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Reclaiming Public Space in San Diego

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Vince Vasquez

Friday, February 26, 2010

This January, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders made a key announcement that will literally pave the way for more recreational land in the heart of Balboa Park. Community leaders should consider advancing this mayoral directive as the first of many steps to cultivate the civic and economic value of our public spaces.

In his State of the City Address, Mayor Sanders declared his plans to restore the historic Plaza de Panama, one of the original gathering spots built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and to complete it in time for the park’s centennial celebration. The Mayor’s project is in sync with the aesthetic sentiments of many park patrons, including this author; today the Plaza serves as a noisy parking lot, accommodating up to seventy cars at a time. Drivers ignominiously use the Plaza’s grand central fountain as a traffic roundabout, and unattractive concrete planters have been scattered throughout the lot to protect unwary pedestrians from the relentless car chaos. Something had to be done to fix this mess, and leadership from City Hall couldn’t have come soon enough.

Effusive praise is deserving of Mayor Sanders for prioritizing this park gem in these difficult economic times, and setting a goal which benefits everyday residents and challenges the philanthropic community. With an estimated $5 to $6 million in private contributions needed to replace the parking lot with a true pedestrian plaza, difficult fundraising work is surely ahead for centennial boosters, who are already struggling to finance at least $231 million in deferred maintenance and seismic retrofitting for historic park structures built for the Exposition. Though the required capital investments are extraordinary, there are considerable fiscal rewards for our city. Our park system is an irreplaceable economic engine; the Trust for Public Land estimated that the City of San Diego netted $40 million in profit from park-bound tourists in 2006, including $8.5 million in tax revenue. As civic leaders now focus on renovating the core of our tourist parkland, greater consideration should also be given towards developing more cost-effective public space in our neighborhoods, too few of which have adequate recreational opportunities.

The City of San Diego suffers from a “neighborhood park gap” that limits access to high-utility recreational spaces (athletic courts, landscaped lawns, playgrounds) for countless residents. Due to years of fiscal and planning mismanagement, City Hall has failed to secure even half of our municipal benchmark of 2.8 acres of neighborhood parks per 1,000 residents. City documents also reveal that vacant land available for new parks will shrink dramatically over the next two decades, and parks already in the development pipeline are now indefinitely delayed, as the Parks and Recreation Department is unable to absorb new capital projects which add operational and maintenance costs. No matter how dire the situation may seem, it’s not acceptable for city leaders to simply throw their hands up and declare neighborhood parks a casualty of our budget crisis – low cost alternatives can be advanced on our existing urban landscape.

Last year, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom rolled out a new program called “Pavement to Parks” which built partnerships with community groups and corporations to develop innovative temporary plazas in some of the city’s busiest traffic corridors. The first pedestrian sanctuary completed last May was a 7,800 square foot plaza at the corner of Market, 17th and Castro Streets, all at the cost of $25,000. Known by residents as the Castro Commons, the plaza, which is about half a city block, reclaims excess roadway by painting over asphalt, using donated chairs and granite blocks from a city salvage yard, and featuring recyclable planters with drought tolerant plants. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the plaza’s popularity has built momentum for four more plazas to be opened this summer, as well as five new “parklets” (adjoining parking spaces converted into public space with raised platforms), which cost about $7,000 each.

In the words of Mayor Newsom, creating new public spaces “is not that complex.” The simplicity of the Castro Commons, which was installed in 72 hours, underscores the true obstacle in advancing parks – political inertia. Parks Department officials have no doubt entrenched themselves to retain every tax dollar and man hour possible, and creating consensus in some neighborhoods can be difficult when groups and agencies too often squabble in an endless turf war. Mayor Sanders admirably proved that when it comes to San Diego’s parks, we can have a vision, set an ambitious goal and work backwards from it. Why not set a goal of creating more public space – say opening 50 urban acres for recreational use over the next five years – and work with town councils, neighborhood associations and local businesses who are willing partners? Why not consider even more ideas, such as selectively closing portions of major residential roadways to car traffic throughout the year, and allow families and individuals to walk, skate and play, as San Francisco does in its “Sunday Streets” program?

City Hall’s financial problems are no excuse for short-changing residents from greater recreational areas. Our community already has most of the resources it needs to create public spaces – volunteer muscle, corporate donors, and more than 2,700 miles of paved streets. With civic leadership to move these pieces into action, bridging the neighborhood park gap can become a reality.