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In Nob Hill, a fence divides a neighborhood

Visualization courtesy of SF Recreation and Park Department
Pending approval, a reconstructed 6 foot fence could line the perimeter of Huntington Park in Nob Hill.

If you live in the neighborhood, Huntington Park in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, it's a great place to relax, read a book, or, as Haris Butt says, bring your dog to Friday nights’ “Yappy Hour.”

“80 percent of the people I know in my neighborhood, I've met through this park,” says Butt. “I know more dogs than I know people’s names, actually.”

It’s a community institution -- and one that a neighborhood group says it’s trying to improve. The Nob Hill Association has raised over a million dollars to reconstruct a fence around the park. They say that a good fence makes for a better park; but neighbors on the other side of the issue disagree.

Huntington Park sits on a plot of land that, back in the early 1900s, used to house a mansion belonging to Arabella Huntington – once called the richest woman in America. At the time, her mansion had a fence around it – a massive one made of wrought iron.

During the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the house crumbled. But part of the fence around the property survived, and for the past 100 years or so it was moved elsewhere. And it’s this fence that is causing controversy.

Rebuilding a piece of history

Some neighbors want to bring the fence back. They’re part of a local neighborhood group, called the Nob Hill Association, who say that restoring the original fence would bring back a part of San Francisco history. In their proposal, the Association says the gate will help upgrade the park, and keep it safer, too. But it’s an addition that not everyone wants.

“A public park is supposed to be inviting to people,” says Rishi Malhotra, who lives four blocks from the park. “[This fence] sends the message that people should keep out.”

Malhotra says the fence is part of a larger trend towards exclusivity, and “catering towards upper middle class people who want things to be clean and neat.”

Back in March, he started an online petition against the fence, asking for more public meetings about the issue. So far, it has well over 400 signatures.

Malhotra’s worried about the reconstruction of the fence, which he says would basically make a public space private. If it gets erected, the fence would measure about 6 feet tall. And it would close the park from midnight - 5 am.

Malhotra has heard the argument that the fence has historical relevance, but doesn’t agree that it’s reason enough to bring it back.

“There's people who are for the park who've said that it’s historic, there used to be a fence there. But there’s never been a fence in the park in the last 100 years since it was made,” he says.

Other locals in the park were overwhelming against the fence. One concern was that the fence would limit access to the park, or make it seem less welcome.

Sam Plainfield, a former long-time resident, says, “It just seems a little too late to recreate a thing that nobody remembers.”

To make matters more complicated, the fence – if reconstructed -- would be funded privately. The Nob Hill Association has raised the 1.4 million dollars to pay for the costs of reconstructing both the fence and installing a new playground. Their plan, if it goes through, is to give the fence to the city as a gift. But because Huntington Park is a publicly owned and operated, gifting over a million dollars to the city will present another hurdle to the organization.

Policies for gifting

Sarah Ballard, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at SF Recreation and Parks, describes a public park as one where taxpayer dollars improve the park, and employ the staff and materials that maintain it. But in this scenario, the Nob Hill Association would be footing the bill for the fence.

But Ballard says that the system is structured to ensure everyone has an equal say.

“Anything over 100,000 dollars needs to go through a public process to accept the gift so it’s fully transparent to everyone exactly where the money is coming from, and exactly what it will fund,” she says.

“That’s exactly what the public process is for. That’s exactly what our commission meetings are for. That’s exactly what the hearings of the Board of Supervisors meetings are for. ”

According to SF Recreation and Parks, about a quarter of the 220 neighborhood parks in the city have gating or fencing around them. A park may be fenced to protect children’s safety, or to separate different areas of the parks, or for historical renovations. But Ballard says these fences won't make it any easier to maintain a park.

“The existence or non-existence of a gate or a fence has very little to do with how we maintain the park,” she says. “It gives you an additional feature to maintain, which is making sure that a fence is upright, is not graffitied, is well-painted. But in terms of the day-to-day maintenance of lawns and play structures and all of those things, a park is a park is a park.”

Neighbors on the fence

The Nob Hill Association says that the fence will be inclusive, and safer for residents and their pets. But they declined to comment about their push for the restoration.

The only people talking are those who use the park – and no one  KALW spoke with supported the idea. Sam Plainfield, who sat on the park benches one afternoon, says the fence would change the park, a place that’s been a part of his life for over 7 years.

“It would feel a little bit restricted, I suppose.” He says. “I guess that depends on whether they leave it open or not. But what’s the point of a fence if it’s not going to close people off, right?”

The controversy of using private funds to fence in Huntington park will go through another public meeting, and eventually the city agree to accept the donation as a gift. Until then, Huntington Park will remain unfenced.