San Diego Viewed on a street map, the 32nd Street canyon, as locals call it, is a patch of blank page interrupting the north-south grid of Golden Hill between Cedar and C Streets to the north and south, Edgemont and 33rd Streets to the west and east. To the San Diego Unified School District, it looked like a convenient place to build an elementary school with around $30 million of Proposition MM money. The five-block plot was owned by the City of San Diego, which, by law, would have to sell it to the school district. And a few houses would have to be acquired -- by eminent domain, if necessary -- and razed to build the school.
But to some residents of the neighborhood, the canyon, through which a seasonal stream runs, offers a verdant view, a place to take walks, look at native plants and wildflowers, and watch birds; a slice of nature through an otherwise typical urban-housing tract. So when news of the school board's plan to build a school in the canyon hit the neighborhood, many residents reacted against the idea. "I guess that would be about almost two years ago," says Mary Ann Sandersfeld, who lives in an eight-unit condominium building on the canyon's west edge. "We knew that there were three to four sites in the area being considered. Then all of a sudden we were sent a notice stating that the choices were being narrowed down and that it looked as though the 32nd Street canyon was going to be the site. This was just a big shock to all of us because we thought that there were still three or four sites being considered."
Since finding out about the school district's plans, Sandersfeld and a few other residents have fought to preserve the canyon. One of the others is Tershia d'Elgin, a writer who lives two blocks west of the canyon on C Street. Tall and thin, her black hair streaked with gray, d'Elgin stands on the sidewalk on C Street, just east of 32nd Street, looking north into the canyon, which is green from recent winter rains. Though no water runs through the canyon, the creek bed is still moist and muddy, and the grass is thick and tall. The west bank of the canyon rises up 50 to 60 feet above the floor. The east bank is much lower. As an airliner on its way to Lindbergh Field rumbles overhead, d'Elgin says, "They thought, 'We'll just put the school here and not have to worry about acquiring so many houses.' But when we took a careful look at the environmental impact report after the site had been chosen, it turned out that they had not done a careful or accurate biological assessment. So then everybody said, 'Wait a second here: if you are going to destroy things, let's look at this a bit more carefully.'"
In looking more carefully, d'Elgin discovered that the site had once been recommended by the Golden Hill Community Planning Group for permanent open space. But, unfortunately for her cause, the city council never fully dedicated the canyon as such. Still, d'Elgin, Sandersfeld, and a growing number of area residents continued to rally to preserve the canyon. And they brought the struggle to the attention of the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the California Native Plant Society. Eric Bowlby, a member of the Sierra Club, stands with d'Elgin on the C Street sidewalk overlooking the canyon. "Some people, when they look at this canyon, see a fragmented, impacted urban canyon that is half full of garbage and invasive plant species and somewhat trashed. Other people look at it, and they see an opportunity for streambed restoration in a nature classroom for the school that is coming, and they also see an opportunity to restore the water-quality benefits of the riparian and wetland habitats that are associated with this type of ephemeral stream."
But, at one time, the San Diego Unified School District intended to encase the creek in a four-sided concrete culvert, like the one being built alongside Interstate 8 in the College Area as part of the new trolley construction. After the stream was encased, d'Elgin says, "The plan was to grade this hill [on the west side of the canyon] to flatten out the canyon and then build a school on top of that."
Under that plan, a variety of native plants stood to be lost along with the creek. And, according to native-plant expert Dave Buchanan, the canyon is an example of one of the rarer types of native habitats. "It's a little pocket of southern maritime chaparral," he explains.
"It's a type of habitat that is very threatened by development all throughout Southern California because it's a transitionary association between the coast sage scrub and the strict chaparral areas. That happens to be where most of the suburbs sit. In my travels around San Diego, I've seen much less southern maritime chaparral than coastal sage scrub."
Among the species Buchanan has identified in the canyon are the coast white lilac, Nuthall's scrub oak, lemonade berry, and mission manzanita -- all marker species for southern maritime chaparral. But one native plant in particular caught his eye. "There are a few good-sized clumps of deer grass," he explains, "growing down in that perennial stream bottom. I was very interested to see that because, though you'll see it in Torrey Pines Preserve and in a few other canyons by the Balboa Park golf course, usually you find that up in higher elevations and meadows all the way up to 6000 feet, maybe higher. You find it mostly in mountain meadows. It's also interesting because it's a plant used by the Native Americans in this area. So I thought, here's this deer grass, which would be an incredible on-site educational tool, but they want to just eliminate it. They could have this beautiful riparian stream that the kids could participate in. They could do something innovative and teach the kids about their environment and give these kids some connection to what came before them. Instead of just thinking of these canyons as places that are full of weeds that are brown in the summer, they could learn from them."
Sandersfeld and others brought these concerns before the school board at several meetings. "It's been a long siege," she says. "It's not fun dealing with the school board. They purport to care about what the community wants, and at the same time they totally ignore everything we try to place in front of them. We've been going through this for a couple of years now.
"We made an appointment," Sandersfeld continues, "to go down and meet [city schools' chief of facilities] Lou Smith and to try to convince him that they should spare the highest side of the canyon, which they were going to fill in for a ball field. We proposed to him that they should consider acquiring more of those homes on the bottom of the canyon on the east side and put the ball field over there. He said he couldn't make any promises but that's something that they were considering. And so we felt really good, going away from that meeting, that there was going to be some sparing of the canyon. At the next design- committee meeting, the architects stood up and talked from the old plan. They had absolutely no idea there was an alternate plan even in consideration. We were just appalled. So they went back to the drawing board again, and the next time they came to the design-committee meetings, they actually had amended the plan. But they still wanted to underground the creek, and they still wanted to destroy a lot of the native plants, and we still didn't have any assurances that any mitigation efforts that would occur will happen in our canyon."
But, according to Tom Mitchell, director of public involvement for the school district, the neighbors' concerns have been addressed. The canyon site was selected, he said, to minimize the number of homes that the district would have to buy, "Because if we are not careful," he explains, "we could take, in that area alone, hundreds of homes.... So in the summer of 2001, we decided to take a plot of land that did take some open area, the area that a lot of people say is open space, but if you go to the city, you will see that it is zoned as residential; they never did declare it open space. That is what we looked at; we went to the board -- I believe it was in September 2001. And the board voted to put the school at this piece of property. There was quite a bit of discussion after that about the canyon, and we went through a number of meetings with the community. They expressed their concerns about taking that much canyon, and we did listen to their concerns."
The creek, Mitchell says, will not be "undergrounded." And more houses on the east side of the canyon are being acquired by the district so that less of the canyon will be used for the elementary school, as yet unnamed. "We ended up using a proposal from the community that took less canyon but, I think, 11 more homes. If you compare this most recent plan to the one first submitted in September of 2001, you'll see that we've swung the whole project around counterclockwise. The board of education obviously was lobbied very heavily by the proponents of not taking any canyon area. And each of the board members went out to the area, looked at it themselves, took a very careful look at it, and they came back and voted 5-0 unanimously -- which is hard to get at our board meetings -- to amend our plans that we had approved the year before: to change it, to take more homes, but less canyon.
"Our last meeting was January 23," Mitchell continues. "I will tell you, except for 2 people in that group of 30, that plan was pretty well accepted. Those two told us, 'We don't want you there.' Well, fine. But unfortunately, we need a school, and the problem is there is no vacant land just sitting around anywhere in Golden Hill that is big enough to do what we need to do and is in an area that we can use. [The canyon] is not the optimum for any use, but it's the best place that we have been able to find."