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San Diego Neighborhoods Needing Parks Caught In Catch-22

Skateboarders in City Heights skate wherever they can, in hopes that a skatepark will someday be built in theirneighborhood.
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Above: Skateboarders in City Heights skate wherever they can, in hopes that a skatepark will someday be built in theirneighborhood.

Skaters in City Heights did everything they could think of to get a skate park built in their neighborhood.

They traded skinny jeans for slacks during meetings with decision-makers. They created homemade videos and launched a Facebook page. They lobbied City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who in June signed a pledge to build a park filled with half-pipes in their neighborhood.

The political will to build the park is there. The money is not — at least in City Heights.

San Diego’s city government has built a park system where expansion in some dense, urban neighborhoods is dependent on a Catch-22. The city won’t fully prioritize building a park unless it’s funded — but the city has kept the fees that generate money for parks low to attract developers to communities needing revitalization.

That means newer, more affluent neighborhoods get parks while projects in low-income communities stall.

Tom Mulaney, director of the urban development nonprofit Friends of San Diego, said development fees would need to be $5,000 to $10,000 to provide enough parks for most neighborhoods. The fees are charged whenever a developer builds a new residential unit. The revenue stays in the community to pay for parks, libraries, fire service and transportation infrastructure.

San Diego’s average fee is $6,580 and gets as high as $23,298 in northern San Diego.

But the Mid-City planning area, which includes City Heights, charges a $2,545 fee; its parks fund receives $1,918 of the payment.

Vicki Burgess, a project manager in the city’s Facilities Financing Department, said the fee increases about 2 percent a year to adjust for inflation. But Mid-City hasn’t seen a significant increase since 1998 because the city hasn’t updated plans that lay out how communities should develop and how new projects will be funded.

Residents involved with the City Heights Planning Area Committee, the group that provides recommendations to the city on land-use decisions in the neighborhood, said they’ve submitted a new financing plan to the city, but Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office has delayed its release. A spokesperson for the mayor did not return a request for comment.

The delay has resulted in a sluggish revenue stream for parks in City Heights. While San Diego has set a goal of 3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents in each neighborhood, City Heights comes up about 100 acres short. Chain-link fences are mainstays there, surrounding empty dirt lots where projects are stalled or nonexistent.

“You see a difference when you’re walking around City Heights,” said Christie Hill of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a group looking at how the city prioritizes park projects. “It looks different compared to more affluent areas, and folks want to know why.”

Communities that top the parks list are sprawling, wealthier suburbs. Take Otay Mesa, where funding for park projects is four times the budget for pending Mid-City parks. There, cul-de-sacs and backyards nestle into foothills crisscrossed by hiking trails.

Otay has no shortage of green space, but it has a rapidly growing population with which to keep pace. The community, like most others with higher fees, is developing, meaning it has the advantage of charging developers proactively for parks and other amenities. It isn’t catching up like City Heights.

Fees in newer communities are much higher than those in developed neighborhoods because they take into account all of the community’s infrastructure needs. State law prohibits communities from charging retroactively for deficiencies. City Heights can only account for new demand, not existing want for parks or sidewalks. In new communities, all demands are arguably new.

Otay’s fee is set at $27,707 per new single-family home; in some North County communities, fees can reach $128,753 per house.

That steady revenue significantly impacts who gets parks first.

While the city prioritizes projects that would improve the health and safety of residents or help revitalize needy communities, it also takes into account existing funding, how much of it comes from outside sources and annual maintenance costs.

A swath of land along Home Avenue in City Heights has been fenced off since the city said it would build a park there 11 years ago.
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Above: A swath of land along Home Avenue in City Heights has been fenced off since the city said it would build a park there 11 years ago.

In park-poor City Heights, residents have been waiting to see a couple of acres of brush along Home Avenue turned into recreation fields and picnic tables for about a decade. That project is graded medium priority and is scheduled to be completed next year, 11 years after it debuted on the project list.

Meanwhile, Riviera Del Sol Neighborhood Park in Otay is also slated to open in 2013, though it arrived on the city’s project list four years after the Home Avenue park. Its priority ranking is high, in part, because the community has money for it.

That bottom line can be sobering for residents rallying to bring resources to their neighborhoods, said Joe LaCava, chairman of the Community Planners Committee. His group is involved in a city effort to bring community groups closer to the budget process, allowing them to submit recommendations for parks and other projects to the mayor before the budget is drafted. Previously, community groups had to lobby their council members late in the fiscal year.

“I’ve tried to manage the expectations on two sides,” LaCava said. “The first is that this is a very quick process. The other realization is that the city doesn’t really have a lot of money.”

But he said simply being let into the process — having the opportunity to understand the city’s limitations — is empowering.

“It mobilizes the community to figure out what to go and fight for,” LaCava said.

For City Heights skaters, it’s been the impetus to start doing instead of asking. The youth have worked with Emerald’s office to narrow their search for a skate park location to two spots: Colina Del Sol Park and Park De La Cruz. Once that decision is made, they’ll start applying for grants from private organizations like the Tony Hawk Foundation.

And with grant money in hand, the skaters just might make it to the top of the parks list.

Ryann Grochowski, investigative reporter and data analyst for Investigative Newsource, contributed to the report.

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