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A fight for a space in San Francisco is not uncommon. This time a small plot of land is in legal limbo within the city’s Mission District—a fast-changing neighborhood with Latinx roots. Ownership of the small plot came into contention when an activist group, Mission Greenway, took over the plot of land to create a community garden in 2022. Parcel 36, a 2,245-square-foot lot, has the potential to be a green space in this highly dense part of the city. However, activists now face an uphill battle to make the plot of land into a garden.

How It All Started

The fight began when Mission Greenway and Vimeo cofounder Zach Klein decided to “reclaim” the unclaimed lot. “There’s a 26,000-square-foot lot in SF with no known owner. This weekend some neighbors and I opened the fence,” Klein wrote on his social media in October 2022. The thread has since been deleted.

“We want to turn [Parcel 36] into a publicly accessible greenway because this block has gotten increasingly dense.”It’s easy to miss Parcel 36 as it sits within a city-block-long alleyway between 22nd and 23rd street. More specifically, it lies between three apartment complexes, a daycare, and the internet service provider, Monkey Brains, and is across the street from a city-owned park. Closer to 23rd street, the parcel is partly paved with old railroad tracks where a shipping container and a Bobcat skid-steer excavator sit idle.

The members from Mission Greenway contend that Parcel 36 is abandoned as a former piece of land from Southern Pacific Railway, with questionable ownership. This status has left the parcel up for grabs, and Mission Greenway has been attempting to secure it for the community. According to Lara Hanna, a member of Mission Greenway, tax bills for Parcel 36 were sent to people who died several years ago. Mission Greenway was alerted through a neighborhood contact and green-space activist Tree Rubenstein, who leased the parcel from Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1980s, placing it in “legal limbo.”

“This [neighborhood building] is brand new, while this parcel is still stuck in the industrial age where surrounding businesses claim that they have some right to keep using this even though they don’t own it,” Hanna said. “We want to turn it into a publicly accessible greenway because this block has gotten increasingly dense.”

Arturo Mendez, a representative for Mission Arts Performance Project—a community-centered project that activates spaces around the Mission—believes this effort is critical to the community’s health. “This space in the Mission has been historically a place where there are almost no green spaces for people, for families, [and] for a lot of working-class families,” said Mendez during a community event at Parcel 36 in April.

Mendez explains there are long-term “Missionites”—Mission District residents and organizations—that have been participating in the fight for additional green space.

While not a part of Mission Greenway, MAPP has served the Mission District for over 20 years.

Because gentrification has ravaged the greater Bay Area over the past decade, the fight for a small plot of land is unsurprising. The battle for Parcel 36 appears more about who can take over spaces and for what purpose, leading to the question: “What does the community want for the space?”

Unfortunately, that muddles the issue as well.

Mission Kids preschool, which shares the space, issued a statement to the Mission Local newspaper stating that it supports “broad community input into future use of Parcel 36” and their priority is for the safety of the children of the school. Despite this show of public support, some allege that preschool staff are responsible for changing the gate locks, hindering community members’ access to the space.

Parcel 36s Legal Limbo

“This can be an incredible green oasis that can be part vegetable garden, part native garden—there’s so much possible here.”

In November 2022, some neighbors, including Mission Kids preschool, retained legal counsel, and sent a letter to members of Mission Greenway requesting they vacate. The letter, signed by Stephen G. Preonas, claimed ownership of the parcel by “right of way.” That same month, Mission Greenway introduced their Instagram page, featuring a photo of their name on a wooden sign on the plot of land they had partly turned into a community garden.

The community garden has roughly 10 planters and the vegetables and herbs grown on the parcel are given away at a neighborhood farm stand. “We believe, especially with this changing block of [a] changing neighborhood, a better purpose for this parcel would be to serve the community rather than keep serving as a free private parking lot for just a few businesses,” said Hanna.

“This can be an incredible green oasis that can be part vegetable garden, part native garden—there’s so much possible here,” said Hanna. She says this potential is thwarted because of “the legal vacuum that it’s in,” as there have been multiple attempts to bully people out of the legally unclaimed space.

In January of this year, the Mission Local reported that the garden was vandalized by agitators allegedly hired by state realtor Louis Cornejo. Then in March, Monkey Brains applied to San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspections for repairs to the chain link fence, citing that it was “damaged.” Mission Greenway asserts this was an attempt to claim ownership.

An appeal filed by Mission Greenway with the City and County of San Francisco requests that future permit applications for this parcel will not be granted once legal ownership is established. It also demands that all subsequent appeals be denied until ownership issues can be resolved.”

Monkey Brains filed a rebuttal to the appeal asserting that the space is needed for the operations and growth of their business, citing “prescriptive easement” to claim parcel ownership. Prescriptive easement is a version of eminent domain between private parties—or in schoolyard terms, “finders keepers.”

On April 26th, in a four-hour-long meeting, the appeals board members voted unanimously to grant the appeal to revoke Monkey Brains’ permit for repairs—a small win for Mission Greenway. However, the appeals board explained in the hearing it had limited capacity for resolution of the ownership issue. Board members explained that they could only resolve the permitting issue but drafted a letter to city officials to resolve the matter.

Until the City and County of San Francisco respond, it remains inconclusive who owns and can access Parcel 36. Board members commended the parties’ efforts to bring the issue to the forefront but also reminded both parties to “get along with one another” as the issue remains unresolved.

It’s important to know who is trying to create these spaces notes Mendez, of MAPP, before the hearing. “It is people who are seeking community, who are not seeking profit out of it, coming together and who ultimately are revitalizing this abandoned space.”  For now, Mission Greenway is continuing to make Parcel 36 a space that is accessible and directly serves the community.