By Amy O’Hair
If not for the hapless mistakes made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891, our district would have no parks at all. An ill-advised street layout meant that some lots were too steep and rocky to build on, leaving them vacant for decades. This resulted in enough conjoined lots that the City, two generations later, could buy up and create the Sunnyside Playground and Dorothy Erskine Park.
Planned streets that were in fact too steep to be built have also been transformed into open space, as in the Detroit Steps Project, the Melrose Detroit Botanical Garden. A portion of unbuilt Edna Street was incorporated into the Playground as well.
Additionally, by laying out streets without regard to slopes, the City had to later buy up several residential lots in Sunnyside, in order to lay the sewer pipes—which must of course go where gravity dictates. This happenstance has given Sunnyside several small open spaces for public enjoyment, such as the Joost-Baden Mini-Park and the steps behind the Sunnyside Conservatory.
Yet still today there remains a City-owned piece of land—500 square feet in size—that is undeveloped as a public open space. It is fenced off and inaccessible. One half is used as a private side yard by an adjacent homeowner. The other half is currently leased to Friends of the Urban Forest, but that organization has never used it. These non-public uses of public land represent a loss to the community, and it is time the situation was rectified.
First, a short history of Sunnyside’s land and its parks.
A Grid for the Hills
When Behrend Joost and Sunnyside Land Company had the streets for the new district designed in 1891, the layout ignored the hills and slopes of the land. It was a rectilinear grid and designated no open space for parks. As a result, some streets were planned but never built, and when sewer pipes finally went in, they often had to be laid not under the street rights-of-way, but in the middle of blocks. You can’t argue with gravity. Sewage will not flow up hills. Now the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) owns those sewer drainage lots.
As the SFPUC does not allow buildings on top of their infrastructure, those lots remained vacant and looked like so many other empty lots in the neighborhood—until the blocks filled up with houses and apartment buildings in the 1960s. At that point, the dwindling amount of vacant land in the neighborhood—places that kids had played for decades—brought the problem of no park space in the district to the fore.
Sunnyside Gets Some Parks
In the mid-1960s, under the pressure of local activism, Sunnyside Playground was built; the City and County of San Francisco bought a large number of residential lots on the steep and rocky land between Mangels and Teresita, where only one house had ever been built, closed two unbuilt pieces of Melrose Avenue and Edna Street, and constructed a park.
In the late 1960s, Mayor Alioto supported the development of mini-parks, which led to the creation all over the city of pocket open spaces on small plots of unused public land such as sewer rights-of-way. In 1969, Sunnyside got the Joost-Baden Mini-Park on SFPUC-owned sewer lots running from Joost to Mangels. Photos of the Joost-Baden Mini-Park:
Then in the 1970s, the Open Space Movement, led by Dorothy Erskine and other local environmentalists, promoted a grassroots resistance to building over every square foot of the city. A Board of Supervisors-approved open-space fund was used to purchase the land where the Sunnyside Conservatory is located, and also the land that would become where Dorothy Erskine Park.
In the 1980s, the sewer lots behind the Conservatory were made into a public right-of-way, with landscaping and steps leading up to Joost Avenue, and creating a connection to the Joost-Baden Mini-Park. Sunnyside Neighborhood Association led that effort (read the SNA letter here). Photos of the Sunnyside Conservatory Steps:
Also opened for public park use in the 1980s was the sewer lot running from Sunnyside Playground to Mangels Avenue, now a lovely, leafy tunnel–like entrance to the park. Photos of Mangels Ave entrance to Sunnyside Playground:
The Last Lot
But there is still 500 square feet of publicly owned SFPUC land in Sunnyside that has never been developed as public open space. It remains, decades after all these other parks have been established, fenced off from public access. Here are Google Streetview photos taken over the last 14 years of the north and south end of the 25′ x 200′ SFPUC lot. The lot contains a number of mature trees, including fruit trees on the south half.
The Mangels side:
The Joost side:
It runs from the 500 block of Joost to the 400 block of Mangels. For a long time it was simply open, and naturally a path cutting through developed for pedestrian access. Here is a photo from the 1950s:
Here are some maps illustrating the various open spaces discussed in this post.
Insecurity in the Eyes of the Householder?
Sometime later in the twentieth century, the SFPUC allowed adjacent neighbors to fence off the lot, presumably because of security concerns. But what might have been difficult and dangerous thirty years ago may no longer be. Our current mini-parks are well used and well peopled; they are not places people take drugs or camp out. And whatever the security issues that arise from having a park next to your home, a good many homeowners whose property fronts park space in Sunnyside have embraced the situation, and installed a gate for their own access.
It’s clear that security can be a matter of perception; having a park right next to your home can end up feeling like an enhancement and not an unmanageable security risk. Sunnyside is not the same neighborhood it was decades ago, when graffiti often blighted the Playground.
Revocations of private uses of public land do happen. In fact, for the Mangels Avenue entrance to the playground to be developed in the 1980s, the Recreation and Parks Commission had to rescind use of that strip as a private driveway by one local resident.
Private Uses of Public Land
For years, the SFPUC has leased the northern half of this lot to an adjacent homeowner on Mangels Avenue, who has fenced the lot, filled it with private property, and uses the street side as parking space for multiple cars. They have also installed a driveway across the lot and a garage door that fronts onto the SFPUC-owned land. A few years ago, a supervisor at SFPUC disclosed to me that this lease is fully revocable, and the fee charged minimal. Imagine getting a double lot in San Francisco for your private use for a few thousand dollars.
Imagine a city that carelessly rents out its precious property for a pittance, and allows the construction of a private driveway on it, without regard for the best interests of the wider community.
On the southern half, the SFPUC signed a 5-year lease with Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) a few years ago, so that this non-profit could use the 25’x100’ portion as a “staging ground” for planting days. FUF has never once used the space, and never stored trees or materials there. In fact FUF no longer even plants trees in Sunnyside, as they restrict their organizing activities to more economically stressed districts. What a waste.
Transformations of sewer lots into park space is not simple, but it is an obvious public good. There are other places locally where this has happened, such as the Glen Park Greenway. What that greenway has in common with the lot in Sunnyside is that both are located along historic creeks (which is where the sewer pipes must go).
A Call for Making a Park
In 2018 a few local residents, including one of the adjacent homeowners, explored the possibility of making a park out of the lot, either one or both halves. A proposal was submitted for consideration for that years’ D7 Participatory Budget, but it was later withdrawn. After much contentious discussion on NextDoor, the project was abandoned.
2018. Heather Dron (left), a Mangels resident, along with another interested neighbor, on the south half of lot 3088/018, sewer drainage lot owned by the SFPUC.
The creation of mini-parks on SFPUC land is not a new process. With community and supervisor support and planning, the SFPUC creates an agreement with the Recreation and Parks Dept to designate and maintain a new park space. Rec and Parks looks after a surprising number of tiny spaces all over the city, like this scrap of land called the Diamond Farnum Open Space.
By returning our last piece of undeveloped public land to public use, Sunnyside could get a new connection to the Playground, and with local support create a new open space for community use.
I am writing this post because I believe the potential conversion of this last piece of publicly owned land into usable open space is still a viable project, and although I am now retired from community volunteer work, I hope my historical research can provide aide to those who are inspired to enhance and extend Sunnyside’s communal spaces.
- To view this lot on the Property Information Map, visit https://sfplanninggis.org/pim/ and enter 3088018. ↑
- Recreation and Parks Commission Regular Meeting, Minutes, 13 Nov 1984. “RESOLVED, That Resolution No. 13528, adopted January 19, 1984, approving an appeal to allow the use of open space adjoining Sunnyside Playground as a private driveway, is rescinded.” https://archive.org/details/minutes198485sanf/page/n135/mode/2up ↑
- According to a SFPUC employee, during an email conversation with me in 2018. ↑