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San Diego Neighborhood Group Hits Bureaucratic Roadblock

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A couple of wooden planter boxes and benches have led a southeastern San Diego community group into a maze of city government bureaucracy.

A couple of wooden planter boxes and benches have led a southeastern San Diego community group into a maze of city government bureaucracy.

First the members of the group Better Block San Diego thought they had the necessary permit to add the amenities to a small strip of land at Euclid and Imperial avenues in the Encanto neighborhood.


Letter to Barry Pollard

Letter to Barry Pollard

A letter from San Diego's Code Enforcement Division to Barry Pollard telling him he broke municipal code by installing benches and planters at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues. The letter also says Pollard needs a permit to remove the structures.

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Then city staffers told them they didn't and would have to remove their structures.

Then on Saturday, after receiving legal advice from an Encanto resident, they decided they would need a permit to remove the structures they had set up, said Barry Pollard, an organizer in the group.

So for now they have left the planters and benches in place.

Members of Better Block spoke with city staffers months ago and thought they had filed the necessary permit application, Pollard said.

"In good faith, we thought we were following the rules," he said. "That application did not get routed to the right person, so officially we did not submit an application."

Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, wrote in an email Friday that Pollard "knew what steps he needed to take to receive City approval of his project, but he chose not to apply for a permit and moved forward anyway."

"The City is always willing to work with community groups on projects that help beautify and improve public spaces in San Diego," Gustafson added. "The Mayor’s Office and Councilmember (Myrtle) Cole’s office both worked directly with Mr. Pollard to assist him in his efforts, but he chose to ignore that advice and violated the municipal code."

He pointed to a September email from Pollard to Darnisha Hunter, a representative in the mayor's office, saying he would store the planters "until approvals are obtained."

Pollard said he thought he had obtained those approvals, and worked with Cole's office to do the project correctly.

Then two weeks after Better Block installed the planters and benches, Pollard received a letter from the city's Code Enforcement Division informing him he'd violated the city's municipal code by setting up structures.

Photo caption:

Photo by Claire Trageser

A resident sits on a bench at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues in San Diego, Oct. 31, 2015.

Pollard organized a community event on Saturday to take down the structures. But early that morning, he said, he received a call from a neighbor who's an attorney. She pointed out the letter said that by Nov. 20 "you shall obtain a Public Right-of-Way Permit to remove all the unpermitted structures and improvements."

Gustafson referred further questions about the letter to the city's Development Services Department. A call to the department on Saturday was not immediately returned.

So Pollard decided to leave the space as it is, and the community gathering organized to take down the planters and benches became an informal rally.

Residents painted signs that read, "We Shall Not Be Moved," and gave impromptu speeches voicing their frustrations with the city.

"If it had been any place else, Point Loma, La Mesa, Old Town, if you had made one of these, it wouldn't have been no fuss, no muss," said Arselan Osbourne, referring to one of the wooden planters. "We're trying to do something positive, and they turned it into a negative."

Pollard also spoke to the crowd and said he knew of other projects in other parts of the city that had been done without permits. He declined to name them to KPBS, saying he didn't want to get their organizers in trouble with the city.

"(The city's) policy is very inconsistent depending on what area the projects are going up in," he said.

Pollard said he now hopes to "make lemonade out of lemons." In addition to working through the city's permit process to allow his group to keep their planters and benches, he also hopes to change the city's policies to make it easier for all community groups to improve their neighborhoods.

"These planters are symptoms, these benches are symptoms," he said. "There has to be an equitable, fairly applied reasonable process to allow communities to beautify their own areas."

Photo caption:

Photo by Claire Trageser

A resident works on a banner during an informal protest against removing benches and planters at the corner of Euclid and Imperial avenues in San Diego, Oct. 31, 2015.

KPBS Evening Edition host Peggy Pico talks with Barry Pollard, founder of the Urban Collaborative Project, and Xavier Leonard, a consultant for civic technology and civic engagement projects, about an issue with a local neighborhood beautification project.


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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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