No Garden of Earthly Delights

By Sharon Simonson

EAST SAN JOSE— Eleven years after the city and the Viet Heritage Society agreed to terms for the VHS to build the four-acre Vietnamese Heritage Gardens in San Jose’s Kelley Park, the city says that the unfinished project has become a health and safety hazard and that it must take control to finish the work.

But directors of the Vietnamese community organization led by Dr. Ngai X. Nguyen are contesting the pullback. They say in a letter to City Manager Norberto Duenas that the city “has always had total control,” including selecting the project contractor in 2011, and has “under-funded” the effort by more than $1.5 million.

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Nghia “Nick” Nguyen says he poured his heart and soul into finishing the Vietnamese Heritage Garden in 2011 and 2012. He is dismayed that city leaders and the leaders of the Viet Heritage Society have spent 11 years trying to get the gardens built with such ugly results. (Photo by Sharon Simonson)

They allege that the city foisted millions of dollars in infrastructure to prepare the property for development on the nonprofit while errors in the construction of the Imperial Gate that have caused the most recent delays were made under the noses of city inspectors.

The terms of the original contract allow the city or VHS to terminate the agreement without cause with a simple six months’ notice to the other side. The contract has been amended five times since 2005 to give the VHS more time and money. According to city records, San Jose has entertained having a Vietnamese garden at Kelley since 1997.

For 32-year-old Nghia “Nick” Nguyen, the failure has many fathers. “I don’t know what all of these people have been doing all of that time,” he says. Nguyen immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1994 at age 10. Less than a decade later, he was in Iraq, surviving two tours of military duty. In 2010 he graduated with a business degree from San Jose State. He earned his MBA three years later.

His interest in the gardens is more than incidental: From January 2011 to January 2012, he was executive director of the Viet Heritage Society and charged with building the gardens including the gate, a lotus pond and a central plaza. The gardens, in the far eastern corner of the 172-acre park, were to be a cultural expression of San Jose’s Vietnamese-Americans: refugees and immigrants who have arrived since the late 1970s and their U.S.-born offspring.

He took the project on as personal mission, Nick Nguyen says. Six years after the original contract was signed but only six months after he started, on May 19, 2011, he secured a Notice to Proceed from the city. When he left the VHS some eight months later, all but the final work of the first phase, on the Imperial Gate and lotus pond, was done.blue-cir (4)

But six months later, the city halted the project again after a building inspector warned that construction had proceeded on the gate and pond without on-site municipal review. Now, nearly four years have passed since then with no meaningful advance, and on the last day of February, the city notified the Viet Heritage Society that it intended to take control of the site.

Nick Nguyen’s native demeanor is of a man for whom the glass is always half full, an attitude he learned from his dad, he says. But standing in front of the graffiti-covered Imperial Gate, the animation leaves his voice and his smile fades. “We”—by which he means the Vietnamese in San Jose—“have nothing,” he says.

City staff concede that the financial and leadership turmoil at San Jose City Hall since 2008, including lost and misplaced records related to the development, have contributed to the project’s problems.

San Jose likes to brag about its 110,000 Vietnamese-American residents, the city’s largest Asian population at 10 percent of the whole. The city’s ethnic diversity (it has sizable Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Hispanic and white populations, too) is one of its outstanding cultural qualities.

The image is much simpler than the reality. The city’s web site and official records are not published in Vietnamese (or any other second language), notes Tam Nguyen, the councilman for District 7, where the gardens sit. (Translation and website maintenance costs are prohibitive, a city spokesman says.)

A group calling themselves the Vietnamese-American Community of Northern California has pursued a civil suit against City Hall and the city council for eight years accusing them of violating the state’s open meetings and open records law. The sides now await a Superior Court’s judgment. The suit sprang from the outrage experienced by many Vietnamese after the City Council voted, in contradiction to what they believed was the clear popular will, against naming an East Side commercial district “Little Saigon.” The main target of the community ire is former Councilwoman Madison Nguyen, the city’s first Vietnamese-American councilperson. But it is not limited to her.blue-cir (4)

The city also has promised for at least a decade to bring a community center with programming and facilities conceived for the city’s Vietnamese people. So far, nothing has materialized.

“The Vietnamese community in San Jose has been overlooked over the years,” Tam Nguyen says. “But only the baby that cries gets food.”

With $700,000 remaining from the original allocation, the city plans to turn the unfinished lotus pond into a temporary stage, to complete the Imperial Gate demarcating the park’s entrance, to plant dozens of new trees and to create a usable public space.

Angel Rios Jr. and Barry Ng, directors of the city’s parks and public works departments, which oversee the project, say none of the city executives who approved the contract with the Heritage Society remain at the city. They are unable to say what assurance in 2005 persuaded city executives that the VHS could successfully undertake the gardens project, which included a 57-spot parking lot, infrastructure including storm-water management and all utilities. An audit by his staff of the VHS books has convinced Rios that there was no misappropriation of public money—$2.5 million in total including state and Santa Clara County contributions.

Ng and Rios note that the city has allocated $500,000 for community outreach and site selection for the new community center. Councilperson Nguyen says the garden can become the foundation of something better.

At this point,  he simply wants to get the garden project done as fast as possible, Councilman Nguyen says. He does not believe the city has caused more than a month or so of delay to the construction. “I’m very glad that the city took control,” he says. “We start working this June, and we finish the first phase at the end of this year.” Even as a shadow of what was envisioned, he says, at least the community will have something.

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