Neighbors of the old Southern Pacific right-of-way between Harrison Street and Treat Avenue have formed the Mission Greenway group to preserve the parcel’s history as a railroad right-of-way and transform the vacant lot into a green space.
“We chose the name Mission Greenway because this was formerly a railway and because there are so many other greenways in the city,” said Freddie Kirchner, a realtor and Mission resident who lives on Treat Avenue and is one of six neighbors active in the group.
Mission Greenway is collecting signatures from nearby neighbors and preparing to work with open space advocates and city officials to shape the future of the parcel where the Southern Pacific railway once ran.
“We’re inviting others to collaborate to make this parcel into open space. It should be possible. Otherwise, this blighted part of our neighborhood will remain useless,” Kirchner said.
Already it has been forgotten. As Mission Local wrote earlier, there is no title or deed on file with the city, and the parcel has never been taxed.
That anonymity became apparent during Mission Local’s investigation into the status of the property. The Office of the Assessor-Recorder simply did not know who owned it and has since launched an investigation to determine its ownership.
For its part, the Mission Greenway group would like to see the parcel’s distinctive steam-rail legacy preserved.
A part of that history vanished sometime in late December or early January, when the most visible artifact, an old railway switcher or “throw bar,” which protruded from the ground, was removed. It’s unclear who removed it, or why, although profit may have been a motivation. There is a brisk trade in old railroad parts, or “railroadiana,” on eBay.
Organizers would like to combine Parcel 36 with the property that borders it, which has been for sale for the last year, according to R.C. Hildebrand, the listing agent for HC&M Commercial. Safeway Roofing Company, located at 969 Treat St., has been on the market since 2017 for $3.3 million for 8,237 square feet.
Hildebrand described the owner, Eldon Verette, as “not overly motivated.”
The Mission Greenway group will meet with Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s legislative staff on Thursday, and the group has also contacted Assessor Carmen Chu, asking her to clarify how the Assessor-Recorder’s office will investigate.
“I know she’s not going to be digging through boxes of records to find a deed,” said Tree Rubenstein. “So I asked, specifically, what she’s going to do. Are they going to see if the courts can determine who the owner is?”
Both Kirchner and Rubenstein acknowledge that, while the process of finding the owner may take a while, the time to conserve space is now.
“We need the city behind us to free this land,” said Rubenstein, who has run the Free Food Stand on Sundays at nearby Parque de los Ninos for many years. “It’s been locked up for years.”
The group is concerned that the frenzied pace of development in the neighborhood will outpace conservation of the rapidly dwindling open space in the Mission District.
Parcel 36 is 24,243 square feet of undeveloped land — a rarity in a neighborhood that has absorbed the development of 2,451 dwelling units and a population increase of at least 8,764 since February 2016, according to San Francisco Planning Department statistics.
The Mission District lags behind the citywide average for park acreage with 0.75 acres of neighborhood parks per 1,000 residents. The citywide average is 1.1 acres per 1,000 residents, according to the Eastern Neighborhoods Rezoning and Area Plans, the San Francisco Planning Department document that lays out the future of development in the Mission District.
Open land is “getting harder to find,” said Brendan Moriarty, Senior Project Manager for the Land Conservation Program at The Trust for Public Land. “Undeveloped parcels are few and far in between. We have to be more creative.”
Open space and the pressing need for new housing are competing priorities, Moriarty acknowledged, but when the opportunity arises for a new park or greenway, “you gotta seize those opportunities.”
The linear plots of land left behind by railroads are often too narrow and irregularly shaped to develop as traditional residential housing or commercial real estate. According to Moriarty, this is what makes them so uniquely suited for recreational trails and bike and pedestrian corridors.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy, a national organization, lists 673 miles of potential rail trails in the state. Should the Mission Greenway be transformed from an empty lot into a greenway, it would join 123 other rail-trails in the state, including the Ohlone Greenway in the East Bay, which is nested within the remnants of two transit systems: the old Key System streetcar line and the Santa Fe Railway.
“Railway right-of-ways present unique benefits as parks and greenways because of their linear nature,” said Moriarty. “What was dead urban space can be turned into a greenway that provides connectivity and opportunities for people to travel through their neighborhoods to other destinations.”
Moriarty likes the idea of a public greenway in the heart of the Mission. “It seems like there’s park potential there,” he said, pointing out the proximity of the parcel to Parque Ninos Unidos. “The fact that it’s adjacent to the other park is really nice. The ability to expand that space could create some good synergies. The key question is, given that there’s a need for housing, can you design a park or greenway not just to serve new residents, but the community that’s already there?”
John Peattie, who lives across from the 22nd street entrance to the parcel, has the same question. Peattie is involved with the Mission Greenway group and knows that Mission residents will have different ideas about what, exactly, the parcel could be.
“Selfishly, as a dog owner who feels there are no enclosed dog parks close to home, the space has always struck me as a good plot for a small dog park,” said Peattie, who pointed out that Parque Ninos Unidos serves the neighborhood’s need for a park.
He’d like to see something there, even if it isn’t a dog park. “I’m not picky. Any sort of public park would be amazing, compared to the space’s current state.” Peattie likes the idea of a trail that preserves the visual reminders of its history as a railroad right-of-way, and hopes that the old rail tracks, now the only remaining evidence of the railroad’s history, can be protected.
“I knew that this was an old right-of-way, part of the same track as Juri Commons and the path over by the SPCA because of the old rail tracks,” he said. “If there’s a way to preserve the rails as a part of San Francisco’s old railroad history, I would love that.”
Anyone interested in helping out, contact Tree at firstname.lastname@example.org.