The Miracle Drive dead-end
In the city’s quest for park space, mid city neighborhoods Kensington, Normal Heights and City Heights are among the least served, according to the San Diego Foundation’s 2010 Parks for Everyone report. The report defines park poverty as having less than three acres of park for each 1,000 residents – a metric commonly used when the report was published.
Undeveloped land is scarce and costly. Even as the city helps developers look for ways to push more housing into these and other neighborhoods, the mayor has proposed a new way to think about parks – one that clearly abandons the quest for land: create a point system to measure park value by ease of access, by bus, for example, and its amenities, like food service and signs rather than counting its size.
Every neighborhood that has looked at the parks plan came away with serious concerns over the point system. In Kensington-Talmadge, community volunteers took it a step farther: the severely park-deprived neighborhood’s community group evaluated existing parks by the point system and created fictional parks on city land to demonstrate how the point system could lead to good scores for terrible parks – like a dead end street ‘improved’ with signage.
Although city planners took the plan to a number of advocacy groups, they brought the plan to the Community Planners Committee, made up of people from four dozen neighborhood planning groups, after the comment period ended. The public comment period began Apr. 24 and ended June 11.
It has not been presented to individual neighborhoods, from what planning department head Mike Hansen told the city’s official planning commission. Nor was it presented by city planners or mayor to city-created recreation councils that oversee hyperlocal park use. Instead, neighborhood planning group leaders who heard about it in June through the parent committee carried the information back to the planning groups. It’s not clear if any recreation councils have discussed it. (Most parks and rec centers have been closed or limited since the pandemic lockdowns began.)
Those limited conversations came after the public comment period ended. Perhaps understandably; the top need identified in the 2018 public survey – across all council districts – is that parks’ restrooms need improvement.
When they reviewed the parks point plan, the Community Planners Committee concluded that “The new plan would lead to worsening park shortages” even as the Complete Communities plan adds 325,000 new people to the city.
The Complete Communities plan –including the parks point system — is being pushed hard. Launched just before the pandemic, the plan sailed through early review by city council members on Tuesday and is headed to the full city council this month. While the mobility element does have a deadline that passed July 1, (and one other local and regional governments are struggling with) city staff have left the impression that all four elements must be approved immediately.
“We need more time to look at this,” says Jim Baross, former chair and current member of the Normal Heights Community Planning Group and a retired Parks and Recreation Department analyst. “This is a citywide plan but each neighborhood is very different and the design for the parks, how they’re used and the point system needs to reflect the different areas. Scripps Ranch has very different needs than Normal Heights, for example.”
As if to shore up the idea that people don’t have enough information, questions I submitted to the city’s Parks public information officers were not answered despite the week between when the questions were asked and when this story was turned in. If the city is giving up on creating more parks because land is too difficult, then how the points are assigned really matters, neighborhood advocates say.
“Who assigns the point values is a really important question,” Baross added. “Our (neighborhood) recreation councils have been devastated in the past year and haven’t had a chance to look at this. Having a dedicated community group to inform those choices gets to a better result for the community.”
The point system will apparently be created by parks staff, but the plan isn’t clear. To see how it works, Kensington Talmadge Community Planning Group looked at the point system, applied it to existing parks and came up with some hypothetical parks of their own. The community is one of many in San Diego that has a lot of people – nearly 16,000 — and few parks. In the new point system, the current parks bring the neighborhoods to 17 percent of where they should be, with the goal of 180 points calculated at 12 points per 1,000 residents. Add some amenities to the existing parks, and the neighborhood gets to 25 percent.
In a hypothetical exercise to figure the value of parks on city-owned land including the street right-of-ways, planning group members concocted four new park locations on city land Including small plots at Fairmont and Meade, Fairmont and El Cajon Boulevard, and even a dead end street called Miracle Drive.
The dead-end at Miracle Drive if cleared would overlook a canyon. The public right of way there now is a fortress of cyclone fence, weeds, barricades and red diamond signs – and only in theory could be declared a park. Add a viewpoint sign and a bench to the paved area and it becomes worth at least three points toward Kensington-Talmadge’s 180 required points, according to the point system.
The less than half acre patch of city land on the northeast corner of Fairmont and El Cajon Boulevard would immediately get eight points because it’s near a major bus route. Now, add a sign for way-finding, tables and chairs, a place-making feature like banner art, a comfort station and arrange them in a way that an event could be held and you’ve picked up as many as 23 points.
Kensington Talmadge group chairman David Moty stressed that the ‘new’ parks are hypothetical, no one has proposed parks there and it’s not part of the community plan. But the exercise demonstrated that small spots in difficult locations can rack up a lot of points quickly – whether they’re useful to the community or not.
“The devil is in the details,” Moty said. “The city could make this work really well or the city could cheat us out of the parks we need by park-packing and amenitizing things up.”