Park-starved residents locked out of school playgrounds

"Responsibility for opening seems unclear and too often forgotten."

Normal Heights Elementary School
  • Normal Heights Elementary School

At least three of San Diego's joint-use playground parks have limited or eliminated public access to playgrounds in North Park, Normal Heights, and Kensington, and no one knows who is responsible.

After three days of inquiries, the city Parks and Recreation Department and the San Diego Unified School District found answers — though contradictory. Each initially said the other is responsible for unlocking gates at the end of the school day and locking them in the morning to provide secure campuses.

Calls to the city parks department resulted in a referral to the city's communications department, which did not respond for a day, then said that opening the pseudo-parks is the school district's responsibility.

Calls to the mayor's office resulted in referrals to the communications department.

When informed of the contradictory answers, they stopped responding and began collaborating — the media folks, that is. Whether or not Parks & Rec is working with the school district with renewed interest is unknown.

Normal Heights Community Planning Group members say problems with public access to the park have plagued the neighborhood for years. Planning group members, including chairman Jim Baross, embraced the idea for the school, built in 2006. They soon found the park promise didn't come true.

"When school is not in session, including apparently their Afterschool programs, the Normal Heights Elementary shared spaces are to be open for public use — all four gates," Baross said in an email. "Responsibility for opening seems unclear and too often forgotten."

Normal Heights Elementary School has a unique design in that the east end opens at the southwest corner of Ward Canyon Park. That gate is usually open after-hours and is locked during school hours. The playground is on two levels: a larger area that is lower and to the east; and a smaller area at the west end, where the school's main buildings are located. The gates at the west end — almost two blocks from the Ward Canyon entrance — are almost never unlocked after school except during school events.

The school district says they are unlocked on the weekends. The two south gates at 38th Street and the alley between 38th and 39th, which would open onto streets crowded with families in apartment buildings, have been locked as well, so walking through the "park" during park hours doesn't work very well, and public access seems mainly through a single gate in the isolated southwest corner of Ward Canyon Park. (It's impossible to accurately use "always" and "never" here, especially with the contradictory information from the school district, planning group, neighbors, and personal experience.)

It feels unsafe to walk far into the area, and this reporter, who has been more than a dozen times in the past year, rarely sees other people inside the joint-use park — and has never seen any gates other than the east gate to Ward Canyon Park unlocked. Even those are often locked.

"There's been a ten-year battle over public access," said Scott Kessler, executive director of the Adams Avenue Business Association.

"Gate broken" sign at Garfield Elementary suggests using "far side gate"

"Gate broken" sign at Garfield Elementary suggests using "far side gate"

Garfield Elementary School, at Oregon and Meade streets, recently restricted public access to weekends and hand-written signs say as much. After this reporter made contact with the principal (who refused to answer questions) the signs were taken down but gates remained locked Monday and Tuesday nights (October 31 and November 1).

“There is a facility solution that is being worked through after some incidents involving property damage, with some additional fencing at that school,” school-district spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter said. "As I understand it, the school building wasn't fenced off and there was some vandalism."

Vicki Granowitz, from the North Park Planning Group, said that councilmember Todd Gloria's former communications director, Adrian Granda, told her the closure was the result of people bringing dogs (allowed as long as they are on leashes) but not picking up poop.

"Staff can't get it cleaned up in time for the school day — the few are ruining it for the many," she said. "So the school decided to close it during the week.... These aren't dog parks, they're primarily for the schools and primarily for children."

The mayor’s office echoed the dog-poop scenario in an email late Wednesday — contradicting Reed-Porter’s statement that there had been vandalism to the building.

Franklin Elementary, between Meade and Monroe on Copeland, closed its gates to the public in the past month, according to planning group members.

Community members say that a child was bitten by a dog at Franklin, but the district could not confirm that. According to community members, the school staff put up signs saying that organized sports and dogs are not allowed. The signs were removed early this week and it is not clear whether the gates are being opened to the public or not.

The joint-use rules published by the school district say that dogs on leash are allowed and make no mention of rules for organized sports.

Reed-Porter has worked with the city before to create more joint-use parks and amenities. She says that neighbors to park-playgrounds have a lot of concerns and often oppose the projects.

San Diego has more than 75 joint-use school playground/park agreements and has entered into at least 32 more agreements to develop with the school district. The agreements, in theory, bolster the city's parkland numbers, particularly in park-starved communities — including Normal Heights, North Park, and Kensington.

The city’s brochure touts the operating agreements as the solution to the shortage of parks in the built-out areas of the city. The “parks” are funded by the city through developer impact fees and money from ballot initiatives, including Prop ZZ, according to the brochure.

“When you have two public entities, the city and the school district, collaborating with each other, occasionally modifications have to be made on a case by case basis when new circumstances arise,” mayoral spokesman Matt Awbry wrote in an email. “The city works closely with the school district to meet the needs of the school, students and the community, and we will continue to do so because we are always looking for ways to provide better services to the public.”

While the city touts the joint-use parks as a win-win-win, residents who can’t use them don’t see it that way.

“It’s not a win if you can’t get in,” said a 38th Street mom whose kids played in the alley by the locked gates south of Normal Heights Elementary on Monday night (October 31st). “We live next door to a park that is basically a private park.”

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Is it illegal to cut a lock on a gate that is supposed to be open?

Nothing surprising here at all. The slobberin' city gets together with the slobberin' school district and works out a deal that promises things to fed-up residents. Before the work is even finished both entities have totally and conveniently forgotten the deal, and go their merry ways. Why don't/can't they work in concert to deliver on the commitments? Well, both are mismanaged and misgoverned agencies with their own set of fools in charge and a host of political priorities that guarantee that they want different things. And the final factor is that to do this right, as in the way it was promised, actually requires some of their underworked and overpaid employees to WORK. And that's where it all breaks down; just where the rubber meets the road.

Wonder if keeping the gates locked is a way to prevent the homeless from setting up their camps in the parks. If so, it is not working at Ward Canyon Neighborhood Park.

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