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Dirt Poor 

A proposed park in the Mission has received a lot of support -- and made no progress

Wednesday, Jan 29 1997
A small wedge of weeds and overgrown grass sits between Folsom and Treat on 23rd street in the Mission. Fenced off, to deter vagrants and junkies, the miniature wasteland is eerily desolate. But its wretched silence belies tumult that reveals how even the best-intentioned plans for S.F. development can be paralyzed by the best-intentioned procedural safeguards.

It seems two rights can make a wrong.
Here's the irony: Major players on every side of this -- the owners, the city, the community activists -- have been in accord for years. Since the early '90s, they've agreed that the place should become a playground and pocket park. (God knows the neighborhood has few such oases.) A purchase price had been agreed to, financing had been arranged, and a design had even received approval.

But red tape has knotted up the swing sets.
"This is one of the three worst nightmares that I've ever had in this job," says Harry Quinn, an 11-year veteran of the city's Real Estate Department, where he is now assistant director of property.

Activist David Bracker, however, expresses little sympathy for whatever demons from work are haunting Quinn's sleep.

"The community has been screwed by the foot-dragging from the park and recreation department, not to mention the rest of the city bureaucracy," says Bracker, former president of the neighborhood's Calle 22 citizen group. "If this piece of property were in Pacific Heights or Seacliff, it would have been built three years ago."

Bracker's frustration is understandable. But Quinn points out that the city has been plowing through layers of law and history that would have slowed a deal in any neighborhood.

The site went through a handful of owners during the early '90s, with its value declining from a peak of $1.8 million to $1.4 million when bought by a nonprofit housing developer in January of 1991. Recession led to continued devaluation, and federal funds for such nonprofits were in full retreat. So, before the year was out, the mortgage company that held the nonprofit's property loan was forced to foreclose. Which made Embarcadero Mortgage II the parcel's new owner.

That's when the neighborhood activists of Calle 22 (Spanish for 22nd Street) entered the picture. They had heard about the little-known Citizens Open Space Advisory Committee, whose funds help buy or improve pieces of S.F. for community use. Calle 22's hope was to pry loose some money, purchase the plot, and turn it into a park.

They met with relatively quick success. By the end of 1992, both the city's planning committee and the Department of Recreation and Park had signed off on buying the land for just over a million bucks. Although a cash-flow problem prevented the city from immediately closing the deal, the Trust for Public Land (a national group whose offices are just south of the Financial District) had offered to float the purchase price and hold the property in escrow.

"We then believed that this was a done deal," recalls Bracker, "and we started going to the Open Space Committee to start Phase 2 -- seeking money for the improvement phase."

Indeed, Municipal Park Planner Marvin Yee even worked up designs that won approval at community meetings. And Quinn even attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony, declaring his hope that the park would be open by last summer.

Problem was, the archaeology of modern land-use regulation came into play. Like much of the city, the plot had borne a building that had burned to the ground -- thick Victorian lead paint and all -- with the 1906 earthquake. Plus, the site had later carried the lines of a railroad spur, which now raised concerns about extant diesel fuel contamination. And, adding industry to insult, an even later owner had used in-ground gas tanks; although those had been removed, both city and state regulators said levels of petroleum residue needed to be tested, with significant cleanup costs possibly in the offing.

Enter the lawyers. Worried (maybe even paranoid) about unforeseen pollution and the extent of future liability, the City Attorney's Office told the current owners (Embarcadero Mortgage II) that they'd have to pony up as much as $60,000 for ground tests. Officials also demanded that the owners forever indemnify the city against legal action.

"Before that, it seemed like it should be relatively simple," recalls Stephen Rexrode, a real estate broker representing the seller. "But then these extreme environmental issues came up. They're issues that get dealt with on other properties pretty simply, but our problem is that we don't have any money to deal with the problems."

After much back and forth, the city finally gave in to a proposal that Embarcadero II take responsibility for the first $25,000 worth of ground testing and that they be allowed to pay back those costs out of the proceeds of the sale. The city also said it would consider absolving Embarcadero II on the simpler surface pollutants, but it still wanted them to take responsibility for petroleum residue found down the line.

City officials don't doubt that the property's devaluation has put the owners in financial straits. But they say they've been burned before by municipal purchases that cost a lot for the city to clean up. They also say Embarcadero II consists of a hodgepodge of investors, pension funds, and limited partnerships. "That means we have to get nine signatures from the owner's side to make anything happen," says Betsy Dietrich, the deputy city attorney who is vetting the transaction.

The city could condemn the site, of course, citing the environmental degradation to seize the property under eminent domain. They'd probably pay far less than a million, but they'd also face litigation stretching to the crack of doom.

Would the city be willing to assume greater risks if the parcel were surrounded by blue bloods? Probably. But that's a chicken-and-egg question, because even a Superfund site wouldn't go begging for bidders in Pacific Heights or Seacliff. And it sure as hell wouldn't have seen a prior owner go under due to shriveled federal housing funds. When the place is poor, it seems, environmental perfectionism becomes a foe of civic good.

So Bracker may be right when he laments that the proceedings have revealed his community's "impotence." And Quinn may be sincere when he complains that he's "as frustrated as the neighborhood." And Rexrode is surely being honest when he says the owners are "sorry we ever got involved with the property in the first place."

Once again, it seems all sides in this are in agreement. What's sad is that their concurrence has turned from hope to despair. And Mission kids remain playground poor.

About The Author

Dirk Olin


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