The $3.4 mn “Park” at Sutro Dunes

We’ve driven by there a hundred times, and never noticed it… but it’s a Natural Area and a park, opposite Ocean Beach. It’s just below the bluff topped by Sutro Park, across the road from some neat condos.  It’s been called Parcel 4, Balboa Natural Area, and from 2010, Sutro Dunes. Recently, someone suggested we check it out.

So we did.


First, some history. This little patch of land was once part of “Playland at the Beach.” As early as 1906, it had a building on it (see the postcard below). After Playland closed down in 1972, most of the acreage was used to build housing.

But not this plot, then called Parcel 4.  The neighbors fought to save it for a park, and the city acquired it for $3.05 mn, ($1.5 mn from the Open Space fund of Rec & Park, and $1.55 mn from the Public Utility Commission’s Clean Water Program).

At this point, the plot looked, unsurprisingly, like a vacant lot. A couple of public meetings were held to figure out what people wanted. Here, two articles from a 2003 newsletter of the Coalition for San Francisco neighborhoods diverge in their account. (The newsletter, which carried two opposing articles, provided much of the back story here.) One says the neighbors wanted an actual park, with a wall to stop blowing sand, benches and trashcans, and one would assume, plants. The other account says,  “The restoration of a sand dune ecosystem was agreed to be a logical extension of the surrounding natural environment. Green lawn and trees would not survive here. Only seacoast-hardy plants native to the area could withstand the salty blasts of ocean wind.”

The plot would have been under the first building on the left

In the event, they artificially created an sand dune site. Since it didn’t actually have any sand, they trucked in $47,000 of sand at a transportation cost of $14,055. Backhoes formed this into “dunes.” No benches were put in (because the homeless would sleep on them) and no wall was built (because it would attract graffiti). The sandy patch was planted with “native plants” grown in a nursery. The pro-sand dunes article said, “The total cost for development of Parcel 4 is $222,201 with $100,000 from the General Fund and $100,000 from a State Coastal Conservancy grant.” That would presumably be in addition to the $3.05 m acquisition cost.

A cyclone fence was thrown around it to protect the plants. That was back around 2003. In an article entitled Sand Francisco, CSFN’s president noted:

The neighbors don’t like it, the costs are egregious, important documents have not been made available to the public, and it has no scientific basis. Yet in the absence of an approved environmental review, this plan is proceeding. An estimated three thousand trees have been destroyed and there are plans to destroy another three thousand. Subjective decisions are being made by people we did not elect that will remove our greenery, waste our tax money, destroy wildlife, and label our families and pets as “intruders,” since our very existence threatens these artificially created “natural areas.”

Patience, counseled the advocate in 2003.

For a preview of how Parcel 4 will look in a few years when the dune plants have spread and established themselves, visit the slopes above Baker Beach in the Presidio, or the Crissy Marsh restoration area, to see how successfully this same dune habitat system attracts both people and visitors from the wild duck, bird and insect world.

Perhaps she envisaged something like the picture at the top of this post, with bright flowers and tall grasses beneath the bluff.

While looking for information, we also came upon this glowing description in the 10 Jan 2010 issue of SF Examiner, called Sutro Dunes blooming like new. It quoted Supervisor Eric Mar: “It’s one of the most awesome natural places in the whole city — it’s a hidden gem.” And a September 2010 application for funding called it “A Place of Refuge and Relaxation.” (It’s a PDF file: COFRound1-SutroDunesPark-1)


So the other day, we actually visited the place. The good news is that there has been some improvement: it has 2 paths, 4 benches, and a trashcan. (The funding application above estimates the benches cost about $20 thousand.)

The bad news is that it still resembles nothing so much as a vacant lot. The hillside above it is green with non-native plants, and non-native trees and bushes grow lush just back of the triangular Sutro Dunes park. In the park itself – some straggling plants grow in clumps amid the sand, decorated by the occasional food wrapper or crumpled paper. The “dunes” are bumps that are barely noticeable. (If you continue along the Great Highway, there are actual natural dunes between the road and the beach.)

Here’s what the hillside above looks like.

Just behind those trees, there’s a stairway amid greenery.

So we walked through the park, several times, looking for birds or butterflies. There were plenty of  birds calling, but they weren’t in the park. They were in the trees and the bushes and the ice-plant.

In fact, they were in the landscaping of the housing across the street. They were on the housing across the street. The only birds that came by the park were a couple of playful crows that chased each other down, then left without  landing. So we looked carefully for any sign of insect life in the park and didn’t find even an ant. We saw no people there either, they were all over on the other side – the beach. (The trash must have blown in.)

We climbed up the stairway to look down at the park. The park starts where the green ends. Volunteers keep the greenery from encroaching; we saw a recent notice saying they were planning to pull out sweet alyssum (which might actually have attracted some insects).

For the record, we don’t oppose attempts to plant native gardens where they don’t destroy existing eco-systems. We find this less egregious than the unnecessary tree-felling in the Interior Green Belt (which we’ll get to in another post).

But we do wonder why anyone considers this particular park natural, a hidden gem, any kind of habitat, or a good use of taxpayer funds or borrowings.

And that pretty picture with blooming flowers at the top of this article? Here it is, on the sign.

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5 Responses to The $3.4 mn “Park” at Sutro Dunes

  1. clegyrboia says:

    What makes it almost silly is the fact that they moved sand onto the site, where did this sand come from, what did they destroy to get that sand. Next to this planting plants grown in a nursery, why not just seed it.
    Hopefully they will leave it alone now and let nature do her own thing which could work out a lot better.

  2. harryeye says:

    this is a pathetic, dead area, completely sick looking. while there were birds up on the light poles nearby, none in the garden – presumably because they can’t find a living bug. i assume that’s because they poured toxic stuff to kill the evil nonnatives.

    what a tremendous waste of public money.

  3. Skeptic says:

    If Parcel 4 is “one of the most awesome natural areas in the whole city,” what do the less successful “restorations” look like?

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