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Corbett Heights Residents Spruce Up Petite Parks

by Matthew S. Bajko

Horticulturist Garrett Robertson, left, and Gary Weiss show off changes to Corbett Slope. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Horticulturist Garrett Robertson, left, and Gary Weiss show off changes to Corbett Slope. Photo: Kelly Sullivan  

At a bend in the roadway near where Corbett Avenue connects with Mars Street is a new mini-park residents of Corbett Heights have waited years to be constructed. Over the summer city workers carved out a small seating area at the top of the hillside-clinging parcel, known as Corbett Slope, and installed a new sidewalk fronting the site.

The community space features several raised garden boxes that are accessible to people in wheelchairs and will be tended to by volunteers. The planters were fashioned out of boards made from old-growth Redwood trees.

Through the tree canopy atop the 18,000 square foot green space are views of Eureka Valley, Kite Hill Open Space, and the bay off in the distance. The second phase of the project will see the addition of a new ADA-compliant walkway that zigzags down the steep parcel to Market Street below, near where it intersects with 18th Street.

Surveying the progress on the petite park one recent weekday morning, Corbett Heights Neighbors President Gary Weiss marveled that the project he has worked on for seven years had advanced this far.

"It is crazy. This is something I thought would never happen," said Weiss, a gay man who has lived near the site since 1988.

In the 1980s the land at 331-341 Corbett Avenue was an informal open space cared for by nearby residents. But as detailed on a webpage the neighborhood association created for the park, the city closed it off with chain-link fencing three decades ago after a woman who had tripped while walking in the area won a lawsuit she filed against the city.

In 2004 the land, deemed surplus property under the auspices of San Francisco Public Works, was transferred to the Mayor's Office of Housing with the intent to build affordable housing at the site. But that plan was found to be unworkable on the steep slope, so city officials looked at selling the land to a developer to build four private homes on it. The proceeds would be funneled toward affordable housing projects elsewhere.

With Corbett Heights residents already upset at the building of "monster homes" in their neighborhood, they protested the planned sale and petitioned to have the hillside be designated as protected green space.

Gay former supervisor Scott Wiener, now a state senator, sided with the neighbors and championed saving the parcel from development during his time at City Hall. He secured $700,000 in city funding to convert the hillside into usable space for walkers, joggers, and neighborhood gardeners.

"I just wanted a stairway going down to Market Street," recalled Weiss, who is in the process of selling his Castro floral shop Ixia on Market Street. "Scott really went to town to get the budgeting for the stairway and mini-park."

The fight over the land became a talking point in Wiener's Senate race last year against Supervisor Jane Kim, who harangued him for prioritizing the protection of the open space over building affordable housing. Wiener told the Bay Area Reporter the land should be protected since it had been a de facto public park for years and that the city should not sell off its open space for development projects.

He has been "really pleased" with the progress to date at the site.

"It is a lot of work, but this community has really poured themselves into it and they are doing a great job," Wiener said last week. "The reality is this piece of land was always a city park and it got shut down a few decades ago when someone got injured there. The neighbors have been working for years and years to bring it back as a park. No way was I going to allow the city to sell off park land."

As they fought to save the green space, the neighborhood association held cleanup days at the site to clear out invasive plants and replace them with California natives better suited to survive in the city's temperate climate. It has improved the biodiversity at the site, where native species like Big Leaf Maple and coast live oak trees are helping to attract a variety of insects and birds.

"We cleared out thousands of pounds of invasive waste," said Garrett Robertson, a horticulturist who moved into an apartment near Corbett Slope roughly five years ago.

His partner, Jacob Shogren, is also a horticulturalist who works at UC Berkeley and studies Sudden Oak Death. The couple became involved with the neighborhood association after seeing a sign for volunteers to help weed Corbett Slope. Shogren has since propagated starter plants of various native species for the mini park.

Residents have planted upward of 100 plants so far, including California holly, Manzanita, and coast silk tassel. Nearby the new garden planters will be planted a trio of Redwood trees to replace several almond trees that were removed.

"I am excited for it to be an open public space," said Robertson, recently appointed chair of the neighborhood group's garden committee, which tends to nine mini-parks that dot the hillsides of Corbett Heights. "There aren't any large open spaces in the neighborhood. It will be a great place to picnic."

The total cost for the Corbett Slope Community Garden is estimated at $145,000 by Public Works and was scheduled to be complete this week. The next step will be to stabilize the hillside and sidewalk, which will require the installation of 20-foot-deep pilings and the use of an outside contractor that has the required equipment.

The department does not yet know how much that part of the project will cost or when it will begin, but expects the work should take about two weeks. The final step will be building the Corbett Slope Stairway, estimated to cost $695,000.

"After sidewalk stabilization is complete, Public Works will initiate a community outreach process to reconfirm neighborhood interest and support for this stairway connection," Rachel Gordon, the department's spokeswoman, told the B.A.R. in an emailed reply.

A Pathway of Parks

The Corbett Slope property is just up the street from the newest mini-park in the neighborhood, at the corner where Corbett intersects with Mars Street. Dubbed the Mars Steps, the triangular space is home to Deodar cedar and Redwood trees planted by a former resident some four decades ago.

A new concrete stairway connects the sidewalk on Mars with the sidewalk on Corbett, which previously had come to a dead-end at the site. It was completed in August and paid for by the owner of the adjacent home at 75 Mars as part of the approval process for remodeling their property.

"This was called Mars Park and now is the ninth mini-park in the area," said Weiss.

At the other end of Mars, where it intersects with 17th Street, is another of the neighborhood pocket parks. There, along the western side of the street, is a skinny scalene triangle of open space that residents of Mars have elected to maintain and call Sweetgum Corner.

A short walk from the Mars Steps, north up Corbett then right onto Danvers Street, is another of the petite park spaces called Merritt Park. Danvers, Merritt, and Market streets border the triangular parcel.

Nearby residents have adopted the green space and been cleaning it up and weeding it in recent months. From the park, pedestrians can cross Market Street, access a set of stairs leading down to 18th Street, and walk from there to the heart of the city's gay Castro district.

Or, if they head back up Danvers, turn right onto Corbett, and walk roughly 500 feet, they will reach the Corbin Stairs, a landscaped concrete pathway that leads up the hillside to 17th Street. A seating area fronting Corbett was built into the foundation wall on the right side of the concrete steps.

Walk another 500 feet down Corbett to reach the Corbett/Ord Triangle Park bordered by Corbett, Ord, and 17th streets. A dirt path along the Ord Street side features two benches looking onto the planted area of the park. A nearby resident this summer weeded the area, installed a meandering, dry river rock bed, and planted numerous plants among the existing flora.

At the trunk of the Redwood tree near the tip of the park, facing 17th Street, is a memorial marker. It explains that the tree was dedicated to Harvey Milk and planted by David Geisinger on June 1, 1980 nearly 19 months after the assassination of the city's first gay supervisor.

From there, three blocks northeast on 17th Street is Pink Triangle Park and Memorial, dedicated in 2003 to honor the estimated 15,000 gay men the Nazis interned in concentration camps on charges of homosexuality during Word War II. A $250,000 renovation and refurbishment of the 3,000 square foot park is underway.

It is just outside the official boundary for Corbett Heights and not one of the nine mini parks the neighborhood group helps to maintain. Two of the open space sites it does tend to are Saturn Street Steps Park, on Ord Street one block north from the Corbett/Ord Triangle Park, and the Vulcan Street Stairs farther up Ord that connect with Levant Street.

The last mini-park site tended to by members of Corbett Heights Neighbors is near Corbett Slope. Known as Al's Park, between 367 and 377 Corbett, the site's plants and "artifacts" situated there over the years were removed over the summer due to the construction of a new development below it. Some of the material was saved and should be incorporated into the pocket park that will be rebuilt on the land.

"It's a little startling to see the area so denuded, but in the very near future, we'll be forming a garden committee specifically for the site," wrote Weiss in a September email to members of the neighborhood association. "It will eventually look spectacular."

In several years, urban hikers will be able to walk the length of Corbett Avenue, enjoying the open spaces that dot the roadway as it winds up the hillside, turn left at the intersection with Clayton Street, and turn left again at Market Street to walk a few hundred feet to connect with the Corbett Slope Stairway.

"These spaces are a communal yard," Robertson said of his neighborhood's pint-sized parks and landscaped stairways. "They provide places for people to come together."

To learn more about the Corbett Slope site, visit


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