This weekend, about a dozen neighbors placed around 10 raised beds, fresh soil and plants at Parcel 36, the railroad right-of-way that cuts diagonally from Harrison and 22nd streets to 23rd Street and Treat Avenue — 23,522 square feet of space without a title-holder that has, for decades, been claimed and fenced off by neighbors who have used it for parking.
The group of neighbors behind the Saturday action, Mission Greenway, had planned to enter through the southwestern fence, which is often open, said Tree Rubenstein, who has, for many years, envisioned turning the space into a greenway, and who started a Sunday market nearby where free produce is distributed.
When the gate wasn’t open, the group sawed through a locked chain link at the northeastern fence and added their lock around the previous lock, creating a daisy chain lock that allows those able to open either lock to open the fence.
“It’s kind of like putting a flag up, saying, ‘We think it’s better these days to have this space … a green walking space, and the cars and parking or driving through there is not compatible,’” said Rubenstein, an urban agriculturalist and public greenway advocate who was also behind the creation of Parque Ninos Unidos. “This temporary garden is just to, first of all, give people an idea of an alternative, rather than the way it’s been for years.”
Neighbors in the surrounding blocks overwhelmingly support the idea of transforming the space into a public greenway, members of Mission Greenway said. But there is also a minority of stakeholders next to Parcel 36 — the Mission Kids preschool, condominium tenants and the owner of the historic warehouse adjacent to the lot, James Heinzer — who have keys to the southwestern fence and have declined to share a copy of those keys with Mission Greenway.
Zach Klein, the co-founder of Vimeo and a neighbor at Mission Greenway, had posted videos of the Saturday action on Twitter on Monday and drew numerous mixed responses.
“Their desire to use it as private parking is no more entitled than our right to make it a green space, and so in this moment where there’s a lack of clarity about who owns that land, we think it is important that we try to demonstrate a use case that has a greater benefit for the most number of neighbors,” he told Mission Local. “We’re proposing that in this time of unclarity that there be a conversation and that we invite input.”
The Twitter post rubbed some the wrong way. Max, a resident of the Treat Street condominium adjacent to Parcel 36, said he felt the action was intended to create a spectacle.
Klein told Mission Local that he has since spoken with numerous neighbors and felt sympathetic to how people are afraid of change. He said that people who initially seemed in opposition tended to ease up once they understood how long Mission Greenway had been attempting to make headway on transforming the space.
“I’ve received a lot of support, some negativity, but the negativity has been mostly in the minority,” he said
As of Tuesday morning, more than a dozen cars were lined up next to the preschool and the condominium in the southwestern corner of the parcel.
On the other end of the parcel, someone had removed the Mission Greenway lock. Rubenstein said the group hasn’t yet made plans to replace the lock, but Mission Greenway plans to enter through the frequently open southwestern fence to tend to the temporary garden.
Elizabeth Creely, who reported on the parcel extensively for Mission Local and later became a member of Mission Greenway, wrote in 2017 that the parcel had “started life in 1860 as the right-of-way for the short-lived San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company.”
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Creely wrote that a man named John Center “was the last clear owner and possessor of a deed. Today, only wildly contradictory information about the real owner exists. According to Gina Simi, communications manager for the San Francisco Planning Department, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company (SPTC) owns it. This isn’t possible: That company was acquired in 1996 by Union Pacific Railroad Corporation, a publicly traded company.”
“They might have right of use because no one can arrest them, but an easement is a formal decision rendered by a court, and to the best of my knowledge, no such decision since 1994 has been made,” Creely told Mission Local on Tuesday. “There are lots of claims and lots of people’s ideas, and none of them have moved through a judicial prism.”
The Assessor-Recorder’s Office and the Office of Supervisor Hillary Ronen didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saturday’s action came after around a decade during which Rubenstein and other neighbors reached out to community members and attempted to gain access to the parcel, a space where they have as much entitlement to as the neighbors who have long claimed the space for themselves, the group has said. But to the neighbors who live adjacent to it — tenants of the adjacent condominium on Treat Street, and the Mission Kids preschool — the Saturday action represented a violation of trust and concerns about safety, respectively.
“We all like the idea of having a nicer space back there, because right now it’s kind of abandoned,” said Max, who lives in the condominium. “We told them we’ll help you plant, and they kind of just went rogue, which was very surprising to us.”
It also comes after artists who had opposed the transformation were evicted, with the warehouse going up for sale in September, which meant it could be an opportunity to raise awareness that the space could be used for something other than parking, Rubenstein said.
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Delays, Disagreements and Disconnects
With no city authority giving guidance about who actually has claim to the lot, and with no clear title to the space, those with the key to the fences ultimately control who can access the parcel.
Around 18 cars or so will park there on weekdays, the majority of them owned by parents and teachers of children at the preschool, and a few owned by condo residents, Rubenstein told Mission Local.
Members of Mission Greenway had met with the condominium owners on Oct. 5, but it appears that the two groups had divergent ideas of what to temporarily do with the space and didn’t make much headway. There seemed to also be a lack of clear communication on some points of the meeting, with the two groups on different pages about what would happen next, especially concerning parking and security.
The tenants had concerns about the security of their buildings, the maintenance of the plants and a rodent problem being worsened if edible plants were in the space, according to Max, the condo resident. And whereas one of the condo residents, James, had submitted a rendering, Rubenstein said the measurements of the sketch that concerned parking didn’t appear accurate, and he requested another one but hadn’t heard back; the groups had also disagreed on how much parking should be allotted for the tenants, said Rubenstein and Lara, a neighbor of Mission Greenway.
Meanwhile, Christina Maluenda and Heather Lubeck, co-directors at Mission Kids, told Mission Local that that previous breaches to the fence during construction next door led to “immediate and significant increase in trash, needles, condoms and other detritus left behind and within children’s reach.”
They said it “seems that the illegal actions of a few people have put our students in harm’s way. Unsecure fencing of the spur could lead to attempted break-ins along our side yard fence line which was not designed or built to be facing out to public land.”
Rubenstein said he didn’t understand the concern, given that the preschool has a fence around its property and a gate.
To Lara, the preschool has been overly cautious about people having access to the parcel — on Monday, she was stopped from taking pictures of the parcel and numerous cars parked next to the preschool’s outdoor fence with the cars obscuring any kids from the camera, being told not to take pictures of children.
“It’s a really aggressive tactic to make it seem that the school feels unsafe with anyone in the parcel, and thus trying to lay claim on the parcel, for ‘the children’s safety.’ While these children are behind a rigid fence. All the while the school constantly posts images of children on their public Instagram page,” Lara said. “Some preschools I am familiar with don’t even have any outdoor space, such as the Haight Ashbury Nursery, who’s doors open directly onto a public playground. But Mission Kids, with their multiple private outdoor spaces, still find ways to complain about feeling ‘unsafe.’”
Rubenstein said he’d be open to having mediator if that would help with community meetings. Max, the condo resident, said he’s open to attending further meetings to rebuild trust that he felt had been violated.
In the meantime, area residents appear to overwhelmingly support the idea of a long-term green space.
The rare instances of opposition seen by Mission Greenway tend to come from a minority of neighbors who live just around the parcel, whereas neighbors who live farther away in the neighborhood tend to be more supportive, according to Creely.
Jemil Ezzet and Janet DeMartini, two neighbors who live on Treat Avenue along the lot, said they would support having it turned into a green space.
“I would definitely love it to be a public green area,” Ezzett said.
Evie, another neighbor on the block, was vehemently opposed to the area becoming a public space.
From Friday to Sunday, she said, it’s normal to see people who are drunk or drug-dealing along the block, often hanging out in front of the condominium or at Parque Ninos Unidos.
“I don’t think the parcel should be open to the public. I don’t want another park,” she said. “This is my house. This is my neighborhood. No. Do it somewhere else.”
Klein, of Mission Greenway and Vimeo, said he had spoken with parents, who told him they love the convenience of being able to park there and that it created a quiet space inside the school that allowed their children to nap. He had also heard from residents who said they wanted a seat at the table to discuss the parcel.
“Right now, they can’t be confident that we are the best partners, even though we feel we are good partners because of our intentions and capabilities,” he said. “I think the burden is on us to distinguish ourselves and make ourselves a trustworthy and creative partner that they can collaborate with.”