Park Dedication goes a long way

Helen Chapman leaves legacy for open space

The Rose Garden Resident

When the subject is Helen Chapman, the Shasta Hanchett Neighborhood resident who is ending six years of service on the San Jose Parks and Recreation Commission this month, the adjectives that come up repeatedly are passionate, committed and inclusive.

“Helen has taken the same passion she had for her neighborhood parks and applied it to all the parks and all the neigh- borhoods in the city,” says Kathy Suther- land, a fellow neighborhood activist.

Michael LaRocca, president of the Sher- man Oaks Neighborhood Association and active in the San Jose District 6 Neighbor- hood Leaders Group, agrees.

“Some of Helen’s assets are that she’s a passionate person, she’s dedicated, she’s self-motivated and she looks at things from the big-picture orientation,” he says.

Jeff Rogers, president of the Shasta Hanchett Park Neighborhood Associa- tion, is equally effusive.

“There are very few people that do as much for the neighborhood as Helen does. She really works hard at it, and there’s rarely a night when she’s not attending a meeting, either as a parks commissioner or as a neighborhood leader,” Rogers says.

“Beyond that, it’s not just that she does it, it’s the way she does it. The way she includes people and gives people a chance to participate in the issues that face the neighborhood. She takes the time to include people, which is a big deal.

“She’s also really good at bringing peo- ple to the table in terms of getting people to talk to one another.”

Chapman admits, “Anyone who knows me, knows parks have always been my passion.

“I grew up on an acre and a half that was adjacent to PG&E property in Orinda. I could jump the fence and walk and go up in the hills. I grew up with that.

“Coming to San Jose was a little bit dif- ferent. The houses are aligned right next to each other, and I wanted to give my kids a similar experience to what I had. With two active boys that like to be outside, they needed somewhere to go and play.”

Chapman’s son Nick is now 22 and a Marine heading for his second tour in Iraq at the end of the summer. Son Brandon is 16 and will be a junior at Lincoln High School this fall. Both young men attended Cory and Trace elementary schools before heading off for different middle schools and then returning to attend Lincoln.

It was when Nick was 6 and Brandon was a baby that Chapman decided to stop working in the finance industry and stay at home.

“That was when the school districts were starting to pull out the old metal play- ground equipment and replace it with new materials,” Chapman recalls.

“I worked on a committee to develop new playground guidelines because the dis- trict didn’t have any. We got two new play- grounds at Cory, one in the kindergarten area and one on the second-grade side.

“When my kids moved over to Trace, I got two playgrounds and a couple of ball walls and planter boxes.”

Chapman was also the driving force behind Hester Park, the 0.4-acre park with a sandbox, playground and three picnic tables nestled next to the Rose Garden Library on Naglee Avenue near Dana Avenue.

Sutherland, who met her at the time, says, “Helen was committed to making sure that area had a playground, and she worked tirelessly to make sure it hap- pened.

“From that first playground she’s now in charge of the Parks and Recreation Commission, and her passion is still in parks. For me personally, I know when Helen’s involved, it’s for the right rea- sons.”

Chapman’s ongoing volunteer work with local schools did not go unnoticed by the San Jose Unified School District.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you come here and get paid?’ so I left part-time book- keeping work and started here in the accountability and testing office. I’ve been here almost 10 years,” Chapman says.

In 2001, Chapman saw a notice that Ken Yeager, then a San Jose city councilman, was inviting constituents to apply for city board and commission vacancies, includ- ing one in parks and recreation.

“I thought I could be helpful because I’d worked on so many projects with the school district and I thought I could do col- laboration with the school district and the city,” Chapman says.

The first year, she says, “You’re really on a learning curve. You’re learning about rules and regulations, what an EIR is and master plans and committees and permit- ting and protocol. I was a little taken aback at how much is involved, but gradually I got used to it.”

Getting “used to it” seems to be an understatement.

Chapman has spent her last 2 1⁄2years on the commission as its chair. At her final meeting on June 20, her colleagues praised her. On June 19 the city council presented her with a commendation.

As chair, Chapman estimates she spends from “10 to 15 extra hours a week, between phone conversations and e-mails and attending other meetings.”

When she talks to anyone interested in serving on the commission, she says she makes a point “to let them know ahead of time, it’s not just attending two meetings a month.”

Commissioners also work as liaisons to other commissions, subgroups or commu- nity groups and they attend groundbreak- ing ceremonies, park openings and other ceremonial events.

“It’s a bigger time commitment than people realize,” Chapman says.

Even though she’s leaving the commis-

sion, Chapman will still put in time serving on the Coyote Valley Task Force and working with the commission on subcom- mittees.

Chapman leaves several legacies.

The most obvious are the changes to the parkland dedication and park impact ordi- nances.

The new ordinances brought fees that developers pay for land acquisition and park completion up to 100 percent of 2005 land values.

“Getting those fees up to current land values will bring in significant amounts of money to help park-deficient areas,” Chapman says.

Dave Mitchell, parks planning manag- er for San Jose, calls it Chapman’s “biggest legacy.”

Mitchell credits Chapman with gather- ing the needed support from city council members to pass the ordinances.

Less obvious, but equally important, are the partnerships Chapman has fostered between the parks and recreation and planning commissions.

Mitchell praises her work in “getting the city council and planning to consider ded- ication of land before accepting in-lieu fees. She’s trying to grow the park system.

“Helen has taken the parks commission to a higher standard of accomplishment and respect that has not been seen in pre- vious years.”

Chapman considers partnerships the key to the future of parks in San Jose.

“We have built a partnership with the planning commission,” she says. “We have continuing joint meetings to talk about issues. We’re seeing things through their eyes and they’re seeing things through our eyes. It’s helpful to have the two commis- sions working together. That didn’t hap- pen prior to me coming on.”

Additionally, Chapman says, “What warms my heart is when a planning com- missioner brings up parks. I love it that parks are now one of the top 5 budget pri- orities for the city of San Jose.

“I see candidates discussing parks defi- ciency and how we can do better. We’re getting the level of awareness of park and recreation programs and sports fields to get the proper interest generated so we can get action.

“When I first started, I felt like I was the one banging the drum.”

Chapman is no longer the lone drum- mer, but she admits there have been some frustrations, including the fact that she has been unable to increase parkland in her own community. She points out that com- missioners are not appointed to represent districts, but she is still very aware of things in District 6, where she lives.

“It’s frustrating to see housing going up so quickly, but we can’t seem to get the parks going in as fast,” Chapman says.

She’s also disappointed that the com- mission has been unable to find a place for a dog park in District 6.

“It’s really hard to put an amenity into a park with an existing neighborhood there. If people are already living there, it’s hard trying to get agreement,” Chapman says, explaining that it is easier when a new park is going in with a housing development.

“New residents know what’s going to be there, so acceptance is built in,” she says.

Looking ahead, Chapman says, “I’ve spent many, many hours away from my family attending meetings and they’ve been very supportive.

“I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.”