By Dave Schwab
Community planners, new and former City Councilmembers and neighborhood activists rolled out for the inaugural SoNo Neighborhood Alliance community forum on Oct. 11 at the Lafayette Hotel in North Park.
“We want to give residents more of a voice at the table when it comes to decisions about things impacting their quality of life and new (residential) developments,” Vernita Gutierrez said, speaking on behalf of the fledgling grassroots organization.
SoNo Neighborhood Alliance, a nonprofit corporation, is attempting to blend South Park and North Park with the intent of informing and engaging Uptowners on a variety of issues including land use, traffic, green space, parking and code compliance.
Gutierrez said SoNo is not anti-growth or anti-development, but rather “just wants to make sure residents are informed about what’s happening, hopefully before it happens,” so that they don’t have to be “so reactive.”
Residents just “want their voices to be heard,” Gutierrez said, noting that “was the real driver” behind SoNo’s formation.
Headlining this first-ever SoNo public forum was former Councilmember Donna Frye. She spoke about California’s Brown Act, about the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies, and the importance of neighborhoods banding together to promote the common good.
Introducing Frye, Gutierrez observed that the South Park and North Park neighborhoods are beset with mushrooming development and rising housing costs, noting that “no neighborhood wants to be caught up in that.”
Pointing out that South Park and North Park neighbors want a seat at the table and a voice in government choices impacting their communities, Gutierrez added, “That’s why we’re here tonight.”
Frye’s speech, virtually a Civics 101 lesson, covered the virtues and necessity for the Brown Act, a law requiring public government to ensure its proceedings are transparent with group business conducted out in the open and not behind closed doors or behind the scenes.
“SoNo needs to engage the community,” said Frye, who took a stab at those criticizing community activists as Not In My Backyards (NIMBYs).
“It’s hard to stay engaged when you’re not treated courteously and respectfully,” the former councilmember said. “People need to be allowed to talk about things that matter to you.”
Frye then led a group exercise in vetting items of public concern, with audience members tossing out a litany of concerns and complaints, everything from height limits to density and the amount of commercial development – even the need for completing a more bicycle- and transit-friendly network within the community.
Also present giving informational presentations were Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee; and David Strickland, chair of the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee, which has oversight on issues involving South Park. Both committees are comprised of volunteers, who advise city planners on development matters and other hyper-local issues.
Strickland stressed the importance of approved community plans guiding neighborhood redevelopment.
“These plans, when updated, give guidelines for reviewing (development) projects,” he said, pointing out the 30th Street-Fern Street corridor bisecting South Park and North Park, and traversing Switzer Bridge and Canyon is the “main link” between the two neighborhoods.
Granowitz, a longtime resident of North Park, talked about how far the neighborhood has progressed,
She noted discussion of problems vexing the community 20 years ago revolved around eradicating houses of prostitution, crime and the lack of public safety, whereas now discussion centers around the pace and nature of growth and redevelopment, which is a positive change.
Newly elected Councilmember Chris Ward, who will be sworn into office in early December, also dropped by SoNo’s inaugural meeting and spoke briefly about working at City Hall to properly serve and represent the two communities.
—Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.