A word about parks: Golden Hill and Conditions Assessments

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November 2, 2014 by Omar Passons


This is a clip from the TV Show Parks & Recreation, which I find quite hilarious.  I thought I’d include is as a light-hearted clip to start the post.  But of course our issues in getting San Diego’s park system to work well for everyone are serious.  Recently, in an effort to improve some of my own deferred maintenance, I started playing basketball with some friends at Golden Hill’s outdoor courts next to Balboa Golf Course.  Here’s how the court looked on October 18, 2014.

Golden Hill outdoor court on October 18, 2014

Golden Hill outdoor court on October 18, 2014

It’s not like playing on dirt, but not exactly what you’d call smooth, either.  In fact, if you’ve played this court, you already know either someone didn’t bother to bring a level when they built the court or the side of the court is sliding down the golf course. Here’s an aerial view of the immediate area.

Aerial photo courtesy of my iPad - technology is really something, isn't it.

Aerial photo courtesy of my iPad – technology is really something, isn’t it.

What got me about the court is I felt like I was just out here in the last year or so and it was pristine.  Wait, I think I have something on this.  Yes, here’s the photo I took on August 19, 2012, of the same court. So I was wrong about the timing.  Which is an important reminder because sometimes we in the community feel like something “just happened” when it was really quite a bit longer.  Still, the over arching point that struck me remains, so I’ll move on to that.

The same court, two years earlier on August 19, 2012

The same court, two years earlier on August 19, 2012 – all smooth and pretty

Perfection, right?  Well, as luck would have it, I happened to have been using that court a little more regularly back then and was able to get a shot of the same court one week earlier – right before it was resurfaced.  Here’s that photo

The first shot of the court I took back in 2012, a week before the one above

The first shot of the court I took back in 2012, a week before the one above – don’t mind my finger, I was tired

Several things struck me as I thought about how the court could go from raggedy to smooth to raggedy so quickly:

  • How long did the City think the last resurfacing was supposed to last? Two years doesn’t seem like much.
  • Did the contractor poorly perform the resurfacing?
  • If this is a flaw in the design of the court, can we afford to fix that flaw (and level the court out while we’re at it)?
  • Would it even be the right use of our limited money if not that many people actually use the court?
  • Is this a case of neglecting a less well-off community by haphazardly building a play area in a place that has less of a political or civic voice as compared to more savvy communities?

I think I was able to answer some of these from a meeting with Andy Field in the Parks and Rec Department (more below) and it looks like other answers may be on the way.

I tweeted a photo out to my Councilmember to make sure he was aware and ask if we needed to evaluate the contractor who did the resurfacing.

Engagement in action - good to have a responsive Councilmember.

Engagement in action – good to have a responsive Councilmember.

I defend public agencies – specifically in public construction – for a living at Stutz Artiano, one of our city’s biggest home-grown law firms.  So while I know it’s true that subsidence (a fancy word for the ground moving below the surface) is a problem, I also know that there are engineering solutions to protect against this.  That said, these solutions are MUCH more expensive than a simple resurfacing and so our Parks and Rec Department and City staff have more issues to weigh than just what’s the best solution for this particular problem.   I started this site to make sense of our city’s infrastructure (i.e. publicly owned buildings, land, sewers, etc.).  Since I had a meeting planned already to ask a city official about how we were doing with assessing the condition of our parks I figured I’d just tack this question onto that meeting.

Introducing Mr. Field – the Golden Hill situation

Last week, I sat down with the Assistant Park & Recreation Director. His name is Andy Field.  Andy is an extremely nice, extremely well-versed guy who knows more about managing a system of parks than I think most of us imagine even exists.  We’d first met when he was providing advice and input about a volunteer project to improve my neighborhood, and then connected again because he used to help communities understand the Maintenance Assessment District process.  That’s a topic for another day, but those districts, called MADs, provide alternative streams for funding in certain areas. Here’s a link to the North Park MAD.   Although I’d planned to talk to Andy about the status of conditions assessments generally for the whole park system, we spent most of the time talking about the Golden Hill Recreation Center outdoor court.

As a reminder, I wanted to know how the basketball court went from bad to good to bad again in only two years.  After our meeting, he followed up with this note:

“The work was conducted by Court Concepts for $11,500; Court Concepts overlaid an acrylic surface, but it did not address underlying issues with the courts. I am not sure whether the attached contract language was adopted; usually the City sets the terms, not the vendor. Having said that, the warranty listed on their quote was for one year, which implies that we’re beyond the period of time in which we could ask the vendor to come back to repair the work (the work was done in 2012, and it’s been two years since then). We believe the foundation of the courts needs to be reconstructed, and we’re seeking a cost estimate for that currently.”

I had a nice meeting with Mr. Field. Here’s a copy of the contract under which the court was resurfaced

Court Concepts – the contract (multiple court locations across the city)

My recollection of the conversation is that the city’s expected useful life on average for a basketball court is 7 to 10 years.  If I am remembering this right, the fact that this one only lasted two years ought to be a cause for concern.  Here’s why you and your elected official should care:

  1. Your Councilmember/Mayor can’t make an informed vote or decision on a budget item if they think the contract work will be okay for 7-10 years but it’s only good for 2. The presumed value of the work changes and she or he might vote differently with more accurate knowledge.
  2. As a citizen, you can’t tell how much money we really need for parks, so you might underestimate whether our taxes really can cover our needs. If you knew that we needed $200,000 instead of $11,500 to one of our city parks, you might make a different decision about ballot measures for increased taxes or fees.
  3. We can’t make informed decisions about whether we want to completely change the system of providing parks because we don’t know the true cost. We might decide that we want more regional parks like the one the County just opened or that we want less grass (we are in a drought, after all) or some other major shift.  But if we don’t fully understand the costs of the system, we might not be able to realize that a big change may be needed.

Back to Andy

Andy drew an elaborate map for me to better understand the way the Department works.  It makes a great deal of sense when explained, even though as a community member looking from the outside, it can seem confusing or even unnecessarily burdensome.

For example, it may seem like Parks & Rec. doesn’t know the condition of all its buildings and other assets in the city. That’s technically true, but not because of some vast government conspiracy or ineptitude.  The assets are managed and maintained by lots of different departments, so it isn’t just one person’s responsibility, which makes getting all the data more unwieldy than it might initially seem.

Parks include a range of physical attributes, ranging from recreation centers to asphalt parking lots to playground equipment to turf and sidewalks.  The skills to take care of these assets vary, so to get the right people for the job the Streets Department may handle the asphalt while the Facilities Department may take care of the recreation center building and the Parks Department may handle the turf.

You might think it would make more sense to have an asphalt expert, a building expert, and a turf expert  INSIDE the Parks and Rec Department. That may seem like a more efficient allocation of resources.  But the city owns hundreds of parks and thousands of buildings and miles of asphalt.  On top of that, these assets are for all kinds of different uses, not just for parks.  So the city has to choose between having small specialized crews in each department or a large specialized crew that can be deployed to any department that needs it.

I came out of the conversation with Andy still wondering a few questions about Golden Hill but also thinking more broadly about the future of the condition assessment decisions. Andy told me there were parks all over the city – in Clairemont and La Jolla among other places – that have these issues.  So it probably isn’t driven by socioeconomics of Golden Hill.  And he clarified that the issue with the level and the overall construction is more about the era in which the court was built rather than some particular recent failure by anyone. Very helpful, very straightforward responses.

As for our City, we’ll get a look at the condition of the first 30 (out of 350) park sites that have been evaluated in January or March next year. So that will be a good first step.  Though at that rate keep in mind it would take more than 10 years just to assess the system, and that’s not considering the cost of fixing anything – once we figure out what “fixing” things means.

The future – what can we do?

Like most aspects of managing and leading a large enterprise, I could get lost in this particular rabbit hole for hours.  But it’s a Sunday and there is more life to live, and I’m being given a delicious Xocoveza from a friend later today, which is among the most interesting recipes of craft beer (aside: San Diego Beer Week starts 11/7/14) I’ve had in quite some time. So instead I’ll just sum up a few things worth considering as we think about the future of our city’s park system.

First, should we be planning in a more robust way?  Here’s the Recreation Element of the City’s General Plan. That’s basically our guiding principle document for parks and recreation and it was modified in March of 2008, so not that long ago.  But I suppose we ought to ask whether we have a Master Plan for the whole park and recreation system.  And if we do have one, how old is it?  If we developed a new plan, we could ask how many parks or pools or recreation centers we think are appropriate for different parts of the city.  We could make a decision about what the minimum quality of these parks should be, what role they should play in the public health and environmental well-being of our city for the long-term, and then *gasp* have a meaningful conversation about what all this costs.  Some parts of our city included direct fees when the homes were constructed to cover building and maintaining parks.  But in general that doesn’t apply to the older parts of the city, so coming up with a smart, city-wide approach that balances these issues seems like a somewhat obvious, if under-appreciated first step.  Of course, I’m saying that knowing we also don’t have enough money to hire and retain our police force, to fix our storm drains properly, to repair or replace our decaying City Hall building. But I digress.

Second, are the standards that we currently have for parks (here) equally appropriate across the entire city?  If the City says we ought to have a minimum of 2.8 acres of park for every 1000 people, should that apply equally in a dense area with very little open land as a less populated part of the city with more land?  Might we be compromising other priorities too much in the urban areas with this standard?

Third, what should count as a neighborhood park in any given area? For example, I live about half way between the North Park Community Park and Bird Park.  Anyone who lives in this area knows that both parks have grass and amenities and both parks are used for play and cooking and concerts and the such.  Should Bird Park be included in the amount of park space that my neighbors and I have access to?  And since Bird Park is part of Balboa Park, if Bird Park IS included, should the rest of the Balboa Park count, too?  Or is it silly to consider the Plaza de Panama part of my available park space given that I can’t really walk there easily?

In the end, like most things, the problem is more complex than it first seems.  But fortunately one of the things about our city that seems to be more and more true is that the people with the information are increasingly willing to share it.  And this gives us all a chance to participate more fully, to really evaluate the issues and understand what’s going on, and to be a part of making our neighborhoods great places to live. Thanks for reading.

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