A greenway haven grows alongside the Highway 101 soundwall

Mang-Git Ng was waiting for his Sunday morning craft coffee at Hey Neighbor in the Portola when he pushed open an unlocked chain-link gate and was amazed at what he saw: Pressed between the Highway 101 soundwall and the backs of businesses on San Bruno Avenue was a landscaped, terraced park, two long city blocks from end to end, yet intriguingly narrow enough to draw him in.

“I’m always down to explore new places in the city. It’s what makes San Francisco so cool,” said Ng, 33, a tech worker who lives in the Castro. “This is a good use of space next to the freeway that would otherwise be dead.”

And that’s what it has been since the 1960s — just a Caltrans easement used as a dumping ground for junk rolled down the embankment before the sound wall went in, and used as a neighborhood dump for appliances and stuff too large for the bin. But in the last four years it has been emptied out and back- filled with soil and plants, and timber for the terrace and gravel for the walkway. Now it is a neighborhood park so new that it does not yet have a name.

But it has a sponsor, the Portola Garden Club, which volunteered to take on what has to be the dirtiest volunteer project in a neighborhood with a long history of volunteerism.

“Garbage, washing machines, toilet bowls, work benches, tires, and lots of rusty objects,” said Maggie Weis, co-director of the Portola Garden Club, a committee of the Portola Neighborhood Association which she chairs.

The Portola neighbornood, which is between 101 at the Silver Avenue exit and McLaren Park, with 280 as its southern boundary, is known as the Garden District, due to its history as a greenhouse area, and it takes its nickname seriously. There is a community garden at the Silver Avenue offramp,and Burrows Pocket Park at the cul-de-sac where Burrows Lane runs into Hey Neighbor,. This dead-end marks the entrance to what is being called the Freeway Greenway.

The Portola Garden Club formed up just to get this new park project done, and spent two full years hauling stuff out. They started with bag loads then advanced to Recology truckloads.

“This green space is the most democratically enjoyable community effort I’ve ever seen in San Francisco, and I’ve been here 30 years,” said Jon Logan, a neighborhood dad.

“This neighborhood has more spirit than any other neighborhood, and I don’t even live here. I live in Bernal Heights,” said Weis, who spent 31 years as a physical education teacher and lower school head at the San Francisco School in the Portola. “I just fell in love with the creativity here.”

The creativity is most prominent on the freeway pillar turned into a mural of a butterfly and a snake, designed by teenage artist Cory Ferris, where the 101 and 280 freeways split. There is also the Porto-Loteria board game by Kate Connell and Oscar Melara which inspired 48 individual murals attached to a Caltrans fence. It is a point of pride to repurpose otherwise neglected and blighted infrastructure, Weis said, and the freeway sound wall is the best possible example

Once the Portola Garden Club took it on, they raised $325,000 through three San Francisco community challenge grants that fund neighborhood improvement projects, plus $40,000 in private donations. The grants paid for the grading of the pathway of decomposed granite, brick patios and timbered seating and stairs that create the elevation, plus 200 plants and trees.

Volunteers dug the holes for the plants and water them with a garden hose.

Raul Romero who lives in an apartment building that backs up to the greenway, has been especially valuable to the project. Clearing the area became his COVID-19 outlet and hobby.

“He has a day job,” said Weis, “but he puts in more than 40 hours a week here.” On Saturdays, Romero has been joined by between 15 and 40 regular volunteers. For heavy lifting they had the support of Lick-Wilmerding High School, which delivered 70 freshmen to put in three hours a day as community service during several school days in April.

Four of them were assigned to planting duty in a unique planter box that is the park’s main architectural feature: the body of a 1969 Dodge Coronet which was towed to the site and lifted by crane onto the hillside.

“I said, ‘Here’s the dirt, here are the shovels. Fill it up,’” Weis said, “and they did.” The only problem was that it rained that night and compacted the dirt. When they came back the next day, with blistered hands, they had to fill it up for a second time.

The Freeway Greenway will not officially open until June, 2023, when the paths and landscaping are complete. But the gates are open on weekends and people are finding it, especially when they come out of Hey Neighbor, which is in a re-purposed automotive shop with a roll-up garage door.

“It’s kind of like a secret and then there’s the entrance. That’s the best part,” said Ng, who was working his way down the path with Leslie Tse and their dog WiFi.

Audrey Nelson discovered it when her daughter, Eleanor Barbula, 2, went through the gate and took off running south. There was nothing to stop her but the fence at Bacon Street. On her way, she passed a wooden board stenciled with the motto “Portola, the Little Hood that Could.”

“My daughter is living her best life here,” said Nelson, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and brought her parents by on a weekend visit from San Luis Obispo.

“It’s a cool place to show off the sense of community,” Nelson said. “The San Bruno Avenue commercial area was hard-hit by the pandemic and several gathering places did not survive. These greenways give the community a space to gather.”

The Little Hood that Could is only halfway there. The plan is to open the gate at Bacon Street, cross the roadway and let the Portola Garden Club hack its way through the thicket to open two more blocks, making the freeway greenway four blocks in all.

“You know the High Line in New York?” Weis said proudly to Nelson. “This is the Low Line.”

The Portola Garden Club will celebrate its progress with a soft open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 4 at Burrows Pocket Park, followed by the annual Portola Pride Brunch Hop, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.June 25.

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]


Next Post

DIA board approves $41 million deal for The Hardwick with design changes | Jax Daily Record | Jacksonville Daily Record

Mon May 23 , 2022
The Downtown Investment Authority will send terms of a nearly $41 million incentives deal to Jacksonville City Council for Atlanta-based Carter to build The Hardwick, a mixed-use residential high-rise on the Bay Street riverfront at the former Duval County Courthouse site. Before approving the deal May 18, the DIA board […]
DIA board approves  million deal for The Hardwick with design changes | Jax Daily Record | Jacksonville Daily Record

You May Like