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Guerrilla Gardeners Want To Take Over This San Francisco Lot With No Known Owner

Written by Peter-Astrid KanePublished Oct. 26, 2022 • 10:24am
A parcel of former Southern Pacific right-of-way land is wrapped in a chain-link fence and used for parking, as seen at 22nd and Harrison streets on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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Early this week, a Twitter thread posted by a tech entrepreneur showed him, his children and neighbors busting into a fenced-off parcel of land in the Mission District. Labeled “Parcel 36,” it’s a long and slightly curved, 26,000-square-foot lot on the block bounded by Treat Avenue and 22nd, 23rd and Harrison streets—and it has no known owner, as the Southern Pacific Railroad company has long since relinquished any claim to the tracks that once ran through it.

The entrepreneur, Zach Klein, is the CEO of Dwell, trucked in mulch and raised beds and spent several hours beautifying what is otherwise a weedy lot used for parking. It was a guerrilla action of sorts, intended to raise awareness of Parcel 36’s existence and force the community into making a more equitable use of it. Klein has also created a Substack—so far without any posts—to draw attention to what he hopes will become a new park called Mission Greenway.

“The action on Saturday was catalytic,” said Elizabeth Creely, a writer and Mission neighbor who has written about Parcel 36. “We’re all kind of sitting and thinking about what we did, why we did it and what our perception of this moment is. We have strategy, and we have vision.”

Reactions were mixed, with some observers celebrating the activist gardeners, and others taken aback by a perceived lack of engagement with neighbors.

Creely points out that other, similarly shaped parcels of the former Old Main Line that ran through the Mission on a diagonal from Harrison and 22nd streets southwest to San Jose Avenue and 30th Street have since become parks, like Juri Commons or Parque Niños Unidos.

“We would love Parcel 36 to join its fellow parcels and become part of a continuous green space, navigable by foot, that runs through the Mission,” Creely said. “You turn it into something that people can walk or bike, and you do this with an eye toward differing needs of safety.”

The parcel of former Southern Pacific right-of-way land is wrapped in a chain-link fence and used for parking, as seen at 22nd and Harrison streets on Oct. 25, 2022. Last week, some residents opened the fence to begin planting a community garden. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In a deep dive she wrote several years ago, Creely determined that Parcel 36 is, indeed, orphaned.

“As it was explained to me by the Treasurer’s office, ‘An assessee does not equal an owner,’” she said. 

That cryptic bureaucratic pronouncement may hold up. But possession, as they say, is 90% of the law. The last freight trains rumbled through in the early 1990s, and since then, neighbors and businesses that abut the property have used it to store their cars. The San Francisco Treasurer’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Given this legal limbo, a weekend of guerrilla gardening might not technically qualify as trespassing. Still, the remaining undeveloped plots of land in San Francisco generate strong reactions whenever someone proposes a change. An oddly shaped, 7,200-square-foot lot in the Richmond, for example, may eventually become a million-dollar listing, earning no love from the neighbors. 

Reactions get even more heated when someone is perceived to be an outsider. The optics of a white male tech CEO upsetting the status quo (to say nothing of going against a preschool) play into a trope of white settler colonialism, especially in the Mission, where decades of gentrification have taken an awful toll on the Latino community and sensitivities run high.

Recognizing this parcel as a piece of unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land, Creely said she hopes to get the involvement of the nearby American Indian Cultural District. (Neither that district nor the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District responded to requests for comment.)

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The people behind the Mission Greenway proposal were hard at work, as this sign showed on Oct. 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco has been creating new parks left and right. But Parcel 36 wasn’t even on the Recreation and Parks Department’s radar until this week. 

“It’s not Rec and Park property, and we haven’t worked with this particular group (which makes sense since we don’t own it),” department spokesperson Tamara Aparton told The Standard. 

Given the city’s acute need for housing, and the fact that a building on one side of Parcel 36 is now a condominium, why not work to create housing on the site?

“I think a community garden would be great, but if it turns out that the majority of the neighborhood, after significant and robust meetings, wants affordable housing, would I say no? No, I wouldn’t,” Creely said. “Would I feel chagrined at another million-dollar condo building? Yes.”

Since September, Mission Greenway supporters have begun to hold informal community meetings at Dynamo Donut to discuss Parcel 36’s future. As of this week, they are once again locked out of it, but they’re eager to keep up the fight. 

“Unless and until a judge assigns the title or a prescriptive easement, or signs off on adverse possession that formally assigns the rights to access to an individual, no one owns it,” Creely said. “And if that’s true, we have a unique opportunity to take this land to be held in common—not owned.” 

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Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]


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