Group asks to hear from those who want — and oppose — the greenway idea
A steady stream of about 50 Mission residents walked through an open gate on Treat Avenue Saturday to participate in a design and planning session organized by the neighborhood group, Friends of the Mission Greenway.
Tree Rubenstein, the lead organizer, handed out nametags made of green tape while a volunteer set up a table loaded with pasta salad and hummus. A bicycle-powered blender was parked nearby in the small gravel lot.
Landscape architect Jane Martin walked through the crowd, distributing black-and-white renderings of the parcel, a plot of land with uncertain ownership and a chunk of unpaid back taxes. “We’re soliciting input from people who are interested in the development of this parcel,” Martin said, making it clear she wanted to hear from everyone, including those opposed to the project.
Eleven-year-old Adriel Rosenblum had already drafted his own landscaping plans. “It has a footpath, a bike, skateboard and scooter path, and a place for public gardening,” he said, referring to the plans he had tucked into a folder.
Two men, Kevin Keany and Adam Feibelman, deep in conversation, strolled up to join the growing crowd. Keany, a landscaper and artist, wants the parcel to be developed into a public green space. Feibelman was less certain. He was tasked with representing the opposition: the 23 artists who work in the Heinzer warehouse.
“I came out to meet the people who have similar ideas in creating green space, but also to have the concerns of the artists in the building heard,” he said. “That way, we can figure it out together, and work together.” Feibelman said that he and the artists want any development of a greenway to take place at the northern end of the parcel, close to the intersection of Harrison and 22nd streets and away from the loading dock inside the parcel, which the artists use for deliveries.
There’s a whole lot of figuring-out going on these days, both in the neighborhood and in the City Assessor’s office. The status of Parcel 36 is uncertain, although property around it was recently demolished in preparation for development. There is no known owner or assessed value, and the parcel remains untaxed. To that end, the Mission Greenway group was going to end the event with a dash of political theater. A large check symbolizing back taxes was going to be presented by Rubenstein to city officials in absentia. “We count on our elected officials to sort these things out,” said Rubenstein. “There’s some thought that if the back taxes are paid, that you can own the land.” Rubenstein confirmed that there was no current campaign to raise money to purchase the land. “We’re doing it to raise awareness.”
As the volunteers continued to set up, Christine Wolheim, one of the artists, walked to the table and hugged a bearded man who was setting out food. “Oh my God, it’s so good to see you!” he said, giving her an enthusiastic hug.
But tensions simmered under the surface of the sunny day. “This makes me really uncomfortable,” Wolheim said a few minutes later, visibly angry. “The way this was done was rude and presumptuous,” she said referring to the gathering. “This is our backyard. We’ve paid for this legal easement.”
Wolheim said that her rights of access, which included the use of a loading dock adjacent to the right-of-way, were included in her rental contract with James and Ernest Heinzer, whom she identified as her landlords and the owners of 933 Treat Avenue. “We didn’t have to let this happen,” she said, gesturing to the gathering. “We didn’t have to let any of you in. We could have locked the gate.” She doesn’t support the use of the parcel as a green space, she said.
Neither does her landlord, James Heinzer, who was on site, surveying the party. When asked if he owned the parcel, he said no, disputing his identification as an owner by the California Board of Equalization. “That’s a mistake. That never happened.”
Heinzer said that the heirs of John Center and George Crim own it, “but they’ve never stepped forward.” He says that he has rights of access and use to the parcel in perpetuity because he obtained prescriptive easement rights — a legal right to property that is secured by open, continuous and “notorious” use. Heinzer said that his use goes back 50 years. “My parents got a deed from the Southern Pacific in the ’50s to build a spur.”
His easement claim is bolstered, he says, by a 1996 finding by the California Supreme Court which determined that the Southern Pacific Transportation Company didn’t own the land. “We believe we have prescriptive easements. We’d like to see them preserved for the tenants we have.”
Any challenge to his assertion would have to be “contested,” he said. He’s unconcerned by the investigation underway by Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu and the City Attorney. “From my perspective, I don’t see why the city would support this. They’re more interested in developing housing than supporting a bunch of tomato growers.” Both he and Wolheim were unconcerned by the untaxed status of the parcel.
Feibelman said Parcel 36’s status represents some challenges. “I think property owners should pay taxes. But if the city has lost all semblance of control over this space … ” he hesitated. “I don’t think it’s any of my business. It’s between the owner and the city.”
Back at the gathering, Rubenstein hoisted a large check into the air. “We’re calling on the city to find out who owns this land and who owes the taxes on it.”
Onlookers whooped in support. Jane Martin, who was clutching a sheaf of design options created on-site, said she thought that a well thought out design could reconcile the apparently conflicting needs of the artists with the greenway proponents. “I do think for a very long time that this has been an under-utilized property.” She supports design that allows the artists in the Heinzer warehouse to continue to use the loading dock. “I think that a park that is thoughtfully designed can accommodate all of these uses. They’re not mutually exclusive, for sure.”