By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
In the past year, Normal Heights lost partial access to three separate parks: half of Ward Canyon Interim Dog Park; basketball courts and part of a playground at Adams Elementary; and a playground, basketball courts and grassy area at Normal Heights Elementary. While fences were locked for different reasons — justified reasons in the eyes of the school district and neighbors of the dog park — the quick succession between the three closures has some community members panicking about the growing lack of green space and recreational areas in the neighborhood. Normal Heights is already park-deficient, with about 10 acres of parkland for nearly 16,000 people, according to the 2010 census.
“Normal Heights, like all of our Uptown communities, is, on a population-base, park-deficient, so we have been really trying to expand the joint-use opportunities with school district facilities,” said Council member Chris Ward. He noted that the since the parks are San Diego Unified School District properties, SDUSD has full jurisdiction over the joint-use areas.
Ward has gone directly to superintendent Cindy Marten to advocate for the reopening of the parks. Under normal circumstances, a school board representative could be petitioned, but with trustee Kevin Beiser accused of sexual misconduct, he has no ability to mediate the conflict between the neighbors and schools.
SDUSD spokesperson Samer Naji said half of the playground and the courts at Adams Elementary are closed as the campus undergoes modernization efforts. At that school, the joint-use area agreement has lapsed and will not be renegotiated until construction has finished.
Naji said, “School security is a major district initiative right now because of all the incidents we’ve seen nationally. One of the big things that we’re doing is securing the perimeters of all of our campuses to make sure that during the school day, there’s only one way in and out for visitors. We are securing all of our school facilities with single points of entry and perimeter fencing. The modernization at Adams is bringing some of those security features to the Adams Elementary campus.”
Although the fenced-in play areas were not included in the original joint-use agreement, the school had previously let the community in to the basketball courts and playground after hours and on weekends. Naji said this area was recently reopened to the public and immediately vandalized and damaged by individuals climbing on the school roof.
A passive-use grassy area that is included in the joint-use agreement was secured as a lay-down area for materials used in the construction, which could not fit elsewhere according to Naji. The majority of the joint-use area, a large field, is accessible during construction.
There is the possibility that the playground and courts could be added to the joint-use area when the agreement is renegotiated when construction ends, if all stakeholders agree.
Normal Heights Elementary
Security issues at Normal Heights Elementary also prompted the closure of the gates, but their joint-use agreement is still intact. SDUSD, according to Naji, believes they can do so based on a 2012 letter that let the district lock down the joint-use area during city hours of operation “when safety, security or operational circumstances warrant.”
Normal Heights Elementary has dealt with a variety of issues in the joint-use area since it was opened to the public in 2012 after delays caused by irrigation issues. Unlike Adams Elementary, which is highly visible from Adams Avenue and to foot traffic on all sides, Normal Heights Elementary is secluded. Principal John Aguilar explained this gave the local homeless population the ability to sleep under the shelter of the lunch area, urinate, and bathe in drinking fountains — creating hygiene issues where students eat and play. It often fell to teachers and other school staff to clear the area of transients in the morning. Weapons, condoms and drug paraphernalia were found on campus. In addition to educating students, school staff were on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis.
“I have great empathy for homeless, I really do. But I don’t think a school site’s the place for them to hang out and sleep at night,” said Aguilar.
The 2012 letter was signed after the city and district decided to close the front gate but leave the back gate open, Aguilar said. However, using the gate from Ward Canyon Park created a new problem as dog walkers and the general public would funnel into the school and then get trapped inside. They often interrupted an after-school program to ask for directions. Aguilar has a video of a homeless man raging at staff during the PrimeTime extended day program.
After eight years of security issues and parent advocacy, Aguilar restarted the effort to close the majority of joint-use area, with the support of SDUSD. Community meetings were held in the lead-up to a vote by the local recreational advisory board, Adams Rec Advisory Group. While vocal members of the Normal Heights Community Planning Group oppose the closure, Adams Rec Advisory Group voted in favor of the school’s plan to keep the central playground, lunch area, courts and some grassy areas closed to the public. Many parents spoke at the meetings about inappropriate experiences their children had while some neighbors spoke in support of keeping the park open.
“There’s this standoff between the school district and the community groups where the community says ‘don’t take away our park space, we want it for good uses.’ The school district is saying, ‘the situation is what it is and we’ve got to protect our property, we’ve got to protect our students.’ Both groups are right,” said Ward. For his part, he has advocated for the size of the park not to be reduced. Instead, the councilman wants the city to do more in terms of security and maintenance so the area can stay open. According to Naji, SDUSD is not opposed to restoring the joint-use area as long as adequate health and safety measures are put in place that are agreed to by stakeholders, including parents.
One of the reasons the neighborhood is so adamant about not losing the playground is because many of them were integral in the original planning process.
“The community designed that [playground], the community was part of that whole thing and the community will not be locked out of that thing, period,” said Gary Weber, the NHCPG chair.
However, Aguilar contends that the input process in 2005 that created the playground was skewed because there were no parents or administrator at the school yet, so it became what the neighborhood wanted: easily accessible from multiple sides so people who lived west of it could walk through the school to get to Ward Canyon Neighborhood Park. This setup created security issues that would likely have been noticed if there were parent advocates or a designated administrator included in the initial process.
Meanwhile, the students at Normal Heights Elementary also have less access to green space than they previously did. An upper field that older students used to play on is now not open to students during school hours. The field is a part of the joint-use area that has remained open to the public, who have a habit of misusing it. According to Aguilar, teens and children used to play soccer in the afternoons in the field. However, in recent years, dog owners have taken over the field because they can close the gate and let their dogs play off-leash — leaving behind so many feces that the elementary students and other community members stopped using the field. The grass field is nearly adjacent to the official dog park, but because the interim dog park is filled with dirt and aging bark, the grass is perceived as superior (although dog owners misusing joint-use fields is not an isolated occurrence in SDUSD).
Ward Canyon Dog Park
Ward Canyon Dog Park, in its current state, was only ever meant to be interim, but as the process of getting funds to complete the redevelopment dragged on, it remained the only place for dogs in Normal Heights to play off-leash even though the aging bark sometimes cut the feet of the dogs and there is no shade. Last fall, neighbors’ complaints about noise and dust from the park prompted the city to close one section so both big and small dogs would play in the same area. The multi-year redevelopment plan would fix the dust issues with a permanent dog park.
Ward hopes the city’s budget, along with using Proposition 68 funds, will mean the park will finally be improved.
In addition, Ward’s office has been working for the past year with Caltrans on a potential expansion to Ward Canyon Park. Caltrans owns property where 40th Street dead-ends next to the on and off-ramp to the 15 freeway, which could potentially be converted into park space if the ramps are realigned.
“Working with Caltrans is not always the most straightforward and quickest of opportunities, but we are grateful we actually got a positive update. They actually did agree to work with the city on closing that and realigning part of the on ramp and exit ramp so that we can actually expand the park footprint and that’s great,” Ward said.
The future of park space in Normal Heights hinges on the renegotiation of the joint-use agreement at Adams Elementary and the type of budget the city passes. If security for Normal Heights Elementary is included (and SDUSD agrees) or funds for the redevelopment of Ward Canyon Park are in the final budget, there is the possibility that diminished footprints could be regained. Turning the dead-end at 40th Street into expanded park space would require even more funds.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.