Northbound: Reclaiming public spaces

I have a confession to make — despite my proud boosterism for all things North County, my favorite park isn’t in North County. It’s in downtown San Diego.

Located at the corner of Park Boulevard and Market Street, Quartyard is an urban park built from repurposed shipping containers. The park is located at a previously-city-owned 25,000 square foot lot that stood vacant for years; budget cuts stalled the construction of a planned public park indefinitely.

Seizing the opportunity, some architecture school graduates came up with an idea for an inexpensive, innovative design for a temporary park at the site, and a public-private partnership was born.

Today, Quartyard is a popular community gathering space for the East Village neighborhood, featuring a beer garden, dog park, coffee shop, food trucks, and a busy programming schedule of concerts and special events.

Simply amazing, you have to visit it to enjoy the simplicity and uniqueness. It meets the needs of a growing community.

After trips across the border, or flights back to San Diego, I’ll usually stop in at Quartyard for a craft beer and catch up with friends and old neighbors who still live in the area. I’ve even been known to take the Coaster down from Carlsbad on an idle afternoon just to spend a couple hours there. It’s always bustling with activity, and a great place for people watching and to experience the vibrancy of downtown.

Why do I mention Quartyard? Well, there’s nothing quite like it in North County. To be sure, we have miles of manicured sandy beaches, and acres of open space and green spaces where locals and visitors can play. Our public spaces are the envy of so much of San Diego County. But how many of our community spaces are in our urban core, in the places where we are adding density, mixed use projects and drawing newer, younger residents?

I think it’s time we rethink how we add public spaces.

Planning documents from North County cities reveal that the vacant land available for new parks will shrink dramatically over the next two decades. Why not consider low-cost alternatives like Quartyard?

While Quartyard may be unique in San Diego, there are other examples of public-private partnerships in the country. In 2009, former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom rolled out a program called “Pavement to Parks,” which built partnerships with community groups and corporations to develop innovative temporary plazas in some of the city’s busiest traffic corridors.

The first pedestrian sanctuary that year was a 7,800 square foot plaza at the corner of Market, 17th and Castro streets, all at the cost of $25,000. Known by residents as the Castro Commons, the plaza, which is about half a city block, reclaims excess roadway by painting over asphalt, using donated chairs and granite blocks from a city salvage yard, and featuring recyclable planters with drought tolerant plants.

In the words of Newsom, creating new public spaces “is not that complex.”

The simplicity of the Castro Commons, which was installed in 72 hours, underscores the true obstacle in advancing parks — political inertia.

Why not set a goal of creating more public space — and work with neighborhood associations, businesses and innovators who are willing partners? Why not consider even more ideas, such as selectively closing portions of major residential roadways to car traffic throughout the year, and allow families and individuals to walk, skate and play?

Our community already has most of the resources it needs to create public spaces — volunteer muscle, corporate donors, and miles of paved streets. With civic leadership to move these pieces into action, more vibrant public spaces will be available for everyone in North County.

For more information on Quartyard, visit quartyardsd.com.

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