The draft of the plans for Dolores Park, as of the last community input meeting.

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.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Dear Gregory and all:

    To clarify, while it is correct that ADA requires only a 4′ path (with a pullout every 200′), please note that you’re also NOT allowed to combine a maintenance ROAD with ADA access. Otherwise a handicap person can be injured by one of the maintenance trucks. This information has been verified by a respected architect who specializes in historic preservation and ADA compliance.

    In addition, putting a 10-12′ ROAD through a park that has been clearly identified as an historic resource (by an unanimously adopted historic survey and professionally researched HRER) goes against CEQA. By the way, Rec & Park’s original proposal was for a 14’ ROAD.

    Please read the conclusion of the Draft HRER below. (The last sentence is especially important):


    “Mission Dolores Park has been previously identified in a locally adopted survey as a contributing
    resource to the Mission Dolores Neighborhood 1906 Fire Survivors and Reconstruction Historic
    District. This study also finds that the park is individually eligible for listing in the National Register
    of Historic Places at the local level of significance as a designed historic landscape under Criterion A
    (Event) and Criterion C (Design/Construction), with a period of significance from 1905 to 1966.
    Designed in 1905 by master gardener John McLaren, Mission Dolores Park is a significant example
    of a San Francisco “reform” or “rational” park designed in accordance with Progressive Era ideals in
    park planning. The park is also associated with several other historically significant trends and events,
    including the advent of the Mission District as a potent force in San Francisco politics; the relief
    efforts following the 1906 Earthquake and Fire; and the evolution of the Mission District as a
    strongly Latino neighborhood. The period of significance for Mission Dolores Park is identified as
    1905 to 1966, beginning with the year that it was formally acquired by the City and County of San
    Francisco for use as a park, and ending with the installation of the Mexican Liberty Bell plaza.
    The park retains integrity of location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, association and feeling.
    The vast majority of the park’s contributing features were all installed prior to World War II, and the
    park has experienced relatively few alterations since 1966. Significantly, John McLaren’s initial 1905
    design for the park remains readily identifiable despite the accretion of various features over the

    Because Mission Dolores Park has been identified as a contributing historic resource in an adopted
    local survey, as well as an individual historic resource in this study, it is considered to be a historic
    resource for the purposes of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Any projects which
    contemplate alterations to the park are therefore subject to review by the San Francisco Planning
    Department, and should be carried out in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the
    Treatment of Historic Properties pursuant to CEQA.”

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  2. Gregory –

    These are the current standards:

    The language that people kept using to describe ADA accessibility is that the park provide access to “major elements” – so there is room for debate as to what that access would look like and what the major elements of the park actually are.

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  3. Can anyone point to the actual ADA language governing these decisions? I always hear ADA this and ADA that, but what does the law actually say?

    I think it’s very important that everyone have access to the various public amenities — stores, bathrooms, muni, etc — but there are certain amenities — like grassy open areas — that by their very nature are going to be tough on wheels. what does the law say? why not smooth the whole thing over and pave it?

    from a different perspective, we have more than enough paved surfaces in the mission; it seems like a real loss to pave over more of our scarce public grass.

    it’s certainly already possible (minus the stairs) for someone on wheels to get from one side of the park to the other using the sidewalk that goes all the way around it.

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  4. I hope someone is documenting this story in a non-fiction narrative style a la John McPhee.

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  5. Time cannot be stopped in its tracks, but there is no consideration in the arsenal of preservation of how its effects should be managed, how the ‘preserved’ could stay alive, and yet evolve.

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  6. It is a damn shame that the entire park has to be chopped in half to provide a road to comply with ADA. Its actually ridiculous. There need to be some limits on the ADA. Its insane to change every structure in the nation to comply with a regulation that servers an infinitesimally small population. How about escalators everywhere for fat people? How about every park having step-ladders for little people…. Its just ridiculous. Wheelchairs can access the park via sidewalks.

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  7. 2 things:
    John Mclaren was not a Landscape Architect he was a horticulturist and a good gardener.

    4 foot wide path is the minimum width of an ADA path, minimum as in for one person with disabilities. At times Delores Park may have a few dozen people on that path, a 4′ path is just stupid w/ these kind of volumes. All your going to get is eroded dead lawn at the sides of this path because people will walk on it.

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    1. Albert. You’re right about John McLaren. He was indeed superintendent of Golden Gate Park for almost 60 years, and – though he designed Dolores Park – not a landscape architect. Thanks for writing in…

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