Here's a brainteaser: How do you add parkland without ever building a new park? Answer: Count an existing park twice, of course. That's the idea getting batted around the San Diego Park and Recreation Department these days to solve the park crisis in the city's older communities.
Take a classic such neighborhood-Hillcrest. It's part of a district known to bureaucrats and community leaders as Uptown, which has about 60 acres of park for 35,700 people, a ratio of 0.6 acres per 1,000 people. That's 2.2 fewer acres than San Diego requires under its General Plan, the city's guiding land-use document. Neighborhoods in newer parts of San Diego, especially those north of Interstate 8, generally enjoy the proper number of park acres.
Those northerly areas have benefitted from of subdivisions designed with park space in mind. Fees paid by housing developers go straight into spiffy new parks. Neighborhoods like Hillcrest (and North Park, Golden Hill and others) are older and did not receive the benefit of such planning. To make matters worse, when the feds came in and ran Interstate 5 through San Diego in the 1960s, they lopped off Cortez Hill, reducing its greenery to medians for motorists to glance at as they whiz by.
These days, Hillcrest has experienced an enormous building boom, particularly along Sixth Avenue, where new luxury condo has followed new luxury condo. The empty lots that might at one time have become parks have nearly vanished, and the value of those lots has leapt beyond affordability for a city that's-not to put too fine a point on it-broke.
Now comes the bureaucratic magic trick that creates new acres without buying a single square foot of land: Count Balboa Park as a community park.
Currently, Balboa Park is categorized as a Regional Park, along with Mission Bay Park and Mission Trails. These parks lure people from across the county and beyond and serve as chief exhibits for a healthy park system. Balboa Park, in particular, occupies the hearts of most San Diegans, and it's a regional draw for its greenery, the suite of museums in the World's Fair buildings and, of course, the San Diego Zoo. At 1,200 acres, technically it's one of the larges parks in the world. “Technically,” because those 1,200 acres include a Naval Hospital, the Zoo, their attendant parking lots, two scout camps and Highway 163 running down the middle, all of which reduce the number of usable acres.
Still, there is some lush greenery in there. Pepper Grove provides a playground for the children of Golden Hill. And the parkland along Sixth Avenue from Upas Street to the park's southern border does get extra use from Uptown residents. Those are some of the prime acres for double counting as community parks. Population parks, as they are also known, are the smaller playgrounds and ball fields that dot the city. They get used for block parties and small events, but are primarily intended for day-to-day recreation by local denizens. The trick, which first surfaced under former Mayor Dick Murphy before he withdrew from policymaking, would be to count certain parts of Balboa Park as community parkland. Hillcrest, for example, would count that stretch along Sixth Avenue. Voila! The park deficiency in Hillcrest disappears. And all without planting a single blade of grass.
And the lining of this idea is silver, indeed. Those developer fees mentioned earlier? They can be funneled into Balboa Park. Park and Recreation Department Director Ted Medina and his deputy, April Peñera, assured CityBeat that developer money would only be spent on land allocated to the local community, like the Sixth Avenue stretch.
The idea for this bit of prestidigitation recently appeared in a draft of the Park and Recreation chapter (known to paper pushers as the Park and Recreation “Element”) of the General Plan that the department presented to the parks advisory committees. The idea did not go over well.
Darlene Davies, chair of the Balboa Park Committee and a member of the Park and Recreation Committee, sent an official letter to Medina and Bill Anderson, director the city's Planning and Community Investment Department. She refers to the portion of Balboa Park in question as “Sixth Avenue.”
“With the growth of Hillcrest and Bankers Hill, Sixth Avenue cannot serve that purpose satisfactorily,” she wrote. “Designating Sixth Avenue as a neighborhood park without recognizing this growth is inappropriate. Better to admit identifying an area as a neighborhood park is unrealistic and will not magically constitute a net gain in park land.”
“The grass along Sixth Avenue already looks thin and worn,” said another member of the committee, who preferred not to be identified. “Balboa Park is being leased promiscuously to any group that puts money on the table.”
In interviews, Davies and other committee members concurred with that sentiment.
These events, like the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, the Revlon Walk for a Cure, or the gay-pride festival, block access to the park for locals, reducing its resemblance to a community park.
Medina emphasized to CityBeat that the decision to go forward with the double counting is far from made. Mayor Jerry Sanders' office has taken no official position, but spokesperson Fred Sainz may have provided an insight into the mayor's thinking.
“I live over there, and I use Balboa Park all the time. It's my park, that's for sure,” he told CityBeat.
The City Council will eventually vote on the revised parks element of the General Plan.
“We don't have any more land, and the land is valuable, so we're going to change the way we count regional parks,” said City Councilmember Donna Frye, who chairs the City Council's Natural Resources and Culture Committee. “That is a very bad idea. Just changing the numbers doesn't address the problem, except on paper. It's still the same park.”
“My biggest concern is that we don't lower the bar in terms of standards for what we want to provide for park space,” said City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, a member of the same committee. “From my standpoint, we should be doing what we can to increase the acreage of park space available to us.”
But that developer money sure is tempting. Davies told CityBeat she likes the idea of bringing in all that extra cash to help maintain a park she and others feel is deteriorating.
Park and Recreation has often been the first department to get the cleaver when meat needs to come off the budget. Residents don't notice slight decreases in repairs over time. So what if a bench isn't perfectly painted, or the trash isn't picked up quite as often? No one notices until the bench has splinters, or trash surrounds the can. Recreation programs tend to hit small groups scattered throughout the city, so their complaints are muted through dilution.
Case in point, the attempted execution of the city's Blue Level swim team by the mayor's budget team last summer. The department suffered six straight years of budget cuts-real budget cuts, not adjusted for inflation-until Sanders and his team provided for a 5.7-percent increase to $111 million for 2007. Developer fees provide only for new parks, not their maintenance, so the department had to maintain an ever-increasing acreage with less money every year until this year.
“We get creative, but we're stretched to the limit to accommodate new facilities,” Medina said.
In the upcoming budget cycle, Sanders will be facing a $24 million deficit, and in the following years, the deficit jumps to $90 million. He may ask departments to cut 10 percent from their budgets to make up the difference.
Park advocates fear there isn't anything left to trim.
“I saw a horticulturist I know helping to fill a pothole in the middle of the Prado,” Dan Mazzella, a Park and Recreation Committee member, said. “Is that his best talent? I don't think so.”
Davies has nothing but praise for the job department staff are doing with what little they have, but she's concerned that efficiency can no longer cover the absence of feet on the ground and dirt on the shovels.
“What they do with what they're given is beyond belief,” she said. “But I'm starting to notice things-like the plaster coming off buildings, or paint chipped and worn through. I don't think there's anything left to cut.”