Urban Paradise Lost

MUNI project blamed for destroying urban refuge.

By Benjamin Lowenthal

 

Where trees once stood tall with their branches swaying insoutheast San Francisco's gentle breezes, a bulldozer rips up another heap ofash-colored soil. Upon the placid sandy banks of Islais Creek in Bayview, grassonce grew. Flowers blossomed among the shrubs and bushes. Birds migrated to theurban oasis known as Muwekma Ohlone Refuge and Park, located behind a strip ofwarehouses parallel to Third Street. When the kingfishers returned to perch ontree branches to eye a meal swimming in the shallows of the creek this winter,they found no branches but trucks and construction equipment instead. Most ofthe trees were gone; the refuge was destroyed.

 

The Muwekma Ohlone Reserve and Refuge was a communitylandmark. Bayview and Hunters Point students learned about the ecology of theirenvironment. Organizations took volunteers to help keep the area clean.Residents often relaxed in the grass by the gentle banks on weekends. Itbrought scientists and researchers too.

 

Last year near-by construction work caused a sewage pipe tocollapse, resulting in gallons of treated waste to seep into the refuge. Inorder to fix the pipe, the city's Municipal Railway (MUNI) had to destroy thegarden. Ironically, with the help of an environmental attorney, the garden'sdestruction provided the impetus for it to become officially maintained andmonitored.

 

"I don't even bother (visiting the refuge) rightnow," said Mikey, a near-by resident who declined to give his last namebut used to spend hours relaxing in the park. "There's just a big scab inthe middle of it now. It was really calm in there before, now it'suncomfortable."

 

The refuge began 10 years ago with one man, David Erickson. Helives in one of the neighboring studio warehouses, just a stone's throw fromthe remains of what was once a sanctuary for wildlife. In the warm sunshine onerecent day, he stepped over a low chain-linked fence. The smell of brackishwater from the nearby creek mixed with the strong scent of muddy clay. Whattook ten years to build for the Bayview-Hunters Point community has beenreduced to a pair of small verdant patches. They are separated by a deep trenchfilled with stagnating water covering the power lines for the Third StreetLight Rail. Erickson said his garden grew steadily for about eight years. Thetrees and plants that did grow, he said, had to be strong enough to withstandthe high tide of Islais Creek. He said that while the low tide, gave the gardenan additional two or even three acres of wet sand, when the tide came in, itsometimes converted the garden into a marshland about the size of half a cityblock. Erickson escribed this as a tough love for his plants.

 

"I wanted it to be a sanctuary for wildlife, somethingsmall and with minimal disturbance," he said.

 

Under his thumb, the garden, named after the Native AmericanMuwekma Ohlone tribe who once inhabited the Bay Area, grew into a park. At theMuwekma Ohlone Reserve, there were frog ponds, great bushes, and trees.

 

Project receives funding

 

About two years ago, Erickson applied for an urban resourcespartnership (URP) grant from the US Department of Agriculture. In conjunctionwith other groups like the San Francisco Conservation Corps and otherpartnerships with urban beautification groups like the San Francisco League ofUrban Gardeners (SLUG), Erickson's garden received $30,000 in federal moneys.He was astounded.

 

"I don't know how that happened," he said.

 

With the money, Erickson continued to work on his garden. Hesaid that while it was in conjunction with organizations, he still worked on italone most of the time. Youth groups and school agencies came to learn aboutthe park. It proved to be a popular destination for elementary school fieldtrips.

 

Photos from clean-up crews and restoration projectssponsored by the San Francisco Conservation Corps and SLUG depict grinningchildren. They wear gloves and hold their shovels and other garden tools asprized possessions.

 

Erickson said that these young children loved turning overrocks on the sandy banks during low tide. The boys, he said, would look forcrabs and try to startle their female classmates. The girls, in turn, tried toidentify which crabs were the head of the household and which were the babies.More importantly, volunteer chaperones often told him that this refuge was theone place they looked forward to visiting time and time again.

 

"It's not much, but it's something," saidErickson.

 

In addition to the large federal grant, the Muwekma reservereceived $64,000 from the Mayor's Office of Community Development. At thattime, Erickson said that he felt optimistic about his garden and reaching hisgoal of turning it over to the a public place for the neighborhood.

 

"It really started to bloom," he said.

 

Watching the garden grow

 

The garden flowered into a peaceful refuge. Benches, pondsfor tree frogs and simple irrigation systems for the shrubs and bushes wereinstalled. It became the territory for hummingbirds; mockingbirds too. Duringthe herring season from November to March, seals by the thousand followed theschools of fish into the creek and lounged among the rocks and logs. Clouds ofbirds blotted out the sun and the seals barked throughout the night. Since thepipe collapse their numbers have diminished greatly. This December, there areno flocks of birds nor basking seals.

 

The garden also appeared to have been one of the fewpublicly accessible green spaces in the area. According to data from theDepartment of Recreation and Parks and the Neighborhood Parks Council, a SanFrancisco non-profit organization, only the tip of Heron's Head Park, which ismaintained by Pacific Gas and Electric, and the San Francisco Port's Warm WaterCove Park for the approximately 16,906 residents living within a 1-mile radius.

 

The majority of official park and green space land inDistrict 10's 396 acres omes from McLaren Golf Course in Visitacion Valley.Without the course and the other parks in Potrero Hill and Vistitacion Valleythere are only about 57 acres in Bayview and Hunters Point; the largest one,the Gilman Playground (including the clubhouse and children's playground) isroughly 7 acres. The Muwekma refuge, therefore, added to this figure to aconsiderable degree.

 

In November 2001, MUNI's primary contractor, SanFrancisco-based Pro Ven, was laying duct banks for the Third Street Light Rail.Duct banks, according to Erickson, are the power lines necessary for the lightrail to run. To establish these duct banks, Pro Ven used horizontal drilling.Instead of traditional drilling techniques, which dive straight down,horizontal drilling burrows and creates tunnels. The drilling started a fewfeet away from the park and went underneath Isais Creek. While they weredrilling, however, a low pressure pipe from the neighboring sewage plantcollapsed, sending gallons of treated sewage all over the park's grassy floor.Neither Pro Ven nor MUNI were willing to confirm or deny these procedures.

 

Erickson vividly remembers officials from MUNI, the sewageplant, the port and Pro Ven gathering at the park. They had to tear up hisdecade of work to fix the break.

 

"I was screaming bloody murder that I need some time totransplant," he said.

 

Sewage wreaks havoc

Instead of waters from the high tide coming in, Ericksonsaid everything was covered in treated sewage. It bubbled up to the surfacespewing sand and sediment in the frog ponds. Workers removed the benches andbulldozers and backhoes began to rip out the shrubs and smaller trees. In theend the pipe was fixed and the drilling continued, but the refuge, no more thanfive or six acres, was in a sorry state. After the damage had been done, MUNIwas responsive.

 

"The first thing they said was that they wouldn't walkaway from this," said Erickson. "But it wasn't like I had their warmembrace."

 

MUNI held a few meetings with Bayview residents and theoriginal grant directors like SLUG of Muwekma Refuge. Erickson describes thesemeetings as nothing more than a dog and pony show because he saw nothing arisefrom them. At these meetings Erickson presented them with his plans forrestoration.

 

"A habitat is more than just a few trees and bushes.It's an eco-system with animals, plants, and insects," he said.

 

The refuge at Islais Creek was even more than an eco-system.According to Margaret Feldmann at the California Academy of Science, theinter-tidal zone at the creek was a fresh-water deposit into the bay.

 

"I don't know if there is another area like it (in theBay Area)," she said.

 

Feldmann also said that the refuge looked like a promisinghome for wildlife unique to San Francisco like herons, egrets and otters.Before the collapse, the California Academy of Science, in conjunction with theBayview YMCA, took neighborhood children to the area in order to plant somenative grasses near the shore. Feldmann returned to the refuge after theirplanting.

 

"It was awful," she said. "At this point, itlooks pretty hopeless out there."

 

Seeking a settlement

 

Erickson, however, is not giving up. He requested that MUNIassist in a complete restoration of Muwekma. He said there are two distinctphases for a proper restoration of an eco-system. The first being theinfrastructure restoration, primarily consisting of grounds work like thereplacement of fences, re-establishing irrigation systems. The second phase ishabitat restoration, which is the replanting. Erickson and the San FranciscoLeague of Urban Gardeners wrote them an invoice for about $9,000 to cover laborand administration costs in restoring the refuge. Muni flatly rejected theirplans.

 

"Their restoration was dead," said the gardeners'attorney Patrick Goggin.

 

According to Goggin, Muni originally wanted to restore therefuge on its own terms. This meant importing their own workers or contractorsto do the work. No one in the community wanted to see that, he said.

 

Organizations like SLUG and the San Francisco ConservationCorps, in their frustration from the meetings with MUNI and the contractors,hired Goggin.

 

"He made them stand up and pay attention," saidErickson. "It never even occurred to me to hire a lawyer."

 

Goggin's legal approach does not center around litigation.He firmly believes in alternative dispute resolutions. With this mind set,Goggin sought to work out a resolution without having to file a suit. In aletter to Muni, Goggin wrote that a restoration of Muwekma must be done by thecommunity and no one else. Muni was still unresponsive.

 

In the spring of 2002, Goggin ultimately filed a claimagainst the city for half a million dollars. The claim encompassed long-termmonitoring and maintenance of the site for ten years. By June, the claim wasdenied due to a procedural flaw.

 

Goggin then spoke with San Francisco Port officials tonegotiate a long-term lease for the site. The port brought MUNI to the table,he said. Nevertheless, MUNI has not claimed liability. In fact, MUNI is inlitigation with its contractors to determine who is at fault.

 

"The Port has been an instrumental ally," saidGoggin.

 

Before the pipe collapse, the relationship between therefuge and the port was inactive. Now, in spite of its reputation for thedevelopment of the Illinois Street Bridge, which many residents fear will bringheavy traffic to their quiet neighborhood, the port has been supportive ofMuwekma refuge.

 

"It's a feather in their cap," said Goggin.

 

From urban refuge to urban waste

Today no one comes to the refuge. There are no longerexcited children turning over rocks in hope of finding a crab or two. Most ofthe animals are gone too. On a weekend, a few boats silently move up the creekand see the tall grasses and handful of eucalyptus trees that once was aflourishing refuge.

 

The restoration has been extremely slow. Because MUNI isstill laying the duct banks, the gaping hole still takes up the middle portionof the refuge. Erickson examines a leaky hose used to connect and water theseparated parts of his garden.

 

Pro Ven and MUNI have provided him with a replacementirrigation system but they have not installed it yet. In the meantime, he useswhat he has, a collection of long rubber hoses which are prone to breaking andleaking.

 

"I find it astounding to have a horizontal drillingcontractor...say they can't fix a simple irrigation system," he said.

 

Muni has not given the community any date of completion.SLUG project manager Steven Patton said that everything at Muwekma is reallyjust on hold. The construction of the duct banks along with a missing drill bithave delayed their completion and keep Pro Ven near the creek. While Pro Venworks well away from the actual garden site, the heavy machinery, said Patton,would still affect the refuge wildlife.

 

According to San Francisco Port project manager KathyNakazawa, Muni and Pro Ven are in the final stages of construction on portproperty. She said that the port is looking over final designs of the ductbanks to make sure they are adequate and because of winter rains and theholidays, she estimates that construction on the property will end sometime inJanuary.

 

The restoration

Although Goggin and Erickson have not been able to activelyrestore the refuge, Goggin has made progress in negotiating with the city,contractors and Muni. Some of Pro Ven's insurance companies, however, refuse tocome to the table. Pro Ven could not be reached for comment.

 

"They don't want to be a part of any communitybuilding," he said. Instead, they would rather hire an attorney andlitigate.

 

While the city works with Goggin and their own insurancecompanies to establish some sort of recompensation, the refuge suffers. Becausethe refuge has been inactive for so long, Muwekma has had to forfeit theMayor's Office of Community Development grant. What little restoration Ericksoncan do, he said, comes out of his pocket. As a result, Erickson has incurredsome debt.

 

"I'm two weeks away from a shopping cart; like a lot ofus," said Erickson.

 

Goggin is optimistic about the refuge's future. After thecomplaint had been filed, the city and their contractors have 30 days torespond. The first court appearance is scheduled in May. Goggin is hoping for aresolution that will allow Erickson and SLUG to have some kind of formal leaseof the property. With that formality, the garden would be maintained andmonitored better.

 

In the meantime, the refuge remains in two pieces. Ericksonis doing what he can with two meager small clean ups and transplants since thepipe collapse. Furthermore, he continues to be an active participant with MUNIand the port. His attorney finds that this kind of participation is the drivingforce of Muwekma.

 

"It takes activism to keep these things alive,"said Goggin.