Good Works

Local Park Boosters Eye the Finish Line

By Sonner Kehrt

Decades in the making, the effort to turn Francisco Reservoir into a public park is tantalizingly close to success.

Lyna Lam and Chris Larsen by Spencer Brown

It is a sunny day atop Russian Hill. From this quiet perch, the city spills in colorful patterns to the waterfront, where piers stretch out fingerlike toward Alcatraz and the misty hills beyond. It’s worth noting, says Launce Gamble, that there tend to be at least a few more sunny days in Russian Hill than some other places in the city.

“The weather is somewhat better. Not the best. But somewhat better,” he said. It’s a salient point because Gamble and others are trying to share the Russian Hill vista: He’s an advisory member of the Francisco Park Conservancy, a group that’s working to transform the abandoned Francisco Reservoir into a city park, complete with a dog run, a community garden and those jaw-dropping bay views.

The reservoir, just off the Hyde Street cable car line, has languished vacant for nearly 80 years. The intervening decades saw occasional efforts to wrangle support for building a park or housing on the lot, but disputes over who should control the land ultimately left it untouched, a dilapidated four and a half acres with the old reservoir in the middle, surrounded by a chain link fence.

But times have changed. An agreement between the Francisco Park Conservancy and the city stipulates that while money from the Open Space Acquisition Fund secured the land for a park, private citizens need to raise the funds to build it and contribute to its ongoing maintenance — to the tune of $25 million. The group has been rallying Russian Hill residents to the cause, and on top of earlier fundraising efforts, recent contributions — including a $2.5 million donation from Ripple co-founder Chris Larsen and his wife Lyna Lam, along with a $6 million matching gift challenge this summer from an anonymous donor — mean that the lot could begin its transformation into Francisco Park as early as next year.

On a chilly September evening, the fog slowly consuming the views outside, about 30 people gathered in the Russian Hill home of Launce and Joan Gamble to learn more about the park and to hear the pitch to support it. The sell was straightforward: Contributing was a chance to help create sorely needed neighborhood green space that is largely locally driven, designed and funded. It was the Gambles’ third such fundraising event; the conservancy has held 14 in the last two years alone.

“We thought about having a big blowout fundraiser,” said Emily Harrold, a former conservancy board member. “But this is such a grassroots community thing. It’s really nice to have neighbors hosting these for neighbors.”

Many of those present had already contributed to the park but are hoping to continue building momentum — especially now, when pressure is mounting. In order to retain the anonymous $6 million donation, the conservancy needs to raise $5 million by the end of the year. If it’s successful, it will put the total at $23 million, more than enough to break ground in the spring.

Conservancy members are optimistic about that goal. “I don’t think you get engaged in this sort of work without a positive attitude,” said Leslie Alspach, the conservancy board president. “We’ve got lots and lots of champions.”

In March, the Recreation and Park Commission approved the park’s conceptual design plan, meaning that the site is essentially “shovel-ready.” It was a turning point for the conservancy; with approvals and a plan in hand, they shifted the majority of their efforts toward closing the funding gap.

Around that time, Alspach approached Larsen and Lam, who would often pass the reservoir and wonder about it.

The kids are always asking, ‘What is that? Can I go in there?’” Larsen said. “On the cable car line, you pass Lombard Street, and it’s super beautiful, and then you come to this, and it’s like — what is that?

The commission’s recent approval meant that the conservancy could assure donors the project was moving forward.

“We loved the idea,” said Lam, adding that donating was a “no-brainer.” Not long afterward, the couple also hosted a fundraiser in their own home.

“It seems like we’ve reached the tipping point here,” Larsen said. “There’s momentum.”

But getting to this point hasn’t been easy. The current campaign dates back 12 years, when Bruce Keene, whose yard abuts the reservoir property, heard that the reservoir might be sold for development. He wanted the neighborhood to be part of discussions about the lot’s future and began raising the issue with local associations, which lobbied for the ultimately successful passage of a Board of Supervisors resolution in 2008 preserving the property as open space.

The neighborhood groups — Russian Hill Improvement Association, Russian Hill Neighbors, Aquatic Park Neighbors and North Beach Neighbors — then turned their attention to what type of open space they wanted to see. Seven years ago, a working group emerged from those discussions, laying the foundation for what would become the Francisco Park Conservancy.

The conservancy and the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, a partner in the project, have been working together since 2014 to hammer out the details of what the park’s public-private structure would look like. More important, they’ve sought to design a park that will appeal to a broad range of people — not just residents of Russian Hill, but also those living elsewhere in the city, along with tourists.

That vision hasn’t always been unanimous. Public meetings spurred debate over specific park elements, including the possibility of preserving it for a single use, like a soccer field. And given San Francisco’s housing shortage, there’s been the question of residential development.

But the property has already been designated open space, notes Keene, who serves on the conservancy board. And Russian Hill is a particularly dense area of the city, said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Parks Department. “It’s in a neighborhood that’s been determined to be a little open-space deficient.”

At the Gambles’ event, former District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell, a longtime advocate for the park and a member of the conservancy’s advisory committee, agreed. “Open space is synonymous with quality of life, especially in San Francisco. It affects residents and visitors of all ages,” he said. “It breathes life into neighborhoods.”

The park’s final plan features three levels. The lowest elevation, near Bay Street, will have a dog park and a raised path that gradually winds its way up to the level of the reservoir, where a plaza will retain the structure’s original historic brick. There will also be a play area, community garden plots and a wide main lawn. Another path will continue up the hill behind the reservoir through a native-plant landscape, reaching an overlook that highlights the wide, stunning views of the city and the picturesque bay below.

“What’s exciting for me is that a park is forever,” said Helen Hilton Raiser, who serves on the conservancy board. “And the neighbors and supporters have been amazing.”

Raiser, who has long been deeply involved in the world of San Francisco philanthropy, said that one thing that sets this particular project apart is the way it has grown locally, from the ground up.

“I’m really a grassroots person,” she said at her home above Lombard Street, a nearby table piled with folders, neatly stacked letters, and small green pins that read, “Ask Me About Francisco Park Conservancy.”

“In the beginning we were small. We didn’t have anyone helping us with development,” she said. “Now we’re really asking our neighbors to step up.”

But even as outreach has grown and donations have poured in, a personal touch matters. She pointed to the letters requesting support, many annotated with handwritten notes. “We’re going to go door to door,” she said. It’s one piece of a spirited push before year’s end to secure the $6 million matching grant. Donations may also be made online at franciscopark.org/donate/.

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