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Peace Comes Hard to Glen Canyon
By Steve Steinberg
Tranquillity may return this summer to the slopes and paths of Glen Canyon, San Francisco's "wilderness" area just over the hill from Noe Valley.
The canyon, part of the Glen Park Recreation Area bordered by O'Shaughnessy Boulevard and Elk Street, has been the focus of an intense two-year brush war between anti-car partisans and the city's Recreation and Park Department.
The controversy centered on whether parents should be allowed to drive down the service road that runs through the heart of the canyon to ferry their children to Silver Tree Summer Day Camp.
Finally, after the intercession of Mayor Willie Brown's office last fall, the dispute over cars appears to have been settled. Rec and Park has agreed that Muni buses will deliver and pick up the Silver Tree kids. Also, private cars will not be allowed down the road this summer.
But so much acrimony remains that to no one's great surprise, the battle over the canyon has now shifted from cars to unleashed dogs.
70 Acres of Wildlife Preserve
Whatever their position on dogs or cars, all sides agree that Glen Canyon is a precious treasure, both to the Glen Park neighborhood and to the city as a whole.
Designated a "significant" natural resource by the Recreation and Park Department in 1995, the canyon is the ravine running through 70-acre Glen Park, from which the neighborhood takes its name.
The canyon is home to many plant and wildlife species, both native and imported. It is fairly common to see hawks soaring high above the eucalyptus trees searching for prey. And in the early evening you can hear owls hooting in the trees.
Flowing through the canyon is Islais Creek, San Francisco's only above-ground free-flowing stream. Over the past few years, the California Conservation Corps has made an extraordinary effort to restore the land around the creek and to make it a true nature preserve. The corps has also cleared trails and built bridges and fences.
Thirty-three-year Glen Park resident Zoe Nordstrom, who led the fight against cars in the park, calls the canyon a "respite from urban stress."
A decade ago, she said, cars on the service road, known as Alms Road, were not a problem. However, as time passed, more and more cars started driving through the park, especially in the summer. "The gates were left open [by Rec and Park staff] all summer," said Nordstrom. "You eventually had total access by cars to this environmentally sensitive area."
Neighbor Barbara Zierten was also concerned about potential harm from the cars. "Rec and Park said there was no proof cars were damaging the environment. But 120 cars on the road a day has to do some damage."
Zierten said the situation was particularly bad on Thursday evenings during the summer, when as many as 135 cars parked on the shoulder of Alms Road to attend the "campfires," family get-togethers for Silver Tree parents and kids.
Drivers also increasingly ignored the 4-mile-an-hour speed limit. Said one Glen Park resident, "If you were walking along the road, you would often have to jump out of the way to avoid being hit."
Nordstrom, a veteran of anti-freeway campaigns in the 1960s, said this was not the first time the city had encroached on Glen Canyon. In 1962, city planners wanted to widen O'Shaughnessy Boulevard from two lanes to four and run an overpass through the park, cutting down many of the trees in the process.
Glen Park residents then mounted what would turn out to be a 15-year fight to preserve the canyon in its present form.
Silver Tree a Private Club?
The Neighbors for a Car-Free Park, as some local residents styled themselves, also accused Silver Tree of having become a "private club," serving only children whose parents had cars and the time to drive them in and out of the park.
Back in the '70s, buses used to pick up kids at various city locations and take them to Silver Tree. But in 1988 the bus service stopped for budgetary reasons.
"When the buses stopped, there was no access for poorer children," said Nordstrom. She maintains that the original intent of Silver Tree Camp, founded in 1941, was to provide a one-week outdoor experience for "children who couldn't get out of the city." But many parents, Nordstrom said, were now using the camp as "inexpensive day care," rather than as a limited day camp experience.
The camp, which begins June 16, has a one-week curriculum, costing $35, repeated each week for 10 weeks. Parents can sign up their child for as many weeks as they wish, but the children will be doing the same things week after week.
Road Throws People for a Loop
When people began protesting to the Recreation and Park Department two years ago about the growing number of cars, Rec and Park responded with a proposal to build a new loop road. Cars would enter the park from a gate off O'Shaughnessy, then exit at Elk Street. In addition, the plan called for paving Alms Road and the creation of a parking lot at the rear of the park's recreation building.
Critics like Nordstrom immediately suspected the city was trying "to institutionalize traffic" in the park.
But Joel Robinson, current manager of Rec and Park, said the loop plan, which was put together before his tenure, "was never intended to bring in more cars, but to mitigate the effect of cars in the park."
Whatever Rec and Park's intention, "the neighborhood went berserk," Nordstrom said.
For the next year, residents waged a fierce campaign to rid the canyon of cars. Two petition drives gathered more than 4,500 signatures. Angry residents wrote letters to the Board of Supervisors.
Former supervisor and now state assemblyman Kevin Shelley held two hearings on the loop road. At first, Shelley appeared opposed to the idea, but then he seemed to support it.
Zierten believes the supervisor "was heavily lobbied" by the pro-car side. But eventually, after another letter-writing campaign, Shelley dropped the loop road from the board's agenda.
Dust and Fur Start to Fly
Last summer opponents of cars began taking a more activist approach. Pickets carrying signs began showing up at the Elk Street entrance as parents dropped off or picked up their kids.
Some of the Silver Tree parents said the protesters got pretty aggressive. "They would jump in front of your car or stick their faces inside your car window," said Lynn Estrella, a Glen Park resident.
Another parent said he observed Nordstrom deliberately walking slowly up the dusty canyon road in front of a long line of cars, backing traffic up to Elk Street.
Estrella, who's part of a group that wants to put an end to unleashed dogs in the park, claimed that most of the anti-car people were dog owners who saw the park as exclusively theirs. "They wanted everyone to get out of there except dog owners," she said.
Estrella also maintained that she and her daughter would have been in danger if they had had to walk to Silver Tree instead of drive. "If you want me to get out of my car and walk, you need to put the dogs on a leash."
One fact that emerged from all the discussions was that no one seemed willing to compromise. Zierten, who belonged to a "working group" trying to reach a solution, said, "We had 12 people [in the group] and 12 points of view."
But last fall Mayor Brown assigned a special liaison to help rein in the various factions. Within a few months, Rec and Park's Robinson announced that Muni would provide the daily bus service.
Buses to Replace Cars in Summer
The buses will pick up kids at parks throughout the city and transport them to Silver Tree Camp. Muni will charge the campers 50 cents per day roundtrip.
Robinson said he was pleased with the bus deal. "I feel great about it," he said. "This will allow us to bring to many kids the opportunity to go to camp that they didn't have before."
Robinson said his goal was to have as many children as possible attend the camp. His department may also restrict kids to only one week per summer starting next year.
The people for a car-free park also were happy, although not unequivocally so. "It's not perfect, but it is a huge step forward," said Zierten.
Nordstrom said she would have preferred that the buses drop the children off at the entrance to the park rather than take them into the canyon. "Still, I'm thrilled that kids who should have this experience are going to get it."
Although private cars will be barred from Glen Canyon this summer, they will be allowed during the non-summer months. That's because the Silver Tree Camp building is also the home of the Glenridge Cooperative Nursery School, which operates there the rest of the year.
Glenridge parents say they're trying to keep the cars to a minimum. "We have a strong environmental program and want to safeguard the canyon," said Stephen Rosen, a school spokesperson. "Most of our parents obey the speed limit, and we encourage them to carpool and walk in."
He added that although he believed a small group of protesters wanted to banish all traffic from the park, "most people recognized there had to be a certain amount to accommodate seniors, the disabled, and small children."
Crackdown on Off-Leash Dogs
No sooner had the car and bus situation been settled last fall, then the attention shifted to dogs.
Probably dozens of people walk their dogs every morning and evening up Alms Road and on recently opened trails. At times dogwalkers are the only people to be found on the road.
But to some in the park, the dogs are a nuisance and a threat. And last month a San Francisco police officer said that because of citizen complaints, the Ingleside Police Station, in whose jurisdiction Glen Park falls, would begin a major crackdown on off-leash dogs in the park.
The officer, who did not wish to be identified, also said that police might be shifted from other, higher crime areas to give $100 tickets to those who let their dogs run free. He added that in his mind the dog patrol would not be an "effective use of limited police resources."
To the people who fought the cars in the canyon, collaring the dogs is a petty attempt at revenge by frustrated drivers. "The dog issue is a retaliatory effort launched by people who lost on the car issue," said Zierten.
But to those urging the police to enforce the law -- clearly posted signs, stating that dogs must be kept on a leash, abound in Glen Park -- the two issues have nothing to do with one another.
"It's absolutely not retaliatory, it's a safety issue," said Lynn Estrella.
Estrella said she'd been pushing to have leash laws enforced ever since her child was chased by an unleashed dog last year.
"Children and dogs are unpredictable," she said.
She added that Glen Park did not have a "designated" dog run. "We have compromised just by letting dogs be in the park." Estrella also complained about pet owners failing to pick up their dogs' feces and allowing their animals to pollute Islais Creek.
Glenridge's Rosen agreed that there had been several incidents where off-leash dogs had knocked over children from his nursery school. Most of the incidents occurred on Alms Road, he said, when parents were walking their kids to or from school. Rosen noted, however, that most dog owners were careful about keeping their pets away from the actual school site.
Police to Send in Motor Bikes?
Meanwhile, Captain Rick Bruce, the newly appointed captain at Ingleside Station, tried to clarify how police would respond to complaints about dogs.
Bruce said the police would step up enforcement of the leash law at the park. But they'd begin by posting larger and "better articulated" signs, so that dog owners would be adequately forewarned.
He noted that while he might occasionally send officers on motorized bikes, he wouldn't assign officers to look for dogs on a regular basis. "I have no intention of wasting police resources in Glen Park. There are more violent parks in the city," he said.
Bruce acknowleded that "simmering disputes" over park use, as well as complaints from a very few people, were behind the tougher measures. But he quickly added, "We don't look at any underlying motivations for complaints. The only thing that is relevant is that we have people who are demanding that we enforce the law."
And what are the odds of resolving this latest conflict in Glen Park?
From the looks of an incident last month, they're pretty slim. Police posted one of Captain Bruce's "better articulated" signs, outlining the current leash and pooper-scooper laws and the fines for not obeying them.
Almost overnight, the sign was graffitied with the words "Courtesy of Lynn Estrella [and one other name]." The sign was removed the next day.