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Civil Disobedience in a Public Park and When Does “Adopt a Spot” Become “Own a Spot?” (Partisan Position)

By Robert Brokl
Wednesday June 22, 2011 - 03:51:00 PM

“Turf Battles” may be the new recreational activity in public parks, with public resources stretched to breaking, volunteerism (often with strings) expected to make up the slack, and “urban agriculture” the new big thing...Toss into the mix a dysfunctional city government and turf will fly.... 

The Dover Street Park, between Aileen and 58th on Dover St. (one block east of MLK Jr. Way) in North Oakland is the locus of the latest contretemps. Petition gathering, guerilla gardening, instant murals, and vilification and old animosities restoked. “Over what?,” you might ask. 

Dover Street Park is new, finished only about 6 years ago, at a cost of over $560,000. Designed by professionals, installed by union workers, now contested by “adopt-a-spot” neighbors and food justice advocates who’ve planted 35 (and counting) fruit trees at the park perimeter, self-described as a “food forest”--a “40+ trees strong orchard of avocado and citrus trees...” 

The park was the last piece of the 9-acre project referred to as MLK Jr. Plaza by the City of Oakland, or alternately as the Old Merritt College campus by neighbors. Really old timers or history buffs remember the school building that the park sits behind as the home of University High School--its first use as a premier school in the Oakland school system. 

When Alfred Crofts, Janet Keita, Mattie Jones, myself, and many other neighbors got involved, the school was vacant, almost a ruin and slated for demolition, to be replaced by a shopping mall which, had that scenario come to pass, would no doubt quickly have become a ruin slated for demolition... 

We formed a group that became North Oakland Voters Alliance (NOVA). I came up with the name that stuck because we wanted to remind our unresponsive government that we were here, we wanted to be listened to, and we voted. We started holding monthly meetings and volunteers passed out free NOVA flyers door-to-door, 3,000/month at the peak. We listed the entire site on the National Register of Historic Places, sued the City over “demolition by neglect,” and worked to replace the Councilperson who favored demolition with Sheila Jordan, Councilperson Brunner’s predecessor. Jordan favored adaptive reuse. Ultimately, Children’s Hospital Oakland bought the site from the City and outfitted the building for their Research Institute. The North Oakland Senior Center was created in the former auditorium, with two 55 year leases from CHORI. 

(For those that are interested, the long struggle is well-documented. Basic texts: “Brownfields Redevelopment: Meeting the Challenges of Community Participation” by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, May 2000. Also, “The Case of the Languishing Landmark,” by Paul Rauber, the cover story of the East Bay Express, March 23, 1990. Additional news coverage in the archives of the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, East Bay Express, Oakland Post, Oakland Heritage Alliance newsletter, etc. If you can find it, the 1987 potboiler movie “The Principal” filmed inside the school buildings, pre-renovation.) 

The area at the back of the site where the park is now was covered in asphalt. Once the playing fields of the Oakland Oaks, the area had been paved over for portables used by the community college district. The portables were demolished, but the asphalt remained. Parts of the site were filled in with houses, some made more “affordable” to satisfy federal requirements stemming from the original purchase of the property with Community Development Block Grants. 

The area that remained was turned into the park. A well-known, local, women-owned landscape architect firm, PGA Design, that had created plans for the grounds on the rest of the campus, including the courtyards of the main building, was hired to design the park. 

After the years of neighborhood contention, the City tried to mend its ways and encourage citizen participation by establishing a “design advisory committee” that got periodic briefings on plans for the various aspects of the project, including the park. The group was open to anyone interested. 

At that time, we advocated for raised vegetable beds in the park. A local group called Spiral Gardens, with a large garden site on Sacramento St. in Berkeley, was interested. Their head lived in the neighborhood, but they were rebuffed. PGA and City staff resisted--the budget was tight and a simple design was selected for the park: a large expanse of turf that would be easy to maintain with regular mowing, decorative flowering street trees, climbing roses on the fence, some large evergreens at the rear. There was no money for interior lighting, the sign board we wanted for community notices was a useless kiosk, but play equipment, benches, and a drinking fountain went in. According to park plans, over 1000 plants were dug in and trees planted. The park becomes more and more popular, less single-mindedly devoted to sports like Bushrod Park nearby, more intimate and welcoming.... 

Fast forward. The Phat Beet Produce collective proposes a “Healthy Hearts Garden” with a loose affiliation with Children’s Hospital’s Healthy Hearts Clinic through a pediatrician who’d interned there. The Phat Beet group submits a written proposal to the City. Parks and Recreation and Public Works Agency staff, and Maria Barra-Gibson on Brunner’s staff, okay their plans for a community garden tucked away at the “back right corner” of the park. Later, according to the Phat Beet proposal, “if all parties involved feel that the vegetable garden is successful after a determined time period, we will expand to plant fruit trees along the back fence...” shared with CHO. 

Meanwhile, an informal adopt-a-spot group formed called the Dover St. Neighborhood Group, one of several promoted by the City to supplement paid union employees stretched to the limit with budget cutbacks and layoffs. According to press reports, the Public Works Agency has been hit with massive layoffs. One PWA employee is responsible for 30,000 City street trees. But adopt -a-spot meant just that, we assumed, weeding and tending, not owning or controlling. Just like museum docents don’t get to curate exhibitions. 

The volunteer group ceased locking and opening up the “dawn to dusk” park, so it was open 24/7. Over time, many of the plants either died out through neglect or lack of irrigation, or were deliberately killed with sheet-mulching. Invasive volunteer plants such as acacia and bacchus got a foothold and prosper. Weeds keep pace with the remaining plantings. 

The rapidly changing nature of the park came into sharp focus at the Cesar Chavez celebration April 3 . Underwritten by a $500 contribution by CHO, Mayor Quan made an appearance, a mural was spray painted on two sections of the aging fence, neatly disguising a plywood patch, and fruit tree planting accelerated. Phat Beet’s on-line newsletter called for supporters to provide a “vine, bramble, or fruit tree” for the Healthy Heart Garden. The Phat Beet website triumphed the “fruit orchard in an Oakland City Park”--at last count some 35 trees have been planted. 

The very informal and undocumented (but for the 3-page proposal) process that got us to this point is being revisited--a recent meeting of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission (the PRAC) considered the tree plantings and community garden. 

The June 8 staff report for that meeting identified many concerns of PWA staff about fruit trees in a public park: 

“*Potential fall hazard from kids climbing trees to reach the fruit. 

*Potential fall hazard from people bringing ladders into the park to harvest fruit or to prune trees. Suggested dwarf rootstock trees be planted to eliminate the use of ladders. 

*Pesticides are not permitted to be used in children’s parks. Concern on potential spread of diseases from trees with leaf curl, etc. Leaf curl noted on at least one current planting. Spraying dormant oil, as an example, would not be allowed. 

*Blockage of line of sight into the park by trees planted along the eastern boundary of the park near the play equipment. 

*Potential tripping hazard from fruit trees on paths or thrown or carried into the lawn area. 

*Increased rodent or insect populations (Mediterranean Fruit Fly) attracted to fruit or decomposing fruit. 

*Concern for thorns on citrus trees located close to play structure.” 

Additionally, avocado trees grow to be 30-40 feet tall, and may not bear fruit. Depending upon pollination and the weather, trees may not set fruit, or squirrels may get whatever is produced. Food crops such as beans, squash, or tomatoes might actually do more to alleviate hunger than unpredictable fruit trees. 

The PRAC voted to approve the existing small vegetable garden, with some conditions attached such as Phat Beet Produce locking up the park at night. This was the easy vote, and we, too, support the garden. The PRAC also voted, narrowly, to require Phat Beet to get a retroactive conditional use permit for the tree-plantings. The fee, like many in cash-strapped Oakland, is exorbitant at $2,900. Even a tree removal appeal, like one we recently managed during the Courthouse Athletic Club demolition and redwood removal, costs $500! 

But charging ahead without full community “buy-in” that ultimately will place more burdens on an increasingly nonexistent city crews is a serious matter. And accepting citizen redesign of public parks, with increased demands for maintenance by someone, undermines both union jobs and design professionals. Why pay for the milk when you can get it for free? 

Two well-known Oakland community activists and members of the PRAC, Susan Montauk, a Brunner supporter, and Judy Belcher, ally of Nancy Nadel, supported the tree plantings, and implicitly, the redesign of the garden to create “fruit forest.” The saplings may not be that obvious now, even to them, but 40+ trees, 20-30 feet tall, will be. 

The concern about sight lines into the park as a public safety issue resulted in a May 17 statement by Councilperson Brunner. She echoed the call by Audree V. Jones-Taylor, head of the Park and Recreations Dept., “That the Healthy Hearts volunteers will remove the fruit trees along the front fence of the park and will present a plan to the PRAC for fruit trees in the park at other locations.” To date, all trees remain. 

Brunner’s statement came after pulling the plug on a meeting of concerned parties that Dr. Alexander Lucas, the head of CHORI, had offered to host. Ironically, Brunner’s specialty of law at Siegel & Yee is mediation.... 

The NOVA back story: the group lived up to its name and burnt-out--weary founders and internal discord. Members moved away or died. Only one newsletter was published after we left, and the monthly public meetings ceased. At the end (not The End, since a NOVA list-serve survives), a fierce battle erupted over the expansion of redevelopment to all of North Oakland, deepening the NOVA divide. Jerry Brown, as governor, is using many of the arguments to end (or limit) redevelopment statewide that we used--North Oakland wasn’t so blighted it needed redevelopment at the expense of the General Fund revenue. 

This irony may be lost on some in the current dustup. If redevelopment had happened, the City using an economic development argument would surely have issued bonds, borrowing against North Oakland, generating the revenue to allow CHO to build their 20 story tower north of 52nd on Dover St., and many neighbors would have left or had their houses seized. 

As precedent, if management of public parks is handed over to well-meaning, ideological advocates, with romantic gardening ideas (such as Phat Beet’s plans for bananas and timber bamboo) nothing is safe or “public,” whatever the expenditure of public funds in the past. In the future, vacant lots can just be set aside, for neighbors to do with as they will. Or not. Hopefully that won’t be the lesson of Dover St. Park. 

As for more positive models, the recent May/June issue of Temescal News and Views had two relevant examples: 

The Temescal Flows mural being painted on the CalTrans underpass at 52nd St. With 80 percent of the funding provided by The Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District, City and CalTrans encroachment permits, and a sign-off from the City Cultural Arts Division, the mural creation progresses without controversy. 

An “Intercultural Gardens” studio class at California College of the Arts partners with a fourth grade class at Emerson Elementary School to create an orchard on the school grounds. Again, no controversy and broad support. 

Another proactive suggestion: Phat Beet Produce’s connection to CHO, and their Healthy Hearts Clinic, certainly helped to cut through the red tape, enabling him to begin his garden in the park, with no annual fee or charge for water (as is normal for community gardens). More recently, CHO underwrote the Cesar Chavez event. But, in the interest of preventing childhood diabetes and obesity which motivates this support, why don’t they do more? Such as instituting a demonstration vegetable garden in the front of the The Little House That Escaped the Bulldozers at 52nd and MLK Jr. Way. The former owner refused to sell to CHO, but his heirs did. CHO’s last expansion surrounds the house, but the citrus and fig trees and empty planters remain from his and later gardens. This bedraggled space has high visibility from the street taken by thousands every day, steps from the Healthy Hearts Clinic. What a spot for CHO to plant a garden, not to mention on their other nearby properties! If Michelle Obama can tear up the White House lawn for an organic vegetable garden, here’s some local turf we’d like to see disrupted, easing the pressure on little Dover St. Park.