San Diego’s recent push to boost its poorest, most parks-deficient neighborhoods will accelerate this summer when the city designates much of southeastern San Diego as Chollas Creek Regional Park.
The area won’t be a typical rectangular-shaped regional park like Balboa Park or Mission Bay, and it won’t be a linear regional park like those being created along the San Diego River and Otay River.
Instead the Chollas Creek Regional Park will be a loose collection of small parks, open space canyons, trails and other recreational amenities spread throughout a roughly 20-square-mile area where the creek and its many tributaries run.
It will include City Heights, Encanto and many surrounding neighborhoods of southeastern and mid-city San Diego. The southern edge of the park will be the mouth of Chollas Creek where it enters the bay near Naval Base San Diego.
Mayor Todd Gloria earlier this month announced his intention to designate Chollas Creek a regional park as part of a new master plan for city parks that also will increase parks funding for low-income areas.
The designation is expected to boost the status and reputation of the Chollas Creek area and make it eligible for more funding for recreational amenities. It also will spur creation of a master plan focused on enhancing the long-neglected creek in a coordinated way.
“The master plan will identify where we should be focusing efforts to create park activities and amenities, how we should address preservation and care for the natural resources of the creek, and how we should enhance public access to the area,” said Andy Field, the city’s parks director. “It will be a road map to help us move forward.”
The master plan also will set the exact boundaries of the park, which generally will be the part of the Chollas Creek watershed that is within city limits.
The watershed extends a bit eastward into Lemon Grove and La Mesa. City officials hope to eventually form partnerships with those cities to expand the park and jointly fund and oversee it.
Designating Chollas Creek a regional park is part of Gloria and the City Council’s efforts to focus on social equity and reversing decades of neglect many communities south of Interstate 8 have suffered.
While Chollas Creek won’t officially become a regional park until the council formally adopts the new parks master plan, nearly every member of the nine-member council has expressed support for making it a regional park.
Community leaders and a nonprofit called Groundworks San Diego also have advocated for this regional park designation for many years, but former Mayor Kevin Faulconer declined to make such a move.
Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, who represents some of the neighborhoods to be included in the park, noted that Chollas Creek is the city’s only major waterway not to be designated a regional park.
“It’s a very telling pattern we have in this city,” she said. “Some of us have been left behind through no fault of our own.”
Councilmember Sean Elo-Rivera, who also represents some of the affected neighborhoods, said this is a chance to fix years of injustice.
Studies have shown that neighborhoods south of I-8 typically have much less park space per capita. And because the park space in those areas has often been neglected by the city, it is sometimes ripe for dumping and homeless camps.
“What was allowed to happen in this area is the result of environmental racism and the resulting lack of political power that comes when a community is systemically disinvested in,” Elo-Rivera said last week.
Cleaning open areas up, creating new parks and trails in many locations and replacing concrete channels with more natural, earthen creek banks will change the ambience of the area and make residents more invested in their communities, he said.
“There already is a lot of pride in these communities, but when residents see the city investing in their community that will absolutely increase pride,” he said. “Residents recognize when something is happening in their backyard that would be totally unacceptable anywhere else in the city. They want more to be proud of.”
City officials say they already started that process last year, before Gloria was elected in November and long before the new mayor announced the regional park designation.
Carey Goldstein, who became the first city park ranger assigned to Chollas Creek last fall, said his crews have focused on cleaning up areas with illegal dumping and homelessness and adding more frequent patrols in the existing community parks within the footprint of the new regional park.
That includes the area near the Imperial Marketplace commercial project.
“There are nice trails there, and it’s a nice canyon that should be used more by the community, but it unfortunately doesn’t look that great,” Goldstein said. “We’re starting to make a difference there.”
Other parks within the footprint of the new regional park include Southcrest Trails Park, Southcrest Community Park, Willie Henderson Sports Complex, Chollas Lake and several others.
“The idea is to unify all these parks, along with Chollas Lake, which is one of the most well-known,” said Field, the parks director.
Other tentative plans include de-channelizing the creek on Federal Boulevard at Home Avenue near state Route 94. De-channelizing is when a concrete flood channel containing the creek is replaced by earthen banks.
The plans also include building a trail that would go from Sunshine Bernardini athletic area to New Roots Farm and Chollas Triangle.
Many of those projects started with Groundworks, a nonprofit focused on boosting the area, and with longtime local planning expert Vicki Estrada.
“The creek was just something that people turned their backs on,” Estrada said last week, “It was a place to throw mattresses and dump things.”
She contends the new regional park designation will help shift that perspective.
The designation also will boost city funding available for projects along Chollas Creek. Regional parks in the city are eligible for a special funding stream that comes from the city’s leases in Mission Bay to resort hotels and SeaWorld.
A new climate equity fund launched by Gloria and the council also will funnel money to areas like Chollas Creek, where there is a scarcity of parks and recreational amenities that help neighborhoods cope with climate change.
The master plan, which could take a few years to finalize, will also put the new regional park in stronger position to lobby Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments to add trails and parks in the area on land not needed for roads or other uses.
“Having these kinds of plans can really help with that intergovernmental relationship,” said Field, the city parks director. “It provides guidance that has been through a robust public process.”
Hasan Ikhrata, SANDAG’s chief executive, met recently with community leaders to discuss their vision for the Chollas Creek area.
“I look forward to seeing the Chollas Creek Community Group’s vision become a reality,” Hasan said by email last week.
Leslie Reynolds, leader of Groundworks, said the future of the area appears brighter than ever with the city’s new focus on equity, a Democrat serving as mayor and an 8-1 Democratic majority on the City Council.
Field said the new momentum in Chollas Creek will continue if residents, merchants and community leaders embrace the creek as an amenity to be celebrated.
“It’s an exciting time right now for communities along the Chollas Creek,” he said.