Park fence enclosure draws mixed reactions from Nob Hill neighbors

A more than 6-foot-high fence could soon wrap around the entire perimeter of a neighborhood park in San Francisco’s affluent Nob Hill, a measure supporters say is for both historical significance and to address safety concerns. Huntington Park patrol officials would lock the gates, which would double the fence height, between midnight and 5 a.m.

The popular 1.3-acre park sits between Grace Cathedral and the Connecticut brownstone building housing the private Pacific-Union Club. It is a favorite for dog owners, sunbathers, artists, bibliophiles and families with children.

The melodious Fountain of the Tortoises in the park’s center provides a soothing background and clanging bells occasionally sound from the cable cars rattling by on California Street.

Some park users said Friday afternoon that they were unaware of the fence proposal, and reaction was mixed.

“Bad idea, very bad,” said Sima Sapir, who was walking her dog. She said the fence plan is “intimidating” and asked why notice about the proposal wasn’t posted at the park. “At least if we know there is a hearing or something we would go participate. It’s not fair. It’s one-sided.”

The proposal, which has the support of Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the area, was developed by the Nob Hill Association neighborhood group, which has raised $1.4 million for the wrought-iron fence and a playground upgrade. The project is pending approval by the Board of Supervisors.

Greg Galanos, chairman of a park committee for the Nob Hill Association, said in an email Friday that the fence proposal is a popular option to address safety concerns and area history.

“In all our community meetings, the historic nature of returning the original Huntington fence to its original location was lauded by the residents as was the added benefit of safety for children and pets given the traffic around Huntington Park,” he said.

He supplied copies of historical documents that included a letter from Arabella Huntington in 1915 as part of her deed of the land to The City. She had lived in a mansion on the park site until it fell to ruins in the 1906 earthquake. The letter says in part that The City should “place about it such restrictions as will keep it from being used as a loafing place for undesirable citizens, and render it safe and attractive for the women and children.”

The fence would include 224 feet of the original Huntington Mansion fence, which survived the earthquake, and an additional 672 feet fabricated to match. It would be flush with the wall people often sit on. Some park users observed Friday were sitting on the wall and leaning back on the grass. A couple stepped up beyond the wall to take pictures of Grace Cathedral, which they would no longer be able to do with the new fence.

Gates at the four access points would vary in height from 12 to 15 feet. They would be locked between midnight and 5 a.m., public-park closing hours recently adopted by the board.

A Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman says the proposal originated with the neighborhood group’s charity arm.

“This is a community-driven project and a gift from the Nob Hill Foundation,” said Rec and Park spokeswoman Connie Chan. “The proposed fencing is consistent with the characteristics and original design of the Huntington Park.”

Michael Alvarez, a North Beach resident and native San Franciscan who used to visit the park as a child, said the fence itself is “not aesthetically displeasing,” but he was against the gate enclosure.

“San Francisco’s becoming more and more of a gated community,” he said.

Two 19-year-old students who routinely use the park had contrasting reactions.

“It would look great. Then you could have a more secluded area. I think it just makes The City look better,” said James Steptoe. But not so, said Tyler Baker.

“I hate it,” he said. “It looks ugly. This is a perfect park. There’s really no reason for it. A fence, that’s obviously a symbol to keep someone out.”

The debate about fencing around parks has occurred in the past. Architect David Baker started a petition in 2012 to try to block an 8-foot fence for a proposed park at 17th and Folsom streets. He suggested that fences are only proposed to try and keep the “riffraff” out, and that the claim about safety of pets and children is without merit since many parks don’t have fences.

“Think of all the parks you love and which ones have a fence?” Baker asked.

Paul Olsen succeeded in his fight to prevent a fence installation for Hayes Valley’s Patricia’s Green in the early 2000s.

“On the face of it, I think fencing off a public area is not a good idea,” Olsen said. “You should feel welcomed about going there.”

Rec and Park was unable to say how many of its parks are enclosed by fences, but it cited at least two other examples: the 2-acre Victoria Manalo Draves Park in South of Market that opened in 2006, and the Helen Wills Park at Broadway and Larkin streets.

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