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SPUR Talk: Strategies for San Francisco’s Second Biggest Park

A hike designed to solicit input about improvements to McLaren Park. Photo: SF Rec and Parks

"How many of you have been to McLaren Park?" asked Dawn Kamalanathan of San Francisco Recreation and Parks, to kick off a discussion yesterday at SPUR's Urban Center in downtown San Francisco about the future of San Francisco's second-largest recreational facility.

Nearly everyone in the audience raised their hands. But, of course, that was just selection-bias--people who have an interest in coming to a talk about McLaren Park are likely also people who have visited it.

"It’s very unusual for me to be in a room where 95 percent of the people have been to McLaren Park," said Kamalanathan. In fact, she pointed out in the presentation, even most people who use facilities on one edge of the park or another, tend to be unaware of the park's great expanse. The normal response to the question is "where is McLaren park?” she said.

Jake Gilchrist and Dawn Kamalanathan at the SPUR event on McLaren Park. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Jake Gilchrist and Dawn Kamalanathan at the SPUR event on McLaren Park. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

McLaren Park is "313 acres of awesome," she added. In fact, this park, in the Southeast of San Francisco, is bordered by the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley, and Crocker-Amazon neighborhoods. But it's handicapped. It has an irregular shape, it's often joined to nearby neighborhoods behind steep hills, and it's far away from business corridors--all making it less accessible than Golden Gate. Jake Gilchrist, also with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks department, said local businesses don't feel like the park is even a draw, probably because it is several blocks from commercial corridors on Mission and Geneva. "There are people who don’t feel like the park is even an asset for their neighborhood."

The good news is thanks to 2012's Clean and Safe Neighborhood Park Bond, the city has $12 million for improvements to McLaren. The first step in figuring out how to spend that money, according to Gilchrist and Kamalanathan, was to hear from the neighborhoods and figure out a plan. That said, they have some guiding principles--among them is not to try and emulate Golden Gate.

"Golden Gate is more formal ... with sand dunes that were transformed into a gorgeous park. On the other end of the spectrum is McLaren, which is very casual, less about looking, and more about visiting--it’s San Francisco's natural habitat conserved," said Kamalanathan. "We want to maintain that contrast." She said the idea is to make the park more accessible, but also to make it feel as if visitors have escaped to a natural environment. "We are hearing across the environmental movement ... about a nature deficit disorder--kids and families are being separated from nature."

Rather than holding large community meetings and getting feedback--although they're doing some of that--Gilchrist and Kamalanathan's approach is to set up activities, introduce people to the park, and then get their reflections. Because of the park's great expanse and peoples' lack of knowledge of it "just having meetings and putting up fliers wasn’t going to work," said Kamalanathan. So they arrange events such as treasure hunts and nature walks with local schools and groups. From that, they built a mailing list of some 2,000 people.

McNab Lakein McLaren Park. Photo: SF Rec & Parks
McNab Lake in McLaren Park. Photo: SF Rec & Parks

They discovered that safety is a big issue keeping people out of the park. But it isn't that the park is dangerous in a criminal sense, explained the presenters. Because of poor signage and wayfinding, and a lack of visual cues, it's just too easy to get lost. Most people never even go into the park "...unless someone else introduces you, and then you can get lost--it’s not clear how to move through the park and have a predictable experience," explained Kamalanathan. The other problem is about getting the ball rolling: since people are deterred from wandering around by the lack of way finding, the result is the park is relatively empty. People get nervous in an empty park. "So when we talk about safety, it’s not just ... enforcement, it’s readability, to know how to enter and exit the park and how to read the park."

So what to do about it? The department wants to start with the well-utilized facilities near the edges, to use them as gateways to connecting trails deeper into the park. "We have these gateways, such as the tennis courts," said Gilchrist.

There's also the Louis Sutter Playground and the Herz Playground. By adding wayfinding and signage, and improving paths, they can use these familiar "neighborhood parks" (which are really just part of McLaren) to encourage people to explore more of the park and discover its connections. They might then add a family camp grounds, for example, further inside. Kamalanathan sees an opportunity to get more city dwellers started on camping and communing with nature. By starting them off close to home, "if something goes wrong at 3 a.m., so you go home, no problem," said Kamalanathan.

Key to making McLaren Park more vibrant and available is improved way finding so people can find things such as the bench on Philosophers Way. Photo: Rec & Parks.
Key to making McLaren Park more vibrant and available is improved way finding so people can find things such as the bench on Philosophers Way. Photo: Rec & Parks.

The SPUR audience acted as an ad-hoc outreach meeting. Many made it clear that they don't want the park to become commercialized. But the parks department made it clear they don't intend to let that happen. "We don’t need more artisanal pizza or coffee," said Kamalanathan.

So what's the timeline for all this? Some "low hanging fruit" is already completed or underway. Think of the new bike lanes opened earlier this year. As to the larger game plan, Kamalanathan said they're looking at having the final meetings in the fall. It will take another year for design, and then construction should near completion around Nov. 2019.

A SPUR Audience of McLaren Park fans. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

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