School vs. Ball Field Re-Ignites Skirmish

After a two-year cease-fire, shots are again flying in a battle between San Diego City Schools and some Golden Hill residents. The battleground is a section of the urban grid bounded by 32nd and 33rd streets on the west and east, A and C streets on the north and south. Sharing space in that quadrangle is Golden Hill Elementary, which is scheduled to open in January, and the southern end of the 32nd Street Canyon.

The fight dates to 2000, when San Diego City Schools sat on a mountain of Prop MM cash, which could be spent only to modernize existing schools or to build new ones. The district tagged Golden Hill and Grant Hill as candidates for a new elementary school. "Population was going through the roof at the time," says school district chief of facilities Bob Kiesling, "and the bond measure called for a school to relieve overcrowding at Brooklyn Elementary [at Ash and 30th Street in Golden Hill] and Kimbrough Elementary, across 94 [in Grant Hill]. At that time Brooklyn and Kimbrough each had about 1000 students, and we typically like to see between 500 and 700, maximum, in an elementary school. So we were going to build a new school to take some of the population off of each of those two schools."

The district informed the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee that it would start looking for a six-acre site for the school. Tershia d'Elgin, who leads a group of activists called Friends of 32nd Street Canyon, says she and many others in Golden Hill were surprised by the announcement, especially since gentrification was driving down the number of kids enrolled at Brooklyn Elementary. At one planning group meeting, she said, "Over a hundred people were there saying things such as, 'There's a decreasing enrollment here. Why do we even need a new school?' "

Kiesling concedes that enrollment in Golden Hill has dropped dramatically since the new school was first planned. "What has happened in the meantime," Kiesling explains, "with the run-up in the cost of land and housing in San Diego, is the Brooklyn school has come down to about 500, which is within our norm. But Kimbrough school is still about 900. So the new school is still needed in terms of relieving crowding.

"The other thing that the board of education has done is we've allowed a charter school to go into the Brooklyn campus."

This fall, 271 charter-school students are sharing the campus with non-charter-school students. The charter school anticipates its enrollment to increase next year.

"We are going to take the 500 [noncharter] students from Brooklyn -- and the population is still decreasing in that area," Kiesling continues, "and we are going to move them over to Golden Hill Elementary [in January]. Then we are eventually going to move some Kimbrough students into Golden Hill as well and try to balance that out a little better."

In 2001, after what d'Elgin calls a "very acrimonious site-selection process," the district settled on the south end of the 32nd Street Canyon to build the new school. But when neighbors saw the first drawings, many protested. The plan called for filling in the canyon and building a six-acre campus on the resultant pad. The streambed, through which water flows during rainstorms, would be encased in a concrete culvert. The neighbors were joined by environmental groups such as the Audubon Society and San Diego Baykeeper (now called San Diego Coastkeeper). Native plant groups decried the planned destruction of the natural drainage, which features rare southern maritime chaparral habitat. Their resistance was fierce enough to get the school district to change its plans. Instead of filling the southern end of the canyon, the district seized 30 houses on its eastern slope, centering the school on the corner of A and 33rd. The playground and parking lot extend along 33rd Street to C. Workers broke ground in the summer of 2004. The school district retained ownership of a .8-acre parcel on the west side of the canyon, across the streambed from the playground. The district hoped to combine that parcel with a city-owned parcel just north of it and build a joint-use ball field on the site. The City, however, wouldn't relinquish its parcel, and the Friends of 32nd Street Canyon opposed the field idea. So the district dropped the field from its plans and proceeded to build the school without it.

Meanwhile, d'Elgin, on behalf of Friends of 32nd Street Canyon, wrote and received grants to restore the northern end of the canyon, which extends to Cedar Street, to its natural state. "We got grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is a federal organization, $22,388 from them. We have had two grants from the San Diego Foundation, each one for $25,000. We got a $5000 grant from the Tides Foundation; we got a $5000 grant from the Metropolitan Water District for doing environmental education stuff, and then we got $158,000 from the state Department of Water Resources."

D'Elgin and her group used the cash to have contractors remove a stand of Arundo donax, the invasive giant reed that chokes many of San Diego County's streambeds. They also planted natives such as white lilac and lemonade berry.

It was early this year, while the group made plans to a restore the area at the south end of the canyon, between the new school's playground and the district-owned parcel, that the cease-fire between the district and the Friends of 32nd Street Canyon was broken. "I thought maybe the school district would like to go in on this," d'Elgin says, "since it's right next to their land. So, in January, we appeared before the school board and requested that they consider either partnering or just endorsing this thing. We came to find out, they are thinking about a ball field down there."

D'Elgin had assumed that the joint-use field was a closed issue. "At a planning committee meeting on April 16, 2003," d'Elgin says, "Lou Smith, who was the chief of facilities then, said that there would be no more discussion of a playing field after December 2003."

Minutes from that meeting state, "Discussion ended with [Smith's] explanation that the drop-dead date for finalized plans was January 2004, which means that any discussion and/or decision on the joint use field would have to be no later than November or December 2003."

Kiesling says his predecessor's statements never ruled out a joint-use ball field. "Tershia interpreted that to mean that if we get to that date, we are never going to have a joint-use field there. [Smith's] comment, in my view, was that if we get to that date and we haven't settled the joint-use issue, we are going to separate it and do two projects out of it. We are not going to hold the whole school up while we argue about the joint-use field."

Kiesling points out that the district-owned parcel is degraded. "What we are talking about," he says, "is just down at the very far end of the canyon, where it has been disturbed anyways."

A glance at the land along C Street confirms Kiesling's contention. Tons of fill dirt have been dumped on the plot. And tons more would be required to level the 17 percent grade into a playing field, plus a retaining wall would need to be built for the streambed. Kiesling refrained from discussing designs but says, "My civil engineer is looking at four possibilities: two different scenarios on the .8 acre that we own, and then two scenarios on a 2-acre parcel, assuming the city gives us theirs. And then he has kind of a hybrid plan [in which] we build ours first, and then the city comes around and gives us theirs sometime later, in which case we have plans ready and we build the second acre."

The ball-field plans, Kiesling says, would include access to the northern part of the canyon. And he warns that if the school district is unable to build the field, the likely alternative would be worse. "The last thing to note is," he adds, "the way the education code reads, if I condemn a piece of property and buy it from somebody, and then I don't need it, I have to offer it up to the people that I condemned it from first. And the reason that is important is that we bought that land from a group that was going to build an apartment building on it. So if Tershia wins out here and I can't build anything on that property for the school district, I am likely going to end up selling it back to this outfit that was going to put an apartment building on it, and it'll end up worse than if I developed it as a field."

D'Elgin responds, "We'll oppose anyone who tries to build in the canyon."

She sees the effort as something more than a Golden Hill issue. "Our fight has raised the awareness level about these little canyons," she boasts. "Now there is a save-the-canyons movement in San Diego."

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