City Heights Looks For More Places To 'Park'
There's an empty lot near the corner of Home Avenue and Euclid that lies along a creek bed. It's covered with wild yellow flowers and tall grasses. One weekday morning City Council president Tony Young joined me at the spot to tell me what this vacant lot is going to become.
"And what you're going to see in the future is a brand new park," said Young.
It'll have a playground, places to barbecue and a place to run your dog. It'll be named Charles Lewis III Memorial Park, after the former District 4 councilman who died in 2004… a man Tony Young said was his best friend. He said the park named for him will fill a void.
"If you look around, there's not a park anywhere close to this area. And also you have a lot of apartment complexes that don't have a lot of green space or yards so this is essentially going to be theirs," he said.
The long hours of summer mean long hours for parks. But in the middle of San Diego, park space is short.
Charles Lewis Park will be located in greater City Heights. It's an old part of town. It's low income and populated by lots of immigrants. Matthew Hervy is with Price Charities and he has studied park space in City Heights.
Hervy estimates the area's population is about 80 thousand people, and city guidelines say there should be 2.8 acres of parkland for every 1,000 people.
"So if you do the math, there should be 229 acres of usable parkland," he said. "What we found is it was significantly less."
About a hundred acres less, give or take, depending on what exactly you consider usable parkland.
Charles Lewis Park, which Young expects to break ground next year, shows how hard it can be to take a step in the right direction. The location was approved as a city park shortly before Charles Lewis died.
In other words, it will have taken nearly ten years to cobble together the money to make it happen. All that, for a park that will be less than 2 acres large.
The problem with old city neighborhoods is they predate any guidelines about needed park space or any city requirements that developers pay fees for infrastructure. Today, even redevelopment funds have been cut off as a way to pay for parks, thanks to the California legislature.
But there are success stories.
Ward Canyon Park, near the north edge of City Heights, is a huge draw for the neighborhood. It has a basketball court, a large playground and plenty of green space on five acres of land. Today, it also shares the the grounds of neighboring Normal Heights Elementary School.
Ward Canyon Park was funded by CALTRANS after they built the final I-15 connection more than ten years ago. This is my park. It's where my kids spent a lot of time growing up. It has a diverse landscape and a diverse clientele. I love this place. So do the neighborhood kids. I asked Armando why he comes here.
"It's a beautiful place," he said.
I asked Jacqueline the same question.
"To play and to do fun stuff!"
Jacqueline said she doesn't have a backyard and maybe that's why she needs a park. But housing analyst Russ Valone points out that backyards are boring, and San Diego's reach into the suburbs hasn't replaced the need for a neighborhood gathering place.
"Our parents were willing to commute great distances so that we would have a backyard to play in," said Valone. "But what they realized is the kids never played in the backyard, they played out in the streets anyhow."
And if you don't want your children playing in the streets, the answer is a park, a destination that's central, social and hopefully safe.
"Parks build communities," said Stacey LoMedico, director of San Diego's parks and recreation department.
Last week, the Trust for Public Land rated San Diego eighth in the country for the quality of its park system. But that high ranking was largely due to the total park acreage in San Diego, which includes big places like Balboa Park and Mission Trails Park.
Among the top ten cities, San Diego fared not so well in terms of park access, meaning there weren't enough parks close to where people actually lived. And that brings us back to City Heights.
LoMedico said the large number of small vacant lots in City Heights could mean the best solution is a series of connected mini-parks across the community.
"A green beltway so to speak, where they're going to be working to identify what you just said… which is vacant lots and trying to connect them in some way through bikeways and walkways," she said.
For City Heights, there is a vision. There just isn't enough money to make it happen.