Anyone who’s visited the restaurants near San Jose State University on E. San Carlos Street recently may have noticed the metal koalas clinging to the eucalyptus trees in the median. The sculptures were quietly installed by the San Jose Downtown Association a few weeks ago.

The idea came while Groundwerx crews cleaned and planted flowers on the medians stretching between Second Street and Fourth streets. After the plants were laid down, the eucalyptus seemed a bit bare.

“Hey, these are really great trees,” remembers thinking Eric Hon, the association’s operations manager. “What can we do to accentuate them?”

Hon says San Jose Downtown Association executive director Scott Knies came up with the idea to find koala ornaments and hang them from the trees. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. “You’d be surprised,” says Hon, a San Jose native. “No one makes a koala ornament that you can just buy and strap to a tree.”

The association contacted local artists and sculptors, and even put up Craigslist ads, but nobody seemed too interested in the project. An artist who had had worked for Jim Henson offered to take on the assignment, but his fees were outside their budget. They finally found a company based in Half Moon Bay that makes metal lawn art. The Downtown Association bought four koalas at first. About a dozen now cling to the trees with adjustable nylon straps that Hon says were suggested by the city’s arborist office. “Now people are noticing them, and they like them,” says Hon.

The koalas are just the latest in the SJDA’s beautification efforts. After the historic Porter Stock building on First Street burned down in 2008, it was the SJDA that had the panda mural painted on the “green screen” and planted bamboo to cover up the damage. They have put up more artwork around downtown, including a rolling-landscape mural at the northbound San Antonio light rail station on First Street.

After tenants left a building on the southwest corner of W. Santa Clara Street and S. Market streets, a homeless man started using the empty alcoves as a toilet. SJDA convinced the owner to erect plywood walls to block the alcoves, and then they found an artist to paint over them. “We want to improve downtown,” Hon says. “We want to make downtown a place to go, live, play and have a quality experience.”

In the future, according to Hon, a mural will go up on the bare wall across the street form the soon-to-open Urban Market at the corner of W. St. John Street and N. Almaden Avenue. In the meantime, Hon hopes people will enjoy the koalas. Just don’t slip up and call them “bears.”

“Actually, they’re marsupials, not bears,” Hon gently corrects. “That’s a common misconception.”