The Parks Are Greener On The Other Side
While Monterey's lovingly tended open spaces shine the color of money, Seaside battles just to keep the glass out of its sandboxes.
Thursday, May 17, 2001
Almost as fast as parks crew chief Bob Beesin and his two-man crew dig holes in the dirty sandlot of Seaside''s Beta Park, a wily mutt with pointed ears steps in the holes and fills them in. Dogs aren''t technically allowed in the parks, but there''s no sign posted on the sloping, pock-marked field, and the workers take the disruption good-naturedly.
As the three men--almost half of the city''s meager parks staff--battle the dog to prepare the ground for a bench, the very same race against time and the elements unfolds in the 27 other parks and countless public spaces under the jurisdiction of this Bad News Bears crew. And thanks in large part to a very limited budget, so far the bad guys are winning.
Squirrels and gophers cavort to their heart''s delight, digging nasty holes in the grass, burrowing under the plants and generally wreaking havoc. Glass shards and trash litter sandboxes throughout the city, remnants of nights of drunken revelry in the Seaside that used to be. The skeletal remains of swing sets sit awkwardly in the dirt, waiting for swings or perhaps for chains. Tennis courts with no nets lie neglected in the land of the misfit toys.
It''s not all bad news in Seaside, of course. Laguna Grande Park boasts a nice lakeside walk and smooth green fields for birthday fêtes, and little neighborhood gems like Cunningham Park and Soliz Park cheerfully offer up brand-new play equipment and clean grassy knolls. Thanks largely to neighborhood activism and increased policing, crime in the parks has declined over the past decade, and slowly children and families are taking the reins of public space from the hands of drug dealers and late-night partiers.
After 30 years with the Seaside parks department, the red-faced and weathered Beesin knows every mole hill in the city''s 44 acres of public parks, as well as just about everyone that lives within sight of them. He has seen park supervisors come and go, housing prices quadruple, and the close of Fort Ord. But Beesin has come to rely on one reality over the years: There are never enough resources or manpower to properly care for his beloved park system.
Asked what his ideal situation would be, Beesin replies simply, "Just the whole maintenance of everything, that would be my goal. Just everything."
As neighborhood gathering places, parks are often emblematic of the state of a city''s development, and Seaside''s parks say loud and clear "community in transition." When the parks were built during Fort Ord''s heyday, the military-style jungle gyms and mock cannons meshed with the feel of the town. And sadly, as crime rose during the ''70s and ''80s, broken glass and worn-out equipment looked at home next door to what had become rundown houses and shabby lawns.
--Brian Pratt, Seaside Rotary Club
But times are changing. These days, Seaside''s streets are safer, its schools are performing better, and the cost of buying a home has gone through the roof, so to speak. As young families and professionals flock to Seaside in desperate search of affordable housing, the city''s demographic is shifting--and so are residents'' expectations. The bottom line is, buyers who spend an average of $319,000 for a home want a certain level of service from their city government, and one of those services is the provision of clean, safe public parks. At this point, the park system has a long way to go to catch up with the changing tide in Seaside.
The sign labeling Cutino Park off Noche Buena (where each spring dozens of regional baseball teams compete) reads "No Hard Ball Playing." Several miles up the hill, the barely visible regulations for the hilly field at Neil Park warn "No Model Boats, etc." This oddity is a result of an ordering mix-up in which all the park signs were mistakenly embossed with the same rules. (The model boats advisory was really just meant for the pond at Laguna Grande, and hard ball actually is permitted on the baseball fields.) But there''s no use in complaining--many of Seaside''s parks have no signs at all.
The reason for this and the myriad of other problems in the parks boils down to money. Over the past decade, the annual budget for Seaside''s ailing 40-year-old park system has hovered between $600,000-750,000, about 6-7 percent of the city''s general fund. That budget allows for eight full-time staff to mow, irrigate, trim, plant, clean and fix equipment in this rapidly changing city of 31,500 people. After covering the salary and benefits packages of the staff, the parks department is left with under $200,000 for materials, transportation and utilities.
"We''re just not able to do all we want to with this current budget," admits Seaside''s Director of Public Works Diana Ingersoll. But so great are the maintenance demands in the parks these days that Ingersoll has Beesin and his crew working overtime.
And it isn''t just the parks that are hollering for attention--it''s also the city''s 10 additional acres of medians, parking lots, cul de sacs, and other open spaces. Driving through Seaside''s winding streets, Beesin is quick to point out where his crew is falling behind schedule. The trees on Mescal need to be trimmed so the school buses can get through, and a renegade bush has blocked a nearby stop sign. It''s time to replace the flags that mark the entrance to the city, and weeds are beginning to rear their ugly heads in the auto mall''s centerpieces. And Beesin''s already anticipating the chore of preparing Laguna Grande Park for summer concerts and events.
Resourceful parks crew chief Bob Beesin doesn''t ask for much--just the manpower and the materials to do his job--but it''s still beyond reach.
Beesin''s used to operating in conditions of scarcity, though, and as such has learned to be creative. He collects the sand that washes up on the bike path in Sand City, appeals to hardware stores to donate their extra stock of plants, and can craft a nice-looking table out of throwaway old planks.
"That''s one thing about me," he says with pride, "even my supervisor says, ''Bob, you can work wonders with nothing.''"
Park Avenue It''s Not
These days Beesin is even working without a boss, since the last parks supervisor, Dale Ivan, lasted less than four months on the job after a lengthy recruitment process wooed him down from Oregon. Now, eight months after the position vacated, Ingersoll recently lobbied the City Council to increase the salary range for the position from the lower- to upper-$40s, believing that the Peninsula''s high cost of living was what scared Ivan off. The city hopes to have someone new on board this summer.
But according to Mary Wilson, founder of the volunteer planting group Seaside Green Team, an increase in the park''s budget itself, not only the salary, would''ve been necessary to hold onto Ivan. "I think he just realized what he was up against," she explains. "He once showed me his budget for staff uniforms for the year. It was $50."
While everyone--from community volunteers to parks staff to city administrators--agrees that Seaside''s park system is gravely underfunded, it''s not an easy problem to solve. Seaside allots more or less the same percentage of its general fund budget to the parks as does neighboring Monterey, a city rightly proud of its public spaces. The difference is the size of the initial pool.
With a population slightly smaller than Seaside''s, Transit Occupancy Tax-rich (TOT) Monterey has a budget over three times that of its neighbor. That spells $2.5 million for the Monterey parks department, a weighty sum used to employ 30 staff to lovingly maintain favorites such as the Recreation Trail, Dennis the Menace Park, and dozens of smaller neighborhood parks.
And while Seaside recently set redevelopment priorities--including adding a new hotel and restaurants, sprucing up the Broadway/Fremont intersection, and redoing the auto mall--to increase the sales tax dollars and TOT money flowing into city coffers, nobody expects an overnight miracle.
"We''re all competing for the budget," bemoans Ingersoll. "For years, police was the number one, they had to be taken care of. For a long time, we just did not make the cut. All the department heads sit down and say ''This is what we need.'' But unfortunately, there''s only so much money to go around."
Seaside''s new city manager, Dan Keen, agrees with Ingersoll that the parks have been neglected in the past. But while Keen says that "we''re certainly looking at putting some money into parks," when the City Council hammers out a new budget this summer, he adds that "there are many things that need to happen: code enforcement, improving the physical infrastructure of city, streets, signals. It''s important that the council has a range of choices including all areas of need."
In the meantime, Keen believes the place to start is developing a professionally done master plan for the parks, replete with an assessment of every park and its needs. He also says vaguely that the city is looking into how to improve the way in which the parks are staffed and maintained.
But having dealt with the reality of low budgets through her volunteer work in the parks, Mary Wilson is certain that only an increased budget will make a dent in Seaside''s park system. "Hopefully the city can increase parks funding, because it''s just ridiculous," she says sadly. "I know in the past from council meetings, it seems that whenever money comes up, it ends up going to the police department, which is important. Not everyone sees the value of the parks, or they see it as fluff. But keeping places looking good helps with safety, too."
Volunteers to the Rescue
Wilson has the right to be frustrated. Along with the handful of other civic-minded Seaside residents that make up the Seaside Green Team, Wilson has gone to great lengths to bring resources to the parks. After securing $2,500 from the Community Foundation a couple of years back, the Green Team established a drought-resistant demonstration garden on the highly visible corner of Canyon del Rey and Fremont, a project that requires monthly maintenance and upkeep.
The demonstration garden, which borders Seaside''s well-kept and much loved Laguna Grande Park, was heralded as a great success and inspired Wilson to seek more grants. But the next time the Green Team acquired funding--$1,200 from California Releaf--no one from the city was able to direct the group where to spend the funds, and the grant expired before the Green Team could put it to use. These days, Wilson says the group has temporarily given up looking for its own funding.
"There was not one person to talk to that said ''Yes, you can do that here,''" she recalls. "We lost the grant because Diana Ingersoll was so overwhelmed as public works director and she didn''t have the time to think about it. It was just lost in the red tape. We''d like to try it again, but we need to have someone we can clearly deal with."
Nine-year Seaside resident H. Russel Schwartz knows how Wilson feels. On any given day, Shwartz has piles of donated plants from the Drought Resistant Nursery in his backyard waiting for a home. Shwartz, along with neighbor Kurt Lawrence, has been working with the city and painstakingly gathering up volunteers to clean up the nearby Farralones Park. The dedicated duo, both of whom suffer from back problems, have spent countless hours leading volunteer crews to weed out crabgrass, sift for glass in the sandbox, and prepare the park for an irrigation overhaul.
And while Shwartz gives kudos to crew supervisor Beesin, he laments that the city is dependent on volunteer community members to get basic work done in the parks. "Bob''s a great guy and he''s always been there for us. He brings over mulch and wood chips, whatever we need," says Shwartz.
"But unless somebody in these different areas comes and does what Kurt and I are doing, it''s not happening. The city doesn''t have the money. It''s been told to me that parks are last on the list--everyone''s told me that. The bureaucracies of cities is where the problem is. The city hasn''t been putting money in the right places for a long time."
From her post at the city, Ingersoll also recognizes that the city is beholden to its community-minded volunteers. Take the glass in the sandboxes, for example. While Ingersoll maintains that the city''s first priority in the parks is safety and "anything that would be hazardous to people," she acknowledges that the current method of sifting glass from sandboxes by hand is "archaic and labor-intensive," rendering the parks crew utterly dependent on community volunteer time.
Seaside is also forced to make frequent calls on the volunteer work crews from Soledad Prison, a service available to and used by many local cities. Beesin and Ingersoll both lament that the crews aren''t available more easily or more often--a formal letter of request to the warden might secure a work crew for only a few weeks. "They do an excellent job--it''s the only way I can survive," says Ingersoll.
Recently, even Seaside''s Neighborhood Improvement Program commission, which is technically responsible for educating the community about city code and neighborhood beautification, took on the sorry state of the parks. Acting on an idea from the Seaside Rotary Club, the commission selected a park a month and recruited surrounding residents to come out and clean up, plant, sift through sand and generally get the parks in working condition. The city took care of equipment and refreshments, and residents saw to the rest.
Dennis Alexander, commission chair and Seaside High teacher, heralds the volunteer effort as a great success for both the parks and the community. "I found that residents took it upon themselves as almost a duty if you will, saying, ''I''m a resident of this neighborhood, let''s go out there and do something about it,''" explains Alexander. "They were very pleased to get together with their neighbors. It was volunteerism at its finest."
Mary Wilson, Green Team volunteer
And Brian Pratt, the Seaside Rotary Club member who spawned the idea of a parks clean-up program, says coordinating community members to take care of the parks is the way to go. "A lot of people say it''s the city''s job, but it''s just not enough," he explains. "We could hire 30 parks workers, but then what do you give up--fire and police? Right now we have bigger fish to fry than weeds in the parks. I think the way to get things done is citizen involvement."
But from his experience volunteering at Farralones Park and working at a nursery, Lawrence doesn''t see volunteerism as the panacea for the parks. "To improve the parks the way they need to be improved, you need some money and some community involvement," Lawrence posits.
"It seems that cleaning the parks is not the city''s top priority. We have so many parks, but not one of them is in a condition that you would want your kid to play at. A lot of us don''t want to drive to Monterey to use their parks, we want to walk to the one nearby. It takes regular upkeep to keep a landscaped area looking good--you can''t just mow the lawn once a week."
Whether all the parks'' problems can be solved through volunteer time is a moot point: The Neighborhood Improvement Program has other responsibilities, and even Seaside''s most dedicated volunteer helpers have jobs, families and other priorities that demand their time. The bottom line is that the city will need to find solutions other than citizen involvement, and Seaside''s skyrocketing housing prices only stand to drive up new residents'' expectations.
At this point, Seaside has two possibilities on the books that could increase capital resources flowing into the park system to make needed improvements in equipment, pathways, and staff size.
The Fairest of Them All: Seaside''s Laguna Grande Park, with its gleaming playground equipment and neatly trimmed lawn, is the flagship facility--and the exception to the rule.
The first option that Ingersoll is looking into for the city is the availability of state funds allocated by voters in March 2000 under the bond measure Proposition 12. While a good chunk of the $2.1 billion is to go toward local governments for the development and maintenance of park facilities, the state has yet to determine rules for applying for funds.
"They haven''t written the rules yet. That''s the problem--everyone''s just dying to have the forms go out with guidelines," wails Ingersoll. "There''s no due date, nothing right now to even start the process. But you bet your sweet life, I''ll be spending a lot of nights writing those grants. I''ll be the first one in line for space."
While waiting for the state to determine its application guidelines, Ingersoll has been at work negotiating a contract with Sprint PCS that would allow the company to place cell towers in Cutino baseball park. Sprint has offered to put up new lights for the field, upgrade the current concession stand, and pay $1,300 a month in rent, all in exchange for hiding little antennas under the new lights, 60 feet above ground, so cell phone jockeys can jabber to their heart''s content with one less dead zone in the world to worry about.
"They need us because we''re in between Carmel and the other side of Bay, and they need something to connect their wireless service," says Ingersoll. "I sure hope we can get this through, because it''s real positive. Sprint has been very helpful."
Ingersoll''s proposal heads next for environmental review, onto the Planning Commission and then finally to the City Council in a couple of months. She is confident that Sprint''s offer will be well received and hopes the new construction can break ground by late summer.
But even assuming the proposal sails through without significant public comment--a process that has been hindered in other jurisdictions by the loose connection of possible health concerns related to the antennas'' electro-magnetic radiation--the deal really only secures improvements for Cutino Park itself. The $1,300 a month in rent would go directly into the general fund, and thus still require specific designation from the City Council to be applied back to the park system. It''s perfectly likely that the council would opt to allot the funds elsewhere, as it has in the past.
For now, the verdict is still out on how to fill the gaping needs of Seaside''s parks, but it seems all those who care about the city and its public spaces agree that the time has come. Wilson sums it up thusly: "There are lots of amazing little places with incredible views. And it''s just sad that right now they''re not getting the money they need."