By Dave Schwab | SDUN Reporter
Funding remains uncertain for the proposed North Park mini-park, currently a vacant lot behind the Birch North Park Theater, though it is expected to receive conceptual approval in the coming months.
“We have completed the public input process,” said Todd Schmit, city park designer and project manager. “The last step is to get final approval of the general development plan from the San Diego Park and Recreation Board that meets in Balboa Park.” He said the board would likely meet in July, but approval would not be determined until the end of summer.
The mini-park project proposes converting the half-acre urban parcel directly behind the Birch North Park Theatre into public park space. Located between Granada Avenue and 29th Street along North Park Way, the proposed park is designed to connect University Avenue’s business district with residential neighborhoods to the south and the Jefferson Elementary School joint-use park at 3770 Utah St.
Vicki Granowitz, a North Park resident who has been involved with the planning of the proposed mini-park for a year and a half, said she is pleased with the finished product going to the Park and Recreation Board for final approval this summer.
“[The designers] did a really great job responding to what the community wanted and the Park and [Recreation] Board will actually think it’s wonderful,” Granowitz said.
The planning process was a cooperative effort between the City, consultants and the North Park neighborhood, and was facilitated with a series of public meetings and workshops. “They laid out a variety of options and the community got an opportunity to think and make recommendations on different kinds of alternatives,” Granowitz said.
Granowitz added it was important to make the new park “as safe as it can be,” while ensuring it remains urban, saying, “Most parks are set up on a suburban model, meaning grass and trees. … This is going right in the middle of our primary commercial area.”
The new mini-park will be a customized park for a unique setting, said Mukul Malhotra, lead architect for Berkely-based MIG Inc. consulting, which helped design the project.
“It’s not a traditional park space, but it needed to have a North Park flavor, which meant reflecting that it’s a strong artist’s community [and] a changing artist’s community,” Malhotra said. “The community also wanted the park to be sustainable, friendly, safe and iconic.”
Additionally, Malhotra said the community’s investment was always present. “The community is extremely invested in it,” he said. “There was a continuous refrain that they would like to contribute to both construction and maintenance of the park.”
Roger Lewis, a North Park resident and former member of the San Diego Redevelopment Agency, said once conceptual approval for the mini-park is achieved, future funding will be the next big challenge.
“We could start to construct certain elements of it using $1.2 million in park fees earmarked for this area [and] set aside from development impact fees. Part of that funding is to support special park fees,” Lewis said.
Schimt said while they do not have all the necessary funding, “we definitely want to see [the park] move forward,” adding that enough funding is available to start construction on the mini-park.
Lewis said they are trying to fundraise with events. “I’m working to enlist cooperation from the North Park Main Street group in providing some events,” he said. “We want people to realize and expect that it’s going to be a plaza, and that we need to establish a foundation to help fund maintenance so the City will be comfortable and allow us to go ahead and start to build [the park].”
However, some North Park residents and business owners involved with the planning of the mini-park are concerned with the financial outlook.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said North Park Business Improvement District board member Patrick Edwards, who owns Antique Refinishers at 3815 Utah St. “Anything is better than pavement, but what I’m really concerned about is the actual transfer of the property to the City Park and Recreation Department. I agree this is going to be a great park, but who’s going to maintain it?” he said.
Lewis said the city’s Property Assets Division, which manages all the parcels previously owned by the city’s redevelopment agency, currently holds the mini-park property.
“We’ve been pressing the city to get the Parks and Recreation agency to take ownership of [the mini-park],” he said, “but Park and [Recreation] Board continues to balk; they don’t want to pick up just the maintenance on the parking lot because they’re strapped for cash.”
Granowitz said the community wanted the public park space created to accommodate special events like antique car shows, outdoor theater, music and movies.”
“Entertainment needs to be set up in way that would not negatively impact the residents and businesses that are adjacent to the park,” Granowitz said.
Calling the project the “single most important community project” since the North Park Theatre renovation in 2005, Lewis said, ” This is the best way to spend public money. It’s an asset for the community, something we’ve consistently worked on for [eight to 10] years. We just need to see it realized.”