San Diego Viewed on a street map, the 32nd Street canyon, as locals call it, is a patch of blank page interrupting the north-south grid of Golden Hill between Cedar and C Streets to the north and south, Edgemont and 33rd Streets to the west and east. To the San Diego Unified School District, it looked like a convenient place to build an elementary school with around $30 million of Proposition MM money. The five-block plot was owned by the City of San Diego, which, by law, would have to sell it to the school district. And a few houses would have to be acquired -- by eminent domain, if necessary -- and razed to build the school.
But to some residents of the neighborhood, the canyon, through which a seasonal stream runs, offers a verdant view, a place to take walks, look at native plants and wildflowers, and watch birds; a slice of nature through an otherwise typical urban-housing tract. So when news of the school board's plan to build a school in the canyon hit the neighborhood, many residents reacted against the idea. "I guess that would be about almost two years ago," says Mary Ann Sandersfeld, who lives in an eight-unit condominium building on the canyon's west edge. "We knew that there were three to four sites in the area being considered. Then all of a sudden we were sent a notice stating that the choices were being narrowed down and that it looked as though the 32nd Street canyon was going to be the site. This was just a big shock to all of us because we thought that there were still three or four sites being considered."
Since finding out about the school district's plans, Sandersfeld and a few other residents have fought to preserve the canyon. One of the others is Tershia d'Elgin, a writer who lives two blocks west of the canyon on C Street. Tall and thin, her black hair streaked with gray, d'Elgin stands on the sidewalk on C Street, just east of 32nd Street, looking north into the canyon, which is green from recent winter rains. Though no water runs through the canyon, the creek bed is still moist and muddy, and the grass is thick and tall. The west bank of the canyon rises up 50 to 60 feet above the floor. The east bank is much lower. As an airliner on its way to Lindbergh Field rumbles overhead, d'Elgin says, "They thought, 'We'll just put the school here and not have to worry about acquiring so many houses.' But when we took a careful look at the environmental impact report after the site had been chosen, it turned out that they had not done a careful or accurate biological assessment. So then everybody said, 'Wait a second here: if you are going to destroy things, let's look at this a bit more carefully.'"
In looking more carefully, d'Elgin discovered that the site had once been recommended by the Golden Hill Community Planning Group for permanent open space. But, unfortunately for her cause, the city council never fully dedicated the canyon as such. Still, d'Elgin, Sandersfeld, and a growing number of area residents continued to rally to preserve the canyon. And they brought the struggle to the attention of the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the California Native Plant Society. Eric Bowlby, a member of the Sierra Club, stands with d'Elgin on the C Street sidewalk overlooking the canyon. "Some people, when they look at this canyon, see a fragmented, impacted urban canyon that is half full of garbage and invasive plant species and somewhat trashed. Other people look at it, and they see an opportunity for streambed restoration in a nature classroom for the school that is coming, and they also see an opportunity to restore the water-quality benefits of the riparian and wetland habitats that are associated with this type of ephemeral stream."
But, at one time, the San Diego Unified School District intended to encase the creek in a four-sided concrete culvert, like the one being built alongside Interstate 8 in the College Area as part of the new trolley construction. After the stream was encased, d'Elgin says, "The plan was to grade this hill [on the west side of the canyon] to flatten out the canyon and then build a school on top of that."
Under that plan, a variety of native plants stood to be lost along with the creek. And, according to native-plant expert Dave Buchanan, the canyon is an example of one of the rarer types of native habitats. "It's a little pocket of southern maritime chaparral," he explains.
"It's a type of habitat that is very threatened by development all throughout Southern California because it's a transitionary association between the coast sage scrub and the strict chaparral areas. That happens to be where most of the suburbs sit. In my travels around San Diego, I've seen much less southern maritime chaparral than coastal sage scrub."
Among the species Buchanan has identified in the canyon are the coast white lilac, Nuthall's scrub oak, lemonade berry, and mission manzanita -- all marker species for southern maritime chaparral. But one native plant in particular caught his eye. "There are a few good-sized clumps of deer grass," he explains, "growing down in that perennial stream bottom. I was very interested to see that because, though you'll see it in Torrey Pines Preserve and in a few other canyons by the Balboa Park golf course, usually you find that up in higher elevations and meadows all the way up to 6000 feet, maybe higher. You find it mostly in mountain meadows. It's also interesting because it's a plant used by the Native Americans in this area. So I thought, here's this deer grass, which would be an incredible on-site educational tool, but they want to just eliminate it. They could have this beautiful riparian stream that the kids could participate in. They could do something innovative and teach the kids about their environment and give these kids some connection to what came before them. Instead of just thinking of these canyons as places that are full of weeds that are brown in the summer, they could learn from them."