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Kathleen Ferrier and Sakara Tear walked up to the highest point of Colina Del Sol Park in City Heights. From there, they could look out over the vast park’s rolling landscape in every direction. It was easy to see why many community advocates say the park is a hidden gem — but also underused.

The park is invisible from University Avenue to the south. It’s behind an aging strip mall. To the west, a city golf course blocks access from 52nd Street. To the north, it’s hidden behind the tennis courts along Orange Avenue. And to the east, a tall embankment and a line of trees make it easy to drive down 54th Street without realizing you’re passing 20 acres of public green space.

Colina Del Sol Park is walled in.

“That’s one of the problems,” Ferrier said. “The park already fails because you can’t see it.”

Ferrier and Tear have been trying to make the park a more inviting place — to reclaim it, in a sense. Colina Del Sol Park has a reputation as unsafe, a reputation that’s repelled residents of the surrounding neighborhood of Colina Park, once a suburb for well-to-do families but today commonly called Little Mogadishu for its large population of Somali refugees.

With help from residents and their own nonprofits, Ferrier and Tear have been trying to figure out how simple design changes could help the park shed its bad rap and encourage more people to visit. It’s boggling to them that in a neighborhood where single-family homes have given way to dense low-rent multi-story apartment complexes over the decades, such a large park could have trouble attracting visitors.

A big part of the problem, they believe, is visibility. Not only from the street, but from within the park itself. To get to the high point where they were standing, the women walked up a meandering concrete walkway. But the way the sidewalk curled behind the hill made it impossible to see what was around the curve ahead.

Colina Park’s rolling topography creates a lot of places like that, where it’s hard to see what’s in store just beyond a curve, on the other side of a wall, or between the trees.

Losing sight of children can be an unsettling experience for parents. And crime is a problem in the neighborhood. So anything about the park that makes people feel their children are in danger is likely to keep them away, Tear said. And if people stay away, that invites troublemakers to take over. Graffiti punctuates nearly every surface in Colina Del Sol Park, including the screens that cover the tennis court fences. Graffiti, to many residents, means gangs.

“All this gives the impression that it’s very dangerous,” Mike Stepner, a member of San Diego’s Park and Recreation Board and a former city architect, said in an interview. “Some of the facilities have been designed in a way that discourages people from using them.”

The impact of these designs became clear to Stepner a couple of years ago, when he was involved in conversations led by Tear’s nonprofit, the City Heights Community Development Corp. It asked residents how the neighborhood could be improved.

“One of the things that kept coming up was, ‘We want a park,’” Stepner remembered. “We asked what about Colina Park? It was right there. They said it’s too dangerous. They said they wanted a park where they can send their kids.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Stepner said. There isn’t much available land. “But reclaiming the park might.”

The advocates are trying to encourage the city’s park department to make simple changes to make the park more inviting. They want to apply some basic design principles that can help deter crime and make the park feel safer.

The park’s topography makes that tough. There’s not much to be done about the hills, and no one’s advocating taking away truckloads of dirt to flatten the park (“colina” means hill in Spanish). But simple things, Ferrier said, can go a long way.

Like lowering the hulking concrete wall that surrounds the ball field’s bleachers and replacing it with see-through railing. That could ease people’s nerves and encourage more people to jog the pathway that loops around the ball fields.

Like installing benches along the walkways that would encourage people to sit down and spend more time in the park.

Like turning the abandoned and deteriorated bocce ball courts into a community garden. There’s already a chain link fence around them.

The concrete walkway that loops around the sports fields was never intended to be a running track, but that’s how people use it. So why not install a few distance markers along the way? That would tell visitors it’s OK to run there. Ferrier went out and recorded the distance with a measuring wheel. It’s about a quarter-mile.

Colina Del Sol Park is a half century old. It was built before architects gave much thought to how a landscape’s design could make people feel safer, said Scott Reese, the city’s assistant park director. Coupled with crime in the neighborhood — two murders and more than 100 violent assaults last year — that’s a recipe for park-use jitters.

But altering the park’s infrastructure can become a slippery slope if a more comprehensive vision for the park isn’t in place, Reese said. “Everything’s there for a reason and we need to understand what’s there.

“It’s very difficult to change the design unless you’re going to renovate the park significantly. At some point you say: Is it wise to spend money for short-term capital improvements when what we really need is a bigger deal to fix everything?”

The city, facing a $56.7 million budget deficit, isn’t in much of a position to do that. But Ferrier’s nonprofit, Walk San Diego, recently won a $5,000 grant from the American Society of Landscape Architects, which Tear’s group will use to hire a designer to draw up proposed changes.

The groups are hoping to use that plan to attract more private funding for the improvements. But they’ll also need the park department’s cooperation, which could be a challenge. Trying to install decorative tiles on some picnic tables has taken more than a year and counting.

Reese thinks the groups should focus on organizing activities to attract people to the park. “It’s a really low-cost alternative to changing the perception of that park,” he said. “All you need is good organization abilities, and they’re certainly capable of that.”

But Stepner of the Park Board said even more is needed, especially in the city’s aging parks. “The park department does a tremendous job of using duct tape and chewing gum to keep these things together. But that only goes so far,” he said.

“For older parks, it’s critical to make these parks useful. With the economy the way it is, more people are using public facilities because they can’t afford to go to Legoland or SeaWorld. But if the community doesn’t want to go there because it doesn’t work for them, and the bad guys take over, then no one gets to use it.”

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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