Lucky Them (Where Del Mar Went Wrong)

Today’s Del Mar Times brings us the current status of the new community public park that will be built in Pacific Highlands Ranch (PHR) – adjacent the new DMUSD elementary school.

Pardee Homes and the City of San Diego allocated $8 million for the six acre park. Sweet.

PHR is enthralled – with debates raging on the amenities and facilities that will best compliment other PHR parks and best serve overall resident needs.

PHR Recreation Group secretary Marilee Pacelli noted “our communities are filled with kids who play sports,” comments echoed by others who argued for field space for kids to play sports like soccer, football and lacrosse, potentially even fields for adult sports. Picnic space, shade coverings, walking paths, restrooms, and even tennis courts were up for discussion.

The biggest challenge seemed to be the magnitude of the opportunity itself:

“The challenge ahead will be making room to fit all of the community’s desired amenities. When designing the park, Dubey said they should think about it in consideration of all of the other parks in the area, not duplicating uses but adding complementary features, ‘items that are missing in other parks so Pacific Highlands Ranch has a really strong park system,’ she said.”

I found myself reminiscing about how Del Mar got to where we are – with zero public recreational parks in the parts of Greater Del Mar that are under City of San Diego control (west of I-5) and only the meager Shores Park in the City of Del Mar proper, plus Powerhouse Park (which is generally too densely packed with prone bodies to be practical for physical activities).

Even in the massive new San Diego Parks Master Plan – we’re getting zilch extra in Greater Del Mar. According to the current 1995 Torrey Pines Community Plan that is supposed to be the charter that protects our community interest, we remain “short 15.3 acres of usable park property” – and that has been the status quo for the duration of that plan.

Did you ever wonder how we got shafted? Where did it actually go wrong for Del Mar?

It’s not an easy history to uncover, I can vouch for that. Documents have gone missing, others are hard to find. But if you talk to enough longtime residents – people who’ve lived in our ‘hoods for 50 years – you can eventually stitch it together in a consistent way.

The usual state of affairs is that when neighborhoods get built, public parks naturally tag along. It’s a standard developer obligation, negotiated with the City. If that comes as a surprise to you, it also explains why Pardee is on the hook for funding much of the new PHR park – that’s usual.

A different kind of deal was negotiated between Pardee and the City of San Diego back when the founding developments of Greater Del Mar were being designed and built. While I don’t have inside information on how the deal went down, Pardee and other developers escaped the normal obligation to provide community and recreational public parks. While public records show Pardee indeed dedicated 13.78 acres to the City of San Diego, the 1975 Torrey Pines Community Plan classified that land as unsuitable for a public neighborhood recreational park, due to its “inaccessibility and rugged terrain.” They suggested donating it to the State and seeking other recreational park areas for our community. Those other recreational areas never happened.

Why not? That’s the 64 million dollar question. Heights’ old timers tell us it was the public accessibility of the recreational fields at the three DMUSD elementary schools that made this unusual situation tolerable to the City of San Diego and to residents themselves – convincing them back then that the openly accessible school grounds of the local schools at the Shores (1921), the Heights (opened in 1965), and the Hills (opened in 1974) would make life A-OK for them and their kids. Community monies were raised for our baseball fields in the early 70s and it all seemed solid.

Until it didn’t.

The first domino fell in 2005, when DMUSD closed the Del Mar Shores School and tried to sell the property to the highest commercial bidder. Community outrage stopped that one, and the City of Del Mar ended up purchasing the site after the largest public fundraising effort in Del Mar history. More than one DMUSD board member lost reelection from that exercise.

The second domino is falling now, with the recent abolition of 2.1 acres of recreational playspace in the new design of the Heights elementary, with our baseball fields shipped somewhere east. No harm to Del Mar, we are told: it’s school property, the public has no say. Or as one Heights’ teacher was quoted in the Del Mar Times: “The field does not need saving. What it needs is to be respected as a piece of private school property.”

Time will tell whether the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board finds us other opportunities to recapture what we (apparently) never had with DMUSD.

Irony: In 2016, the City of San Diego announced 45 new legally-binding joint-use school-public park sites with San Diego Unified School District over the next decade as part of a “City and Schools Working Together Initiative.” At the same time, our 1995 Torrey Pines Community Plan for Del Mar describes a dire need for such agreements with DMUSD and not one has been negotiated in the 25 years of that Plan. Instead, we just lost 25% of all recreational field space available to us in Greater Del Mar – and the gates of the Heights are already locked.

I hate to say our community got hoodwinked on all this. Maybe it was only incompetence, or maybe it was just too much trust that our institutions would do us right.

Either way, lucky PHR.

John Gartman

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