The Presidio Arbor: A lesson in How Democracy Can Work

| September 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

by Sandy Lakoff

The arbor entrance at Presidio Park is dressed to perfection.

Democracy can work and a good case in point is right in our own backyard. In a small way, it is an encouraging example of how democracy – and our neighborhood — can be preserved. You will not be surprised to learn that it takes an active citizenry, a responsive politician, and the patience of a saint.

The story began in late 2016 when the Mission Hills Heritage board of directors was advised by a concerned member that the historic arbor in Presidio Park, that serene patch of green just above Old Town, was in terrible shape. Because I wasn’t doing nearly as much as the other directors – who were all putting in hours of work on house tours, reviews of building proposals, organizing coffees to win new members, handling publicity, keeping the books, etc. — I volunteered to take on this seemingly simple issue. Little did I imagine how long it would take and how complicated the process would be.

My first step was to contact “Parks and Rec,” the city agency in charge. I left a message and got a call back from Casey Smith. He explained that the agency had a long list of priorities and too little funding to handle them all in short order. The arbor was on the list but wouldn’t get to the top for at least several years. What if MHH put up some of the funding? That could help, he said, just as it matters that the Friends of Balboa Park are underwriting work there.

Next, I asked my painter and friend Jim Turner to give us an idea of how much the restoration might cost. (Jim has done beautiful work on my home on Dove Court and others in Mission Hills, including the one on Lark Street where we held our last annual meeting.) To my surprise, he said it could be done for under $5,000, though he was too busy to commit to doing it. When I told this to Smith, he agreed to meet with us at the arbor to look things over. He did and gave his okay. The board then decided we could probably raise the money, with help from the Mission Hills Garden Club and individual donors — so we should see about getting approval.

That turned out to be a challenge. The go-ahead we needed had to come from the City’s historic resources staff. Jodie Brown, the staffer who had to sign off on it, needed details to get approval. The first bid indicated that painting and plastering and replacement of the compressed wood atop the arbor was needed. This still wasn’t enough to present to the City. So I asked Mike Chism of Chism Brothers, a staunch friend of MHH, to prepare another estimate. Mike gave me two estimates, a simple one and a more elaborate one. But once again, Jodie indicated that the estimate could use more details. She wanted assurance that the materials would be consistent with the historic character of the arbor, etc., etc.

We went back and forth about this for some time until MHH President Jim Reily and Kirk Burgamy and I, met with Councilman Chris Ward earlier this year. That made all the difference. With the help of his staff – Brittany Bailey, Vanessa Bernal, and Tyler Renner – a meeting was arranged at the arbor for a comprehensive look at what would be required. Barry Hager also took part. We all agreed that it needed some extensive work. Jim Turner was asked to give us a new estimate. He was not too happy to be prevailed on again, but after a Dos Equis he reluctantly agreed.

Then, a few months ago, before we were to get the updated estimate, came the unexpected announcement – straight out of the blue — that Parks and Rec would do the job itself. Roy Kirby and Mario Llanons would be in charge of the project, which was to begin after the brush was cleared. The Councilman’s office said that if we could help out by paying for the materials, that would be appreciated. The board quickly assented. Lynne Fletcher got in touch with Martha Pehl, immediate past president of the Garden Club, and her board graciously agreed to share the costs. Mission Hills Town Council will chip in.

All told, it’s taken about two years and a fair amount of effort, but the result speaks for itself. Democracy definitely at work.

Sanford Lakoff is Professor Emeritus of political science at UCSD, a board member of Mission Hills Heritage, and has resided in Mission Hills for over 40 years.

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