On Wednesday night, three men sent by Mission realtor Louis Cornejo were given a task: To move seven huge planters away from the west gate of the Mission’s most hotly contested strip of land, Parcel 36.
It was not an easy job. Each of the planters, which had recently been installed on the site by the green space advocacy group Mission Greenway, weighed hundreds of pounds. A local resident saw the trio use a pickup truck and wooden ramps to drag the planters about 100 feet away from the gate. Several planters seemed to splinter in transit, and the bottom of one appears to have partially collapsed.
The following morning, drag marks in the mud showed where the planters had been pulled. Lara Hanna, a member of Mission Greenway who helped set up the garden, was unimpressed.
“This guy thinks he’s above the law,” said Hanna. “That’s what is so disgusting.” Hanna called the incident “unlawful moving and vandalism.”
Cornejo’s nighttime planter escapade was the latest escalation in tensions between Mission Greenway and a group of aggrieved neighbors who adjoin the controversial parcel. The 23,522-square-foot plot, which cuts a diagonal strip through a block at 22nd and Harrison streets, has unclear ownership, but was enclosed by a fence for the sole use of nearby businesses for decades. In October, Mission Greenway cut the chain on the fence, created a daisy chain lock to access the site themselves, and set up a garden inside. A handful of neighboring businesses have since hired a lawyer to press their claim on the site, and relations between the two groups are fractious.
Cornejo is the realtor of the Heinzer warehouse, which abuts Parcel 36 and uses the land to access a loading dock. The warehouse has been up for sale since its artist tenants were evicted last fall. Cornejo declined to comment directly on the planter incident, but referred to statements from attorney Stephen Preonas, who has been employed by the warehouse and other businesses surrounding the strip of land.
“We are not aware of any damage,” said Preonas in an email. “The owners may have moved planters interfering with commercial operations.”
In a video taken by Hanna the day after the planters were moved, Cornejo said that the land was “private property,” and that the gate is needed for trucks to enter and exit. Where the planters had been placed, one of the large double gates on the west side could still open, but the second one was blocked. “It is malicious, what you are doing,” said Cornejo.
“I was not involved, and I do not know anything about it,” said James Heinzer, the owner of the warehouse.
Despite mention of owners and private land by Preonas and Cornejo, ownership of Parcel 36 is not at all clear. A representative of the Assessor-Recorder’s office told Mission Local that Southern Pacific was recorded as the owner of the land until as recently as 2017, but that company has not existed since 1996. Records from the Treasurer and Tax Collector appear to show that no tax was paid on the land between 2008 and 2018, which would typically trigger the city to auction the land. It is unclear why this did not happen.
According to the Assessor-Recorder’s office, the parcel was split into three sub-parcels in 2019. One of the sub-parcels was assigned to the John Center Co., a long-defunct company set up by the eponymous 19th century land baron. Another was assigned to members of the Wehr family, who are long deceased, according to Elizabeth Creely, a former Mission Local contributor and a member of Mission Greenway who has investigated the site extensively. No one has paid taxes on either of these sub-parcels since their creation. The third sub-parcel was assigned, in large part, to members of the Crimm-Ready family, who have since paid tax on the land. The Assessor-Recorder’s office said that the family’s claim dates back to 1910.
Despite these complications, Santiago Lerma, aide to supervisor Hilary Ronen, said that since the city has assigned taxpayers to the site, the land is not up for grabs.
“The group continues to insist that nobody owns the land,” said Lerma. “But the city has found the people who need to be assessed to pay the taxes. And the taxes on one of the parcels are current.”
In any case, the businesses adjoining the land are not claiming ownership. In late November, Preonas sent a letter to Tree Rubenstein, who has been a green space activist for half a century and is de facto leader of the Mission Greenway group, claiming that the business’ historical use of the land meant that they had a “prescriptive easement” on the land.
A prescriptive easement is a legal right to access someone else’s property when that property has been used, without express permission, for upwards of five years for a specific purpose. In this case, the businesses are saying that, because the land had been used by them for parking and as a “right of way,” they have a legal right to continue using it. The letter does not claim any contractual easements in the business’ deeds.
“They are claiming easement,” said Creely. “But, until and unless it passes judicial review, no rights can be said to be established.”
The November letter from Preonas also expressed a desire “to open a dialog with Mission Greenway” to discuss uses of the land that were “consistent with the rights of the Owners in the Right of Way and the health and safety of the neighborhood.” This ultimately led to a meeting on Jan. 6 between, on one side, representatives of the Heinzer warehouse, the adjoined preschool Mission Kids Co-op, and a local resident and, on the other side, Mission Greenway member Jorge Romero.
Romero is a civil engineer who has experience with green space projects in his home neighborhood, Bernal Heights. He characterized the meeting as “relatively professional and courteous,” but said that Mission Greenway was unable to accept several requests. One request, he said, was that members of his group cease accessing the site until visiting hours were mutually agreed. Another was that the group relocate the planters closest to the road at the west gate, and that the group’s public event planned for Jan. 14 be canceled. (It was not.)
Romero told Mission Local that indefinitely limiting access to the site would make it impossible to maintain the garden. What is more, the ultimate goal of Mission Greenway is to make the area public, not to share it between groups. In the meeting, Romero said, he promised to discuss the requests with the rest of Mission Greenway. There have been no formal meetings between the two sides since then, and no agreements have been reached.
“For me, I’m done. I don’t want to go to another meeting,” said Romero. “Unless there is some indication that we can truly be cooperative, I don’t think it makes sense for us to meet.”
Heather Lubeck, a director of Mission Kids Co-op, declined to comment for this article, but emailed an earlier statement with the co-op’s position.
“The security of Parcel 36, as it is directly adjacent to children’s playspace, is essential,” reads the statement. It goes on to say that “Mission Kids supports the creation of public greenspace that is sustained by SF Rec and Park or a nonprofit such as SF Parks Alliance,” and that it welcomes “broad community input into the future use of Parcel 36.”
On top of these safety concerns, parents at the preschool routinely use Parcel 36 for parking when picking up and dropping off their kids, and when they volunteer at the co-op. Rubenstein said that the planters installed closest to the west gate, the ones that have since been dragged away, were put there expressly to prevent parking. On Thursday afternoon, after the planters were moved, the spaces were once again filled by cars.
Despite these points of contention with the preschool and the Heinzer warehouse, Rubenstein said that opposition to the greenway is coming from a minority of voices.
“I don’t think tension is growing between all the neighbors,” said Rubenstein. “I certainly know that the realtor is the main person who is upset.”
The group does have plenty of supporters. One preschool parent, while borrowing a chair from the garden to put on her child’s shoes on Thursday afternoon, said that she “loved the plants.” An online petition in support of the greenway has attracted more than 900 signatures over the past few weeks.
Still, their detractors are not limited to just neighboring business owners. Adam Feibelman, an artist who had a studio in the Heinzer warehouse until all the tenants were evicted in fall, 2022, said that the greenway group had not been considerate enough of neighbors’ desires. He said that he and his fellow artists had sought assurances about the possibility of break-ins with the fence open, but had been unconvinced that Mission Greenway would take adequate precautions. He added that the current use of the site by the preschool and the warehouse should be respected.
“This is not how you win a political argument,” said Feibelman. Last summer, the artists voted against supporting Mission Greenway, by a steep margin. Many of the artists at the warehouse also used to use the parcel for parking.
Feibelman said that, despite his opposition to the group, he opposed dragging away and damaging the planters. “I don’t like the fact that their stuff was broken,” he said. “I think that the plants are just beautiful, and are being maintained very well.”
Rubenstein said that, although the “temperature might be a little high” at the moment, he is optimistic that Mission Greenway and the prior users of the parcel should be able to move forward with more conversation. However, the veteran green space advocate stressed that he would prefer to speak with neighbors directly, rather than talk through attorneys.
“We thought about lawyers in our own group,” said Rubenstein. “But we’re not sure whether a lawyer can really help untangle this situation.”
Several members of Mission Greenway, plus a number of neighbors, said that they want the city to make a clear determination on the status of Parcel 36. “The city’s lack of communication and clarity has been jaw-dropping,” said Creely. “It is on them that the neighborhood is having such a fraught moment.”
Mission Greenway is holding a public event today at the parcel from 1 to 4 p.m., featuring live music and food. More information about the event can be found on the group’s website.