Potrero Hill Shows Off Its Green Thumb

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Lower De Haro Street. Top: presently narrow, with overgrown plantings, and run off from slumping slopes that flows into the street. Bottom: conceptual rendering, with gabion retaining walls featuring gravel drainage edge, repaired asphalt, and new plantings. Photo: Courtesy of De Haro Community Project

A bit more than five percent of District 10, which includes Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, consists of green space, compared to 13 percent for San Francisco as a whole. Residents have steadily worked to remedy this deficit, successfully advocating for community gardens and green patches. These efforts created the Kansas Street Community Garden, Arkansas Friendship Garden, Starr King Open Space, Carolina Green Space, and De Haro Community Garden, amongst other commons.

Now comes the De Haro Block Community Garden. For the past decade or so, De Haro Street residents have tended the median alongside 1300 De Haro, an effort that accelerated with onset of the public health crises a couple years ago.  

In 2020, 1300 De Haro block residents weeded the divider, planted drought resistant vegetation, and launched regular cleanup efforts. Block inhabitants told the View that the work helped maintain a degree of normalcy during the pandemic. 

Unexpected challenges emerged along the way. A one-way street sign was abruptly installed on the quiet road. The San Francisco Fire Department announced that upper De Haro was too narrow for a fire engine. When community members asked the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) to repair the crumbling road they were told it was an “unaccepted” street, with care of trees and the road residents’ responsibility.

In City parlance, “unaccepted” streets are those that don’t meet various qualifications: width, paving, sidewalk condition, and the like. Unaccepted streets aren’t considered DPW’s responsibility. What started as a median beautification effort revealed a host of issues. 

A Hill resident who worked for the San Francisco Park Alliance walked by the De Haro Block Community Garden and recommended it partner with the Alliance; by the end of 2020, that relationship was sealed.

The San Francisco Park Alliance supports community greening and recreational spaces. It was founded in the 1970s as Friends of Recreation and Parks, assuming its modern form when it merged with the Neighborhood Parks Council in 2014. The nonprofit has recently been subject to municipal corruption investigations, which uncovered poor controls over financial dealings by the organization, but no incidences of actual wrongdoing.

Over the past two years the De Haro Community Block Garden has set its sights on securing a Community Challenge Grant. Funded in 1991 through a ballot initiative, the Community Challenge Grant Association awards monies yearly to projects that improve public spaces: art installations, cultivating native plants, and expanding parks. Since 2019, close to half a million dollars have been awarded to projects throughout Potrero Hill and Dogpatch alone. 

This year’s Community Challenge applications are due December 3, with grantees announced in the Spring. Applicants must match thirty-five percent of the funded amount. Lila Travis, De Haro Block Community Block Garden’s Board secretary, who manages an urban wildlife rescue nonprofit, noted that donations and volunteer hours can be counted for matching. She also pointed out that projects must be sponsored by a nonprofit; the Alliance provides this status. Without such a fiscal sponsor, community efforts might “die on the vine,” she said.

Carolina Green Space. Top: before. Lower: after. Photo: Courtesy of Terrain Landscape Architecture

The De Haro Community Block Garden wanted to pave Upper De Haro, a project that’s been contemplated since the 1930s, and which’d render the street “accepted,” making it the City’s responsibility. However, not all Block residents favored that option.  Garden organizers pivoted to becoming a “street park,” under DPW’s jurisdiction instead of the Department of Parks and Recreation. As a street park they could request help disposing of debris and vegetation, in addition to delivery of woodchips for reducing soil erosion due to rain.

Just a little up the hill, Carolina Green Space has also been working to improve a street median. De Haro Block members contacted Cathryn Blum, the Green Space’s chief instigator, who referred them to the architectural firm Terrain Studio. De Haro Block Community Garden members decided to dramatically alter the median, install measures to prevent soil erosion, as well as future street narrowing. However, there’s a cap on construction costs for Challenge grants; a DPW representative recommended pursuit of a Watershed Stewardship Grant instead. 

That grant, also administered by the Community Challenge Grant Association, focuses on construction-intensive projects rather than community beautification. Travis noted that this funding source would enable the Block to transform the median into a rainwater garden, with runoff diverted away from sewer drains to irrigate vegetation. 

The Carolina Street median is also owned by DPW, similarly poorly maintained. Several years ago, a mugging prompted residents to renovate the median as the Carolina Green Space. They likewise partnered with SF Park Alliance and were awarded a $132,000 Community Challenge to revamp the space as part of the “Skyline Terrace” project in 2020. The Green Space also received “addback” funding.

Addback is part of the municipal budget process. The mayor submits a budget to be approved by the Board of Supervisors; the Supervisors’ budget analyst reviews it and suggests changes. The sum of any reductions is reassigned in the final, approved, budget as “addbacks.” The Municipal Code forbids supervisors from directly influencing or explicitly suggesting whom should receive these funds; they may only allocate them to a particular department or program. However, a 2008 Civil Grand Jury report suggested the process tacitly permitted corruption. City Controller Ben Rosenfield has reminded the Board of Supervisors that “addbacks” aren’t funds for them to grant to nonprofits of their choice. 

Blum noted that developing the Carolina Green Space required DPW approval for an American Disability Act-compliant ramp, tree removals, and changes to the median. She also mentioned the need for a “tree hearing,” remarking that “for each tree we remove, we have to plant a replacement.” Stormy weather in October damaged one tree on the street, which was already on the chopping block.

In 2006, San Francisco passed an ordinance defining “significant” and “landmark” trees. Removal of these trees requires a permit, with neighborhood notice, as well as replacing it in most cases. 

The Carolina Green Space has issued a request for proposals for its Skyline Terrace project. It hopes to select a contractor this month. 

San Francisco Recreation and Park has a number of projects in District 10, including the Blue Greenway, 13 miles of parks and trails spanning from China Basin to Candlestick Cove.