Redevelopment of Sakauye farm could demolishpotentially significant farm house

A Japanese American-owned fruit farm is slated to become a 22-acre mixed-use project in Northern San Jose, but its construction may demolish the 1920s-built farmhouse on the property, which the draft environmental impact report for the project has deemed “potentially significant,” due to the history and former resident associated with the property.

According to the city of San Jose, the Hanover Company proposes to redevelop the Sakauye family’s farm, located off of the Montague Expressway on Seely Avenue near Highway 880 into a development of “1,472 residential units consisting of a mix of three-story townhomes and six- to seven-story apartment buildings, 18,965 square feet of general neighborhood retail space and a 2.5-acre public park” in a project dubbed the Seely Avenue Mixed-Use Project.

“It’s one of, really the only last sort of agricultural properties in North San Jose, and really all of San Jose,” Ben Leech, executive director of Preservation Action Council of San Jose told the Nichi Bei News.

The Sakauye farm, formerly owned by Eiichi “Ed” Sakauye, is a fruit orchard with 107 persimmon trees and 19 structures, including the “Sakauye house” built in the 1920s.

Yuwakichi Sakauye, an Issei farmer from Wakayama, purchased the orchard property prior to the 1913 and 1920 Alien Land Laws. The property remained in the Sakauye family’s possession except for the four years the Seely family held onto the property during World War II while the Sakauyes were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyo.
Ed Sakauye, the eldest son in the family, worked and lived on the property until his death in 2005.

The draft environmental impact report available from San Jose listed one “significant and unavoidable” impact: “The project includes the demolition of structures and site features that are collectively and individually eligible for listing under the California Register of Historical Resources (CRHR) and the San José Historic Resources Inventory as a Candidate City Landmark.”

The report lists several alternatives. The environmentally superior alternative would avoid demolishing the collectively historic buildings and preserve them in a historic district, but would remove 401 units of housing from the project, including about a third of the slated affordable housing. The draft EIR noted this alternative would be infeasible.

Another alternative would move the historic buildings on the property where the public park would be built. That alternative, however, would reduce the public park space and impact the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services.

The final alternative would only preserve the farm house and move it into Hanover’s development at the cost of four units of housing. The “Sakauye house” is the only building identified as potentially significant by itself.

Leech said he is concerned the development may demolish all the buildings and only recognize the history of the farm with a commemorative plaque. He hopes that the city and Hanover will reconsider and preserve the farm house at least by either locating it on the public park or within Hanover’s development as proposed in the alternative. The city, however, said it is unable to care for the farm house.

“The City of San José Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department respects historic resources and their contribution to the City’s culture. However, the department lacks the funding to be good stewards to preserve this historic building,” Daniel Lazo, public information manager for the PRNS department said. “All historic resources require consistent funding to maintain it at appropriate levels, which proves to be an ongoing challenge for PRNS. For example, the log cabin within Alum Rock Park is a historic site that sits vacant due to further needed investment for repairs and maintenance. Rather than take on additional sites that we cannot maintain into our inventory, the City declined to accept this historic feature in the proposed park within the Seely Ave Mixed-Use Project.”

The Nichi Bei News contacted the Hanover Company but did not receive a comment at press time.

Leech said he recognizes the Sakauye family, who is selling the property to be developed, has a right to cash out. He also understands the limitations the city faces and the developer’s aim to maximize its profits as a business, but he hopes they will recognize the historic value of the farm house in its context of San Jose’s agricultural history, as well as the Japanese American history of wartime incarceration.

“We see our role now is helping spread the word that something is here, and isn’t necessarily in the way of development,” Leech said. “We believe that, the path of least resistance, to mow it all down and essentially put up a plaque, is really a missed opportunity to rethinking how redeveloping the site could incorporate some or more of, not only the history, but the tangible, physical elements of that.”

The comment period for the draft Environmental Impact Report is open through Monday, March 4 and available at http://tinyurl.com/26cp7637.

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