Banker's Hill In the midtown community of Banker's Hill, a convertible Mercedes drives down Olive Street straight through the intersection with Third Avenue and onto a narrow paved driveway. The car coasts past a wooden sign displaying the names of three medical offices, loops around a light post, and parks in a shady spot, under the canopy of a eucalyptus growing above the slope of Maple Canyon.
For patients and employees of the medical center and many residents of Banker’s Hill, the piece of land abutting the building, 80 feet wide by 120 feet long, is nothing more than a driveway and parking lot, flanked on one side by the low-growing shrubs in front of the building and on the other by an area covered with wood chips, recently landscaped with small trees and perennials.
But for many other residents, the land is dedicated parkland that has been mishandled by the City for the past 99 years and misused by the owner of the building for the past 45.
It began in 1909, when three families — the McKees, Fords, and Woods — donated a dusty, 16,000-square-foot plot of land that adjoined their properties, 40 percent of it in Maple Canyon, to the City of San Diego. Written on the January 20 deed are the words “forever for use as a public park.”
During the next 51 years, the land remained undeveloped, used only to access the backyards of the three neighboring properties — the Wood house to the north and the McKee and Ford houses to the south. In 1963, Dr. Milan Brandon and his land-investment firm, Beaver Investment Corporation, purchased the northern lot, overlooking Maple Canyon.
Brandon went to the City to request access to Olive Park for purposes of ingress and egress to his property and asked permission to ignore setback requirements so that his new medical building could be built up to the edge of the donated piece of land.
The City granted Brandon’s wish with one condition: the site must be maintained as a park. Brandon agreed, and on June 11, 1963, the parties signed a Revocable Encroachment Permit, granting permission to the “Permittee to landscape, develop, and maintain as and for a public park that certain parcel of land conveyed to City by deed.”
During the next decade, Brandon built his medical office from property line to property line and developed the adjacent land. He paved more than a third of it, laying down a circular driveway large enough for four parking spaces and extending the driveway to the back of his building, where cars enter the underground parking garage. He put in a wall, excavated a palm tree in favor of the light post, and planted the area in front of the building and south of the parking lot.
Michal McKee, the great-granddaughter of one of the benefactors, was a teenager when she learned about the new building and the changes made to the land. “Basically, they designed the whole building intending to use city property to park on. They paid nothing for this right; they just did it. My stepfather, back when I was a teenager, saw I was upset about this and wrote a letter to the City.”
The City’s Park and Recreation Department responded by looking into the intent of the permit and the condition of the land. In 1975, two letters were sent to Brandon informing him of the department’s concern.
“From a recent inspection of the property, it is apparent the property does not conform with the conditions of the permit,” Ed Mendoza, director of the Park and Recreation Department, wrote in his second letter to Brandon. “[It] has the appearance of being a private driveway and parking lot which was not the intent of the permit.… This is to advise that failure to comply with the terms of the permit will make it necessary to initiate action to revoke it.”
The City, however, began to question what should be done with the property. Just months after Mendoza sent his letter to Brandon, city staff recommended to the Central Area Committee (a community advisory group) that Olive Park be deleted from the park department’s inventory. According to city records, the committee considered the park too small, too close to Balboa Park, too costly, and too dangerous, as much of it was canyon slope. But after “heated and intense discussion,” the committee voted to keep the park.
Frustrated with the City’s indecision, the McKees sued the City in 1981, claiming reversionary rights on the property due to improper usage.
The court ruled in favor of the City, stating that Brandon was not in direct violation of the encroachment permit and had a right to use the land for access, as had the property owners before him. The court interpreted the words “for use as a public park” as meaning the canyon portion of the lot — despite the City’s earlier opinion that it was “dangerous.”
Upset about the defeat, McKee dropped the issue altogether. “About that time, I felt like the process was so corrupt and nothing was going to happen. I had spent the last ten years banging my head against the City wall, so I just went on with my life.”
Despite McKee’s capitulation, the City’s file on the park continued to expand. The opening line in a 1992 city memorandum on Olive Park from Olin Hughes at the property department began, “I guess it’s time for another memo-on-the-record on this subject (the property file only has six or seven in it so far).”
Two years later, the land was mentioned in a 1994 letter from Mayor Susan Golding to a concerned citizen. “I have contacted the Real Estate Assets Department…who are currently investigating the matter. If a resolution is not forthcoming, then the department is prepared to proceed with the steps necessary to revoke the permit.”
During the next ten years, no more complaints are found in the City’s file on Olive Park, and no changes were made to the land. Then in 2004, Leo Wilson, chair of Uptown Planners, an officially recognized city advisory group, noticed activity occurring in Maple Canyon. “We saw some trees go down in the canyon, and it was listed as surplus property for sale by the City. The impression we had was somebody had taken the trees down…preparing to purchase it. But because it is dedicated parkland, it requires a vote of the people. If it wasn’t for that, the property probably would have been sold.”