A San Diego Neighborhood Builds a Neighborhood Park with Minimal City Help

By Andrew Keatts.

They were tired of waiting on the city.

Logan Heights residents decided there was an easier way to get what they wanted — a community park — than by working within established city process.

They’ve got money, land and plans for a park designed by kids in the neighborhood. It’s on Imperial Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, won’t cost much and is getting done quickly, all with minimal city help.

The Gilliam Family Community Garden & Park will have a playhouse, small amphitheater for movie nights and tables to eat pupusas and tacos from nearby restaurants.

Organizers are aiming to finish in September, after 500 volunteers pitch in for six building days. That would mean the whole thing — concept, fundraising, planning, permitting and construction — could be done in just over a year.

“This is about community members getting shit done,” said Monique Lopez, a volunteer and community activist.

‘People Don’t Expect Anything Good to Come Out of Here’

Last spring, BAME CDC, a community-focused nonprofit in Logan Heights, held a “take back the alley” event, part of a series the group does to help beautify the area.

This one was for the alley that separates homes on Imperial Avenue from a row of heavy-duty industrial businesses — things like auto-wrecking and metal-scrapping — on Commercial Avenue.

The group and a team of volunteers were clearing trash and abandoned large items, and painting murals down the length of the alley.

While putting it together, Avital Aboody, the group’s project coordinator, noticed a vacant lot on Imperial, and thought it’d be a useful staging and storage area. She reached out to the property owner, who said they could use it.

Soon after, they began discussing how else they could use the lot with the the owner, Derrick Gilliam who agreed to give the group a nominal five year lease so they could build the space.

Gilliam’s grandparents bought the property in the ‘40s, and his dad’s first law office was there. He was renting it as a home in the ‘70s when it burned down, and it’s been vacant ever since.

“We’d just been paying taxes, keeping it in the family,” he said. “I just thought it’d be a good use of land, to beautify the area.”

Everything they’re building at the park is set to be temporary. That keeps down costs, requires less onerous city permitting and gives Gilliam flexibility to develop the property permanently, though Gilliam says he doesn’t have any plans.

In concept, it’s a lot like the much-hyped Quartyard in East Village, a lot with long-term plans to be a major commercial development, but in the meantime transformed by architecture students into a beer garden and dog park. But this one is much cheaper, and caters more to families in the neighborhood.

“There’s a sense that people don’t expect anything good to come out of here,” Aboody said. “This is the flip side of the city keeping more industry in the neighborhood.”

Working from the Bottom Up

Aboody and her boss had initially been involved in the city’s attempts to rewrite development regulations in the neighborhood.

They found it frustrating and unproductive. The city sent out emails about meetings, but there wasn’t any visual sense in the community that things were happening.

“Even for me, it’s my job to do these things in the community, and I’d miss notifications,” she said. “It’s just not like any other community event, where I’d see flyers all over the place.”

Worse, the whole thing was dominated by a few property owners, she said. And the conversation required too much understanding of process and jargon to be meaningful to any newcomer. The city brought Spanish-English translators, but it didn’t help.

“The whole thing was planner speak,” Aboody said.

For the group and the residents they normally work with, there had to be a better way.

“My approach has been bottom-up, instead of top-down,” she said. “It takes too long, it’s too complicated and people want results now, so what we do is get together and actually do projects.”

“At the end of the day, that’s just a plan,” Lopez said. “People are constantly being asked to give their input about parks or not having sidewalks. They’re tired of talking about it. They want to see something.”

This is right out of the so-called “tactical urbanism” playbook, which calls for improving neighborhoods by finding ways to make immediate, incremental improvements.

Elizabeth Rodriguez, a 41-year-old resident who recently bought a home in the nearby Memorial neighborhood and who’s volunteering on the project, said the neighborhood has always needed an opportunity for real involvement from residents.

“There’s attention, and the city gives us some attention,” she said. “But then there’s attention to detail, and that’s what’s been lacking.”

So the group dug into the details.

An Inside Job

On the last Friday in March, families laid out blankets in the vacant lot, ate tacos and waited for the sun to set so they could watch “The Princess Bride” on a temporary projection screen. Other kids and neighbors happened by and stepped in to see what was going on.

BAME holds movie nights at the lot on the last Friday of every month, asking for $1 per person. It raises a little bit of money, but really it’s for two things: getting the neighborhood used to the space as theirs, and recruiting volunteers for the 500-strong army it’ll need to build the thing in a week come fall.

“Once momentum builds, and the neighborhood realizes what it has, the whole thing will take off and entire families will participate,” said Robert Leathers, the project’s professional architect, with Space 4 Art.

Leathers was brought in to turn ideas from neighborhood kids, gathered in a design workshop last month, into the real thing.

He’s done this hundreds of times in 10 countries and all 50 states, he said, most without any issues.

Underserved neighborhoods like Logan Heights have the greatest need for all-ages outdoor space.

“Let’s face it: One-third of people here don’t have a car, so it’s harder for them to get to regional outdoor spaces like the beach or Balboa Park,” he said.

The playground-treehouse will appeal to little kids and big kids, he said. The garden is meant as an educational tool for families to start their own gardens. And the amphitheater works for anyone.

While they’re collecting enough volunteers to make it happen, organizers are getting their permits in a row.

Though the project was explicitly conceived as a way to bypass city process, the group will end up getting a hand from the city in a couple different ways.

It’ll need special permission from Development Services to use a lot for a park and garden, since it’s zoned for a home. One of the city’s planners for the area is helping with the process.

Councilman David Alvarez’s office also chipped in $5,000 from community projects grants each district can hand out.

Lisa Schmidt, Alvarez’s deputy chief of staff, said it’s stark to see what a motivated group of residents has been able to do, while the city has struggled to add parks to a community that’s mostly without vacant space.

But, she said, the whole thing only came together because it came from the community.

“BAME and their volunteers are all here, so they understand the community’s needs,” she said. “They had the right number of people focused, and buy-in from the property owner, but it couldn’t have happened if someone came in from the outside.”

The rest of the project’s budget has been cobbled together by other foundation and nonprofit grants, plus donations from coin jars left around area businesses and (disclosure) a cash prize from taking third prize in a Voice of San Diego idea tournament.

Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.

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