Save it, don't pave it: conspiracy and confusion at City Hall

A true fable of how one City Councilmember is determined to pave a street and divide both a park and the community in the process.

by Carolyn Chase


nce upon a time there was a proposal to create a creekside park in a poor and crowded neighborhood.

    The open space for the new park was left over from construction of the big house on top of the mesa. Slopes, small feeder canyons and bottom lands, including two creeks, were left open. Time passed. Various sewer and drainage projects were put in. Apartments and houses were put in around the remaining creeks and open space.

    Today, people crisscross the area on foot. Paths lead up to the elementary school and through the finger canyons. But the private lot, creeks and canyons have been neglected. Graffiti and trash have piled up. From time to time, homeless people live there. While hundreds of residents and their children move back and forth on the paths, there is no one responsible for this “commons” area.

    And lo: a parks proposal was born. And the park would include restoring the remaining creeks. And it would include basketball courts, BBQs and picnic tables; a tot lot; and a real path to the elementary school. And it would be used as an “open-air” classroom with “unpaved trails for access, art and interpretive centers and educational facilities placed along the creek.”

    And people both common and notable wrote to the State in support of an Urban Parks Grant for more than $2.3 million for the acquisition and development of Fox Canyon Park. An additional $930,000 was offered by the City of San Diego. (Bravo! $3.29 million for new parks!)

    And it was good. And the people rejoiced.

    Time passed.

    But this wouldn't be a fairy tale if something nasty didn't turn up along the way, would it?

Street guts park


omewhere along the way, the park project morphed into a street project. Someone decided that, instead of building the complete park proposal as illustrated in the Site Plan and budget submitted with the State Parks grant, they should instead pave a two-lane street plus parking through one end of a cul-du-sac and alongside the creek. The proposed 1.9 acre park would now yield only 0.4 acres of “turf.” The street – indicated in the park grant as a “paper street” that was to be changed into part of the park – was now proposed to be paved, dividing the park and greatly reducing the usable space for other activities.

    Paving this street would separate the creek from the park and eviscerate the vision of children playing safely out of the streets (see the site plan below). Gone from the proposed site plan are: basketball courts, tot-lot, BBQ and picnic shade areas and the path to the elementary school. It cuts off the currently heavily-used pedestrian paths to the school. Park & Rec staff tell me that they will go back to the community to see about adding other elements later – but with the reduced footprint, most elements will no longer fit on the new proposed site.

    Paving this street, projected to carry 2,500 daily car trips, turns the creek into a drive-by experience. It changes what was a visionary, creekside neighborhood park into a drive-in experience for a considerably smaller number of people.

What about the village?


    Pushing a street through a cul-du-sac like this would not happen in any other part of this City. It is not without some irony that those who live closest to the proposed street in this extremely dense and park-deficient area have testified in favor of the park and against the street, noting, “Most of us cannot afford cars.”

    So what are certain forces in the city proposing? To ruin the village by paving the way for more car-oriented development, not the highly touted pedestrian-oriented “villages” we've been promised, as part of adding new density. This is the same old business-as-usual approach to growth: paving instead of saving. This village exists. And what this village needs – and what this village was promised with the State Parks grant funds – was a park connected with the restored creek, not divided by a street that completely changes the character of the park and the neighborhood.



    The park proposal was originally to be approved in a public hearing by the City Council (a “Process 5 Community Plan Amendment” in city planning parlance). Now, with a street proposed to gut the park, the public review process was somehow reduced to a simple decision by a Hearing Officer (known as a Process 3). This decision could only be appealed to the Planning Commission. In short, there would be no full hearing of the project before the City Council.

    Subsequently, a Hearing Officer approved the project with the street added, along with the environmental review document.

    When the park-with-street project was indeed appealed to the Planning Commission last December, the public testimony was impassioned, with many claims and counterclaims. Still, a majority of testimony was for the park without the street. The City Heights Community Planning Group had voted to recommend approval of the proposed park Site Development Permit without the street. The Planning Commission denied a motion to approve the project with the street. However, the Commission was told that, because it was an appeal, they could not modify the project and remove the street, even though the project was no longer consistent with the State Parks grant.

    Then things just got weirder.

    Why did the street get put through the park?



    After the motion to approve the project with the street failed, the Commission hosted an extremely rare appearance by City Council member Jim Madaffer. It's rare, because decision makers are supposed to make land use decisions based upon the evidence provided at a public hearing. They are not supposed to give evidence or testify in favor or against land use decisions, since that would demonstrate bias on their part. They are supposed to make decisions based upon the record “findings” and the testimony and discussion in the public hearing – not advocate for the project along the way. But Madaffer was confident that the project would never have to be heard by the Council, so he came down to explain to us that he was personally going to see that the street would be paid for by redevelopment “tax increment” funds. That started me wondering: what makes it worth spending $1.5 million dollars of tax increment on this little section of street? You would have to have significantly more than $15 million worth of new development to justify that kind of expenditure. The light begins to dawn on why the street got added through the park.

Traffic? What traffic?


    While there was some testimony about how the street would reduce traffic and aid emergency access, city engineers stated the street is not needed. Both the police and fire departments are officially neutral since the street controversy has arisen. Prior to that, the police department wrote a letter in support of the park without the street.

    Finally, due to instructions from the City Attorney that we could not remove the street from the project at the hearing, the Commission voted to create a task force to reevaluate removing the street, feeling that if all the factors were honestly taken into consideration then the park would be restored without the street. Let's just say we were a little naive.

    You'd think it would be routine for the Park & Rec Board to weigh in on the design for a park before the approval process. But even that did not go down well with the powers-that-be at City Hall. An attempt was made to block the Park & Rec Board from even hearing the matter. But the Park & Rec Board smelled a rat, voted to hear the item, and then voted to support the park without the street.

Down the rabbit hole at City Council


    Given the Byzantine rules of the planning process, the only way to get the project before the City Council was to appeal the Hearing Officer's approval of the “environmental document.” The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows the people to have a public hearing before elected decision makers, who are required to certify that the environmental document is adequate for the proposed project.

    So it was via this circuitous path that a number of us found ourselves at City Council on March 21st, trying to attain some level of justice for parks in City Heights.

    The environmental review process is supposed to evaluate fairly the environmental impacts of proposed projects, provide mitigation for those impacts, and consider environmentally preferable alternatives. This particular environmental document started out describing one project that turned into a different one. The appeal contends that it did not properly analyze the effect of adding the street through the park. Discussion of the real issue – that of substantially altering the grant-funded park proposal – was not allowed.

Madaffer warned to recuse


    The hearing on the appeal began with more than the usual share of drama. City Attorney Mike Aguirre issued an opinion to Councilmember Madaffer that he should recuse himself from the proceedings due to his prior statements related to the project. Madaffer, however, stated for the record that he felt he would be perfectly able to be fair and impartial. The scene was set for the farce that next unfolded.

    Testimony on both sides was supposed to be limited to “the environmental document” and “not the project.” Someone has yet to explain to me how you can determine if the impacts of a project as described in a CEQA document are adequately disclosed and discussed if they have no introduction to the project details themselves! What do they compare it against to see if it's “adequate” or even the right project for the funds proposed?

    Nevertheless, while much irrelevant testimony was allowed, there was never any informative presentation about the original State Parks grant project and how it had been hijacked.

    After much heartfelt public testimony, a motion to deny the appeal and proceed with the street through the park was made by Council member Ben Hueso, accompanied by a rambling speech that revealed he either hadn't listened to testimony or, more likely, had succumbed to Madaffer's out-of-hearing exhortations. After waiting for a second and hearing none, Chair Scott Peters seconded the motion, “for the purposes of discussion.” Madaffer had evidently gotten the message at this point that he shouldn't appear too pushy or eager, since he had at least to appear fair and impartial. The motion finally failed 3-4, with Atkins, Frye and Young understanding that, whether the park had a street or not, the environmental document was not adequate.

    Remember: they were not making a decision on the merits of the project. They were making a determination as to whether the environmental document was adequate or not. This vote failed to garner five affirmative votes, meaning that they had determined that the CEQA document was inadequate.

    At this point Donna Frye noted that the project was dead without an approved CEQA document. In a good faith effort, she attempted to craft a motion to save the park by suggesting staff prepare an adequate environmental document.

    But staff stated that there was no time to redo the CEQA document and bring it back – so couldn't they just modify this CEQA document to be adequate? According to the City Attorney, they couldn't. Shockingly, no one suggested that the city do what it did a dozen times last year: apply to State Parks for an extension of their grant deadline – a grant deadline that, it turns out, is no real threat to the City losing the grant. The City has until 2010 to comply with the grant. But no one was forthcoming with that detail.

Madaffer testifies


    After a break, incredibly, Peters called on Madaffer and allowed him to make a speech. That speech ended up being testimony about how denying this environmental document left the City at risk of losing the grant. He also testified in favor of the street and how he believed it was needed to relieve traffic and support future redevelopment.

    Bingo! Here we had the real rationale for the street: new development, in an area already described as “extremely overcrowded” (see sidebar). And ironically – with surrounding properties subject to eminent domain in the redevelopment area – the very villagers for whom the park grant was designed could face eviction.

    This confirmed one of the key points of the appeal: that the environmental document had not adequately disclosed or analyzed the growth inducing impacts of the street.

    Without thinking to consider a request for an extension, the Council was still impressed by Madaffer's claims that the City might lose the parks grant. The irony is, approving a project inconsistent with the parks grant is just as likely to threaten it. But fear overcame reason, and they came up with the notion that they could still approve the existing environmental document - which they had just voted was inadequate. The idea was that, by denying the appeal and approving the environmental document now, they could save the grants funds and deal with the street later.

    A staff member ultimately pointed out that this new motion was not really in order; what they were really proposing was a motion to reconsider the previous motion that had declared the document inadequate.

    Having evidently forgotten he was supposed to appear fair and impartial, Madaffer jumped to make the motion to reconsider, and Hueso quickly seconded. However, in order to make or second a motion to reconsider legally, you have to have been on the prevailing side – which Madaffer and Hueso weren't. Madaffer was compelled by these rules to withdraw his motion.

    Believing it was still about saving the parks grant, Toni Atkins made the motion to reconsider. Scott Peters explained how they could approve the flawed CEQA document to attempt to save the park grant and deal with the street issue later, claiming, “any funding for the street will have to come back to us for another action.” The motion passed, and the “flawed” document was approved.

Now what?

    That is where, dear readers, you come in. Friends of Fox Canyon, the ad hoc group that is fighting for the park as funded by the State, is asking your help to fund the next round of activism required to ensure that the park plan is restored and the street is properly removed from all the related permits and plans.

    Friends of Fox Canyon Park did not receive a fair hearing. Without additional legally-binding action, the permits that were just approved could allow the street to gut the park.

    Please write to your City Councilmember at 202 C St. San Diego CA 92101. Or email them via the City's website at Ask them to Save Fox Canyon Park and implement the vision and specifics of the park as proposed under the State Parks grant.

    If you can afford to make a tax-deductible donation to this effort, send what you can to: San Diego EarthWorks, PO Box 9827, San Diego CA 92169, and note your donation is to help save Fox Canyon Neighborhood Park. Questions? You're not the only one. Email or call 858-272-0347

    With your help we can still achieve a happy ending to this convoluted nightmare of a fairy tale.

    Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times, a member of the City of San Diego Planning Commission, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks, host of the EarthFair in Balboa Park


Quotes from the Project Summary, Fox Canyon Park Acquisition and Development:

“The proposal will acquire and develop a park in Fox Canyon, located in the City Heights East section of the City of San Diego. The park will be located next to Auburn Creek. The new park will include a children's playground, picnic area, shade structure, basketball court, a walkway, interpretive kiosks and a grassy area for play.

“For the past four years, 100% of the children in the nearest elementary school have been eligible for the free lunch program based on household income. Almost 75% of the children are considered English learners. The diverse ethnic composition is about 50% Hispanic, 33% African American, 12% Indochinese, 1% Asian, 1% White and 3% other races. The area is considered ‘grossly deficient’ in park land and recreational opportunities. The ratio of park land to population is .6 acres per 1,000 residents, far below City Park and Rec standards of 2.8 acres per 1,000.” 

“… one of the most striking features of this neighborhood is the extreme residential overcrowding with an extraordinarily high crime rate.”

“Residents look forward to the time when children will be playing in the tot lot; students learning about environmental issues and Auburn Creek; teenagers shooting hoops in the basketball court. One day, seniors, adults and children will hold BBQs at the picnic area…. Today, children play in the streets, dodging cars as they pass by. When Fox Canyon Park is complete, they will play safely in the park…. Fox Canyon Park will provide a positive place for recreation. The children won’t need to play in the drainage ditches and streets anymore.”