A year after community meetings began on the $7.9 million renovation of Dolores Park, a new wrinkle has developed. As it turns out, the park is old.
I mean, we knew the park was old. We knew this even though, on any warm day, the park is covered with a thick layer of humans too young to remember what a tape deck is, lying in the sun like beached seals.
But according to a draft of a Historic Resource Evaluation Report commissioned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Dolores Park has seen such minimal alteration since its design, in the early 1900s, by famed park superintendent and master gardener John McLaren, that it is actually eligible to be included in the National Register of Historic Places.
What this means for plans to renovate the park — the new bathrooms, the new maintenance shed, the new bike polo court, the new ADA accessible pathway, the old clubhouse that many community members expressed the desire to blow up – remains to be determined.
“I’m not clear on it yet,” says Cara Ruppert, senior associate landscape architect at Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, the firm hired by Rec & Park to combine the department’s plans for the park and input from the last year of community meetings into formal renovation plans. “It’s so complicated. There are so many factors.”
Meanwhile, the report itself makes for fascinating reading. It appears to catalog the history and origin of every lamp post, Muni stop and slanted patch of dirt in the park.
Those 1,600 refugees who lived in the park after the 1906 earthquake? They paid rent to stay there. The kids’ playground? It’s shaped kind of like a wading pool because it was one, from 1909 through the 1920s. That enormous bell? Gift from the Mexican government, circa 1966. That level ground beneath the tennis courts? Thank the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which in September 1905 struck a deal with the city in which it agreed to — at its own expense — dump hundreds of carloads of clay mixed with sand into the wetlands in the northern area of the park, in exchange for the privilege of staking its circus tent there. That’s right: Fixie meadow is built on circus sand.
If the park was actually listed in the National Register of Historic Places, any changes would need to be cleared with the state Office of Historic Preservation. An archaeologist would need to be brought in to consult on the project.
Any plans that involve digging up sections of the park have already resulted in anxiety among some parties involved in the renovation — the park covers territory that was, at various times, a Jewish cemetery, an Ohlone settlement and the southern end of the original Mission Dolores. There are rumors that not everyone buried in the park was dug up and moved to Colma, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation has very strict guidelines [PDF] on dealing with building sites that also happen to be burial sites.
The report is not available on any city websites. Instead, it’s posted on the website of the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association (MDNA), an organization that has consistently argued in favor of renovating the park while making as few changes as possible to its existing layout and structures — up to and including the much-maligned clubhouse. “No one was notified that it was completed,” says Peter Lewis, co-president of MDNA, of the report, which Rec & Park agreed to do after a unanimous vote of the Historic Buildings Commission. “The only way we got Rec & Park to give it to us was by writing them an email that they were required to give it to us, because of the public records act.”
The relationship between Rec & Park and the neighborhood association has not been a smooth one. Lewis, initially invited to be a member of the Park Renovation Steering Committee, resigned after three meetings. ”We supported the bond for the rehabilitation of the park,” says Lewis. “We supported the renovation of the playground. There are many things they can do to fix the park without ruining it. We said that the Historic Resource Evaluation Report should have been considered before all these meetings began. Instead, Scott Wiener’s office was telling people, ‘Everything’s on the table! Let’s brainstorm!’”
What constitutes damaging the park’s original design? The path. Or, as as Lewis describes it, “the road.” At the most recent community meeting, the path was described as 10 to 12 feet wide, and completely necessary to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reasoning behind the specific numbers was this: On a 12-foot path there’s room for a truck and a person in a wheelchair to pass each other safely. On a 10-foot path there’s room for a wheelchair and a smaller vehicle, like a Toro lawn mower.
But Lewis says that ADA guidelines only require paths to be 4 feet wide. The bit about the trucks and the lawnmowers is Rec & Park’s own invention. “They just want to drive their trucks,” he says. “They want to drive maintenance trucks down it.”
Ruppert confirms that the ADA does require a new path that would connect most of the park’s major elements. But the guidelines are flexible, she says. The path won’t extend up the steep slope that surrounds the children’s playground (the section of the park commonly referred to as “gay beach” or “the fruit shelf”), because an ADA path up a slope that steep would require so many switchbacks that it would be a fundamental alteration to the park.
And it’s true, Ruppert says, that the path only needs to be 4 feet wide, though a path that narrow would need to widen to 5 feet every so often, to provide wheelchairs with a space to pass each other, or to pass people with canes or walkers or seeing eye dogs. “It would be a kind of funky path,” she says. At 5 feet wide, the path would not need to widen any further, and at 6 feet wide, it could also serve as a platform for extras like benches and water fountains.
Both Jake Gilchrist, project manager for the Dolores Park renovation, and Eric Anderson, manager for the park itself, are on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Much of the current renovation design, says Ruppert, would probably meet historic preservation guidelines, since the bulk of the project involves restoring what is already there, and standards are looser for restoration than they are for new construction. Placing the new maintenance shed underneath the tennis courts would go over well, since the preference is for new buildings to be hidden from view.
Also fascinating is the report’s description of prior attempts to alter the park. After World War II, San Francisco became obsessed with organized sports and recreation centers. At one point, Dolores Park nearly got a swimming pool, and at another, a baseball diamond. Each time the additions were fought back by neighborhood residents who said they liked the park just the way it was.
A year ago, at one of the first meetings about the Dolores Park renovation project, that was the overarching theme: Don’t change it. Don’t change it. Don’t change it. Each time, Rec & Park seemed to react with disbelief, like a suitor who had arrived at the door with flowers only to find that the object of their pursuit was already madly in love with someone else. Someone marshy, and a little trashy, and — let’s just push that metaphor to its breaking point — someone with really insufficient bathrooms.
It’s because of those cranky stick-in-the-mud types that the Mission has a park that has barely changed shape since the early 1900s. If it becomes a historical landmark now, it will be very much in keeping with this newly discovered history. The more things change, the more they stay the same.