One year after the neighborhood called out the city and Normal Heights Elementary School for breaking the promise that the school grounds would be open to the public after school hours, the chairman of the planning group is warning that he is prepared to take legal action if the gates aren’t open.
After a unanimous vote by the Normal Heights Planning Group on November 7th, chairman Jim Baross sent an email the following day to the city parks department that says:
“If public access continues to be denied violating the Shared Use Agreement, I will consider whatever legal action necessary to force the school district to provide compensation to us — P&R/City of San Diego — for the lost public space. We could use the money in Normal Heights to acquire other property for much needed public parks.”
Last year, the planning group mounted a push to get the gates unlocked and opened to the streets crowded with apartment buildings on the south side. The residents’ inability to use the park area is particularly irksome to the planning group because the group participated in the public process that allowed the school to use public land for a larger, extended playground that connects to Ward Canyon Park at the east end.
Longtime community resident Gary Weber remembers the process from ten years ago. The public had much to say when the school was being developed, he said.
“One of the outcomes was the creation of a ‘peaceful playground’ much different and far more attractive than the usual offering,” Weber said in an email. “It is shameful that the gates to this area are locked, in spite of a joint use agreement. Normal Heights is desperately short of park space, and now this. Who exactly is going to fix this, and when is it going to happen?”
The grade-school campus is unusually sprawling and green, stretching from 39th Street to west of 37th Street, with the buildings looking like four fingers fanned out at the west end. The joint-use agreement allows the gates to be locked while school is in session but anticipates that all the gates will be open from around 4 p.m. to minutes after 8 a.m. Of particular importance are the west and south gates. The west gate allows people to walk across the campus on the way to or from Ward Canyon park. The south gates open to a densely populated area where kids who live in apartment buildings can often be seen playing in the alley.
According to a 2012 article, Normal Heights Elementary School parents protested the joint-use designation after the school opened, citing concerns for their children’s safety.
Normal Heights is considered a park-starved neighborhood and the joint-use program with the schools is meant to provide outdoor space while saving the city the cost of buying land and developing parks.
The city has more than 75 joint-use school-park agreements and in 2016 announced 45 more in a brochure entitled “Play All Day.” (The public is locked out of school grounds during the school day.)
The schools provide the land and the city pays for improvements, including ball fields, benches, and trees, according to the joint-use agreements. The schools appear to have agreed to lock and unlock the gates at the beginning and end of school days.
Despite being present at the November 7th meeting, the school-district spokesman was unable to respond to questions before this article’s publication.
Similarly, requests for comment to the city received no response.
From the school-district website:
"What hours are joint-use parks available to the public? Joint-use parks are typically open to the public when school is not in session. This includes before and after school, on school breaks, holidays and weekends. The specific hours of use are determined with each school site depending on the school’s schedule. Typically, public hours end 30 minutes before the first bell at the start of the school day, and begin 30 minutes after the school dismissal bell at the end of the school day. The community has use of the field and seeks City permits for field use for times 30 minutes after school until 30 minutes before school, Monday through Thursday, and 30 minutes after school on Friday until 30 minutes before school on Monday. Pedestrian gates typically remain open all night when the field is operating as a City park. Parks do not close to the public. District custodians typically open and close the pedestrian gates leading to the joint use area(s)."