Fairmount Plaza sounds as if it’s located at an El Camino Real shopping mall in San Mateo County.
It hugs a hilltop — part of the Rancho San Miguel Mexican land grant bestowed to José de Jesús Noé in 1845 — and now acts as a natural area frontier separating San Francisco’s Fairmount Heights and Diamond Heights neighborhoods.
To get there from Glen Park one need only ascend the 90 Amatista Lane steps that rise near the corner of Miguel Street and Bemis Street.
On January 11 and then again on February 15 neighbors selected either this route or dropped down from Everson Street to the postage-size park, not to graze cattle as José Noé once had, but to plant 900 drought-tolerant shrubs and plants under the watchful eye of Recreation and Park’s Natural Resource Division.
Once a derelict thicket strewn with moribund eucalyptus and threatened by an eroding hillside, the miniscule space, a long-time destination for unleased dogs and the occasional homeless encampment, is now transformed by pathways, box steps and native plants that offer nectar sources and potential fruits, berries and nuts for wildlife. Strategically planned, it will act as habitat for perching and nesting resident and migratory birds, as ground cover for wildlife, and as stabilized ground to thwart further erosion.
John Kleman who lives on Bemis Street volunteered alongside Rec and Park personnel on January 11, then again on February 15. He was accompanied his daughter Sonia.
“It’s going to be great to walk through here, give it a chance and see its progress,” Kleman told the Glen Park News. “It’s been a collaboration between neighbors and Rec and Park and signals community building as well as park building.”
“This was a neglected space,” echoed Cherie Mayman, who has lived on Everson Street for 50 years and on January 11 turned her attention, along with Kleman, to placing gallon-sized coffee berry plants into the ground. “I can walk through here now and not be scared for fear of a branch falling.”
She took a moment and pointed out a tree.
“I used to have a fort in that tree.”
Near it dangled a jerry-rigged rope swing that Rec and Park would remove, as it posed public safety issues.
The Recreation and Park Department also removed approximately 20 trees, focusing on aged-out eucalyptus that also constituted a threat. With the gum trees gone, an expansive scenic overlook of Bernal Hill and downtown San Francisco is now daylighted.
Kleman and Mayman were two of 18 volunteers who assisted eight NRD gardeners supervised by Christopher Campbell, an RPD Chief Natural Resource Specialist.
The collaboration was a long time in coming.
“The Recreation and Park Department and the Friends of Fairmount Heights have been partnering for this wildlife enhancement and erosion control for 15 years,” Madison Sink, RPD Communication Associate for Policy & Public Affairs emailed the Glen Park News on January 22. “The project is supported by department operations staff and was reviewed by the neighborhood volunteer group that provided seven letters of support.”
“Fairmount neighbors, park users and Rec and Park’s Natural Resource Division have been working side-by-side to beautify and restore the area,” added Christopher Campbell. “Patrick Rafferty, a neighbor and our greatest advocate for the project, has been instrumental in encouraging and enlisting his nearby neighbors to volunteer.”
January 11 proved a mammoth endeavor, 600 native plants deposited in holes dug with augers and rotor hammers. Plants with names like yarrow, California sage, iris, lupine, monkey flower, hummingbird sage, California fuchsia, Point Reyes ceanothus, gooseberry, and red flowering currant now reside in earth as they once did when late 18th century indigenous Americans traveled across the same ground delivering cattle from Mission Dolores to the Presidio.
Volunteers placed each plant in a similar fashion over a three-hour period on two Saturday mornings. Each gallon container was teased open, then a plant removed, then placed in a pre-dug hole along with a handful of a polymer called water babies that provide hydration for plants as they take root. Then each plant was backfilled with soil and a downhill berm fashioned.
On February 15 Christopher Campbell stood next to first grader Sonia Kleman, who attends Glen Park Elementary School.
Sonia’s mother fingered a plant, one of 300 that would be planted that morning, while Sonia studied it.
Campbell asked if she knew what her mother held. Sonia nodded and said she liked it. Campbell told her it was an iris and it’d grow and boast pretty blue colors.
Earlier Campbell, who is a plein-air painter when he’s not wielding an auger and whose landscapes most recently hung in a Valencia Street gallery, emailed the Glen Park News.
“Projects like this build a profound sense of ownership. Neighbors will bring their friends and families here and point to every native plant or accessible trail that they helped build and can enjoy for years to come.”
“The project was primarily funded through an in-kind donation from Environmental Diffusion, Inc,” emailed Madison Sink, “The value of the donation is approximately $99,500, which included contracting with the Public Utilities Commission to provide a new water connection and installing a drip irrigation system in the upper plaza part of the park and hose connections to serve other areas of the park as needed.”
Rec and Park helped seed the project as well, augmenting the private donation with funds to secure additional plants, soil and other materials.
In addition, the donation formalized a crooked social trail, now built to outdoor accessibility guidelines and ending in a panoramic overlook.
“RPD partnered with others as well,” Madison Sink told the Glen Park News about the infrastructure, which took longer to put in place than two Saturday mornings. “We contracted with Davey Tree for the tree work, which included pruning. We retained Barth Campbell Grading for trail work, construction of both the box steps and the lookout, and with San Francisco Landscape for landscape and irrigation.”
When all is said and done, though, along with scheduled neighbor work parties, it falls upon Recreation and Park’s NRD to maintain the natural area from here on out.
On January 11, Natural Resource Manager Lisa Wayne, who has guided the Natural Resource Division since 1997, turned up to lend a green thumb. Accompanying her was her son, Isaac. Each worked through the morning, placing plants on the downward slope facing Miguel Street where it intersects with Fairmount Street. Afterward they joined others at a RPD truck and sipped water and downed scones donated by Arizmendi Bakery on Valencia Street.
On January 31, Wayne reached out to the Glen Park News.
“We are grateful to the donor and the community for transforming this open space into an attractive wildlife habitat and welcoming space for neighbors,” Wayne, a recipient of a 2014 SPUR Good Government Award, emailed. “Whenever we can maximize parkland for people and ecological communities I consider it a win-win.”
Go take a hike and see for yourself. Fairmount Plaza is a winner.