July 2008

Starr King Open Space: a Slice of Potrero History

By Kerry Fleisher

At Potrero Hill’s outer rim, where Carolina and 23rd streets meet, an elderly couple quietly passes through a rolling moor that drops off into the burgundy sunset.  A young boy tosses his golden retriever a Frisbee, while a few high schoolers traipse through the thicket of knee-high faded brown grass.  In an age of highly-pruned athletic fields and astro-turf makeovers, this 3.5 acre lot known as Starr King Open Space is a serene, rather anachronistic, treasure with a priceless view.

Starr King Open Space is also quintessentially ‘the Hill.’  It’s a piece of land that could have been plowed over, developed and sold-off back in the late-1970’s, when the Navy turned it over to a private developer to be used for subsidized mixed-use housing.  But like all things Potrero, a spirited group of grassroots organizers—with activist Gean Neblett at the helm—rose to the occasion, convincing the City to mitigate the housing density by salvaging this slice of open space.

A land trust was developed, and what’s today Starr King Open Space was born.  The concrete pads left over from World War II housing were plucked out, and a group of Potrero Hill residents were tasked with managing the land.  The plot has such unique roots that the San Francisco Planning Department recently mistook it for City-owned open space.

Over the past three decades Open Space board members have come and gone, but the existing board appears to be committed to keeping the land unencumbered and unenclosed.  The current nine member board is composed of landscapers, architects, and land planners, with a strong presence of environmentalists, though Susanne Shields, Board Secretary, remains tight-lipped about who’s on the board and when they meet (see “Starr King Open Space:  A Hidden Neighborhood Resource,” January 2008 View).   

Open space makes for better neighborhoods, urban planners tell us.  Open space provides a great recreational escape, common sense informs us.  But what constitutes open space’s best characteristics is in the eye of the beholder.  

David Stokley is sitting in his second story apartment that overlooks Starr King Open Space, with a pale afternoon light flickering off his antique china sets. “It was a mess…we had drunks, rapes…people raising hell at night,” he said, recounting his early days on Carolina Street in the 1970s.   “With the open space we don’t have one fifth of the problems we had.”  Stokley became the board’s bookkeeper a few years back, but his personal history with the park is more nuanced.  He’s owned property beside the park for more than 40 years, and his upstairs neighbor Nick Van Riesen, now deceased, was an active board member and good friend.

With a firm countenance, Stokley describes how Potrero Hill activists, in their unflagging efforts, attempted to acquire the then-littered and unsightly tract of land.  A developer had proposed to build a public housing unit of the “wedding cake” variety. “We fought this at the Nabe,” he said, referring to the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.  A voter-driven San Francisco proposition to protect hillside open space from being developed buttressed their cause.

After countless neighborhood meetings and hearings, the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development arranged for the developer to set up a land trust in the 1980s.  The question of what the space was too become was up for debate.  “Some of us did not want an attractive nuisance,” said Stokley.  Many then residents didn’t want to encourage loiterers. Others wanted to promote the land’s natural beauty.  

Following the City’s mandate, the private developer bequeathed the land trust with $72,000.  The open space was officially named ‘Starr King Park.’  In later years, Fritz Maytag, owner of local brewery Anchor Steam, donated $16,000 to the land trust.  Maytag had named a beer for the displaced Goodman artistic colony, and a portion of the proceeds were donated to the trust as a way to promote environmental stewardship.

Around the corner from Starr King Park, the land’s developer had embarked on the creation of ‘baby Victorians’ lots, today known as Parkview Heights.  The developer received a City variance to construct 45 by 15 feet homes, rather than the 100 feet by 25 feet required by zoning.  The mixed-income development has a share-profit arrangement with San Francisco, and the homes’ market-value is restricted by ordinance to encourage new buyers from low and middle-income brackets.

The original architect Peter Calthorpe, an award winning urban planner with innovative approaches to mixed-use housing, left the project after being at loggerheads with the developer.  The Parkview Heights that emerged is a quaint neighborhood of baby Victorians on curving backstreets, in a nook removed from the rest of the Hill.  Many point to the development as a model for mixed-use housing; others think it should have been more integrated into the community, and less gated.

Starr King Open Space, on the other hand, isn’t gated in the least.  Shields formally change the name from ‘Starr King Park’ to ‘Starr King Open Space’ to more accurately reflect its de facto natural state, unhampered by fences.  She and her husband Ralph, the Maintenance Chair and an ex-geologist, take pride in pulling out weeds and invasives, such as fennel plans and star thistles, planting indigenous species in their place.

Susanne is a firm believer in the propagation of native species.  She talks of serpentine soil, its subsets of endemic and tolerant plants, with the specificity of a Wikipedia entry.  She’s steadfast in her battle against non-native species, such as eucalyptus, and passionate in her planting of natives, such as buckeye plants.

While to some nearby residents the open space appears unkempt, to Starr King Open Space activists in tune with the natural flora, the space is a natural and verdant landscape.  A playground would mar its natural setting, according to some board members, and would be a costly add-in.  After 9/11, the land trust’s liability insurance increased significantly, particularly since the space is not fenced in.  

The slice of open space has had its trials and tribulations over the years.  An ex-resident occupying the lone DeHaro house alongside the open space tended to park 10 to 13 cars in his easement, which were often towed.  His Rottweilers, chained to 40 foot leashes, were even more of an annoyance to nearby residents.  Board members took him to a “Vicious and Dangerous” court hearing, and won:  Animal Control removed the dogs from his property.

Starr King Open Space is today a calm respite for neighborhood park-goers, with activities scheduled year-round.  Earlier this year the Randall Museum taught children about American Indian heritage on the land.  High schoolers frequent the lot to plant native flora as part of their community service, and elementary schools conduct field trips there.  Environmentalists take wild flower walks or count bird populations, while countless others stroll through the undeveloped landscape on their way to the Mission or San Francisco General Hospital, or to simply take a breather from urban life.



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