After a two-year cease-fire, shots are again flying in a battle between San Diego City Schools and some Golden Hill residents. The battleground is a section of the urban grid bounded by 32nd and 33rd streets on the west and east, A and C streets on the north and south. Sharing space in that quadrangle is Golden Hill Elementary, which is scheduled to open in January, and the southern end of the 32nd Street Canyon.
The fight dates to 2000, when San Diego City Schools sat on a mountain of Prop MM cash, which could be spent only to modernize existing schools or to build new ones. The district tagged Golden Hill and Grant Hill as candidates for a new elementary school. "Population was going through the roof at the time," says school district chief of facilities Bob Kiesling, "and the bond measure called for a school to relieve overcrowding at Brooklyn Elementary [at Ash and 30th Street in Golden Hill] and Kimbrough Elementary, across 94 [in Grant Hill]. At that time Brooklyn and Kimbrough each had about 1000 students, and we typically like to see between 500 and 700, maximum, in an elementary school. So we were going to build a new school to take some of the population off of each of those two schools."
The district informed the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee that it would start looking for a six-acre site for the school. Tershia d'Elgin, who leads a group of activists called Friends of 32nd Street Canyon, says she and many others in Golden Hill were surprised by the announcement, especially since gentrification was driving down the number of kids enrolled at Brooklyn Elementary. At one planning group meeting, she said, "Over a hundred people were there saying things such as, 'There's a decreasing enrollment here. Why do we even need a new school?' "
Kiesling concedes that enrollment in Golden Hill has dropped dramatically since the new school was first planned. "What has happened in the meantime," Kiesling explains, "with the run-up in the cost of land and housing in San Diego, is the Brooklyn school has come down to about 500, which is within our norm. But Kimbrough school is still about 900. So the new school is still needed in terms of relieving crowding.
"The other thing that the board of education has done is we've allowed a charter school to go into the Brooklyn campus."
This fall, 271 charter-school students are sharing the campus with non-charter-school students. The charter school anticipates its enrollment to increase next year.
"We are going to take the 500 [noncharter] students from Brooklyn -- and the population is still decreasing in that area," Kiesling continues, "and we are going to move them over to Golden Hill Elementary [in January]. Then we are eventually going to move some Kimbrough students into Golden Hill as well and try to balance that out a little better."
In 2001, after what d'Elgin calls a "very acrimonious site-selection process," the district settled on the south end of the 32nd Street Canyon to build the new school. But when neighbors saw the first drawings, many protested. The plan called for filling in the canyon and building a six-acre campus on the resultant pad. The streambed, through which water flows during rainstorms, would be encased in a concrete culvert. The neighbors were joined by environmental groups such as the Audubon Society and San Diego Baykeeper (now called San Diego Coastkeeper). Native plant groups decried the planned destruction of the natural drainage, which features rare southern maritime chaparral habitat. Their resistance was fierce enough to get the school district to change its plans. Instead of filling the southern end of the canyon, the district seized 30 houses on its eastern slope, centering the school on the corner of A and 33rd. The playground and parking lot extend along 33rd Street to C. Workers broke ground in the summer of 2004. The school district retained ownership of a .8-acre parcel on the west side of the canyon, across the streambed from the playground. The district hoped to combine that parcel with a city-owned parcel just north of it and build a joint-use ball field on the site. The City, however, wouldn't relinquish its parcel, and the Friends of 32nd Street Canyon opposed the field idea. So the district dropped the field from its plans and proceeded to build the school without it.
Meanwhile, d'Elgin, on behalf of Friends of 32nd Street Canyon, wrote and received grants to restore the northern end of the canyon, which extends to Cedar Street, to its natural state. "We got grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a federal organization, $22,388 from them. We have had two grants from the San Diego Foundation, each one for $25,000. We got a $5000 grant from the Tides Foundation; we got a $5000 grant from the Metropolitan Water District for doing environmental education stuff, and then we got $158,000 from the state Department of Water Resources."
D'Elgin and her group used the cash to have contractors remove a stand of Arundo donax, the invasive giant reed that chokes many of San Diego County's streambeds. They also planted natives such as white lilac and lemonade berry.
It was early this year, while the group made plans to a restore the area at the south end of the canyon, between the new school's playground and the district-owned parcel, that the cease-fire between the district and the Friends of 32nd Street Canyon was broken. "I thought maybe the school district would like to go in on this," d'Elgin says, "since it's right next to their land. So, in January, we appeared before the school board and requested that they consider either partnering or just endorsing this thing. We came to find out, they are thinking about a ball field down there."
D'Elgin had assumed that the joint-use field was a closed issue. "At a planning committee meeting on April 16, 2003," d'Elgin says, "Lou Smith, who was the chief of facilities then, said that there would be no more discussion of a playing field after December 2003."