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Most of the picnic tables scattered throughout Colina Del Sol Park in City Heights’ Colina Park neighborhood are painted deep green. Maintenance crews slather the paint on generously — layer after layer of it — to make graffiti disappear.

But three tables are bare down to the concrete, awaiting a makeover. A few steps away, in the park’s recreation center, the city is storing 200 painted tiles that are supposed to adorn the tables. They’ve been sitting there for a year.

A local nonprofit thought covering the tables in tiles painted by children from surrounding neighborhoods would give the park some flare and discourage graffiti, a problem so rampant that taggers have carved into the other tables’ green paint — it’s gotten that thick.

The park department was on board, even firing up the tiles to give them a finished glaze.

But the department had lost its only cement finisher to budget cuts. So a year ago, park staff stored the tiles and filed a work order with another city department in charge of repairing facilities.

The project was a low priority on that department’s list, which includes any request for broken facilities citywide. It languished there for a year, slowly moving its way up the queue. It took prodding from voiceofsandiego.org to push it up the list: The city now promises to finish the project soon.

But the nonprofit’s long-running attempt to enhance the park with decorative tiles highlights one more way budget cuts have affected city parks, which have cut hours, caused pool closures and reduced maintenance. The cuts have hamstrung even simple volunteer efforts.

The tile project started, as community improvement efforts often do in City Heights, with a focus group.

Sakara Tear grew up in the neighborhood and now works with a local nonprofit, the City Heights Community Development Corp., to improve it. She wanted to know why residents were reluctant to let their children play in the rolling 33-acre park that includes a 13-acre golf course, tennis and basketball courts and grassy fields plopped among the neighborhood’s densely populated apartment complexes.

The focus group’s responses didn’t surprise her. Residents said the park attracted troublemakers and taggers. The surrounding neighborhood suffers from high crime: two murders in the last year and more than 100 violent assaults. On an August night in 2007, 14-year-old Javier Quiroz was shot and killed near the park’s entrance. All that left an impression on residents. And even if the park itself was a safe oasis, its rolling hills still made it easy for a child to disappear from a parent’s watchful gaze.

“It’s more the stigma,” Tear said. “When I was growing up here I heard the same things. It’s rooted so deep in the park that it’s going to take a lot of work to overcome it.”

Since 2009, she has been working with the nonprofit to coordinate an improvement program in the neighborhood. A resident committee that helps her choose priorities thought the park should be a main one.

Tear remembers growing up in the neighborhood, how every April hundreds of its Cambodian residents used to stream into the park to celebrate their New Year. Local groups organized basketball tournaments and her grandmother took classes at the now-gone senior center.

But much of that bustle has subsided. Advocates and community workers say they want to “reactivate” the park, a term that suggests its potential to be a vibrant hub of community life is still there, just dormant, waiting for a little jolt.

That was the idea behind the tile project. Maybe, Tear thought, by getting children to paint the tiles and the park department to install them, vandals would be less likely to deface the tables. The residents who painted them would feel a sense of investment in the park. And other residents, noticing the burst of color, might want to check them out, eat lunch on the tables, let their children play, realize it’s a safe place. It was a small step, but a start. Over several months children from across City Heights painted the tiles at community events.

A year ago, the recreation center’s staff submitted a work order after a volunteer who had originally agreed to install the tiles backed out. The work had to be done by the city’s facilities crew so the tiles would stick to the tables and so sharp edges could be smoothed out.

But the city faces a $46.5 million budget hole this year, and the tiles are considered a beautification project. In these tighten-your-belt times, creating beauty is not the city’s priority. It is struggling just to keep up with day-to-day maintenance.

“We are at the lowest level of staffing that we have been in a significant period of time,” Scott Reese, the city’s assistant park department director, said Monday. “We do prioritize our work, and beautification work would be secondary to basic maintenance work overall.”

He said projects like the tiled tables foster a sense of ownership, yes, but don’t necessarily generate long-term traffic into the park, which should be the goal of most park programs.

Not only that, he said, but the tiles will require special maintenance once installed. The city can’t very well paint over them if they’re sprayed by graffiti, and the department needs to make sure someone is willing to take care of them.

“We’re just not set up to manage murals or tiles long-term,” Reese said.

But the tile project finally appears to be making progress.

On Tuesday, Reese said the park department has rehired a cement finisher and would rescue the request from the General Services Department’s slow-moving queue and install the tiles itself. He said his department would send an inspector out to assess the picnic tables and get work underway.

Tear and her partners say they’re willing to talk about partnering with the city to maintain them in the future. In the face of future budget cuts, including possibly to recreation center hours and staff, they want to make sure that Colina Del Sol Park remains a place where children can play in safety and where families feel comfortable.

They know the city is strapped, and they want to help.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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