown city projects will be scrutinized at how they can better integrate High Density projects into our neighborhood.
I would love to see the Village Square gate removed and an unofficial Lou's Playground sign put up. Summerhill named the development the Village in remembrance of Lou's Village and named the street Muller's place after the Lou Santoro's grandchildren Tim & Tom Muller who sold them the property. So maybe if we ask the Village Square residents real nicely they'll want to be better neighbors.
Lou Santoro was the warm and friendly kind of person that welcomed anyone who came to enjoy dinner in his restaurant. He was the consummate host and it is why he named the place Lou's Village.
Let's just hope the legacy of his community park will be as welcoming to neighborhood kids and their families. Bonus points if the Village Square residents revive Lou's softball team!
Lou's Village TRIES TO Comeback in Willow Glen
2015 Update: Look's like Lou's Village is now Lou's Beach Shack at San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose.