Park transformation in SF stirs controversy


On any given morning, neighbors stop by Brooks Park to exercise. It offers the perfect setting for those who love being surrounded by nature.

It's an outlet for children and a comfort zone for gardeners.

Peter Vaernet is mostly responsible for the creation of this community garden.

"I'm a farm boy, I come from farmers. It was pretty amazing to see seven acres of open land lying abandoned, covered with garbage," said Vaernet.

In 1994, the city's open space committee added this land to the existing park. The Danish-born Vaernet and his neighbors have worked to keep Brooks Park a peaceful area.

The park is located in Merced Heights in the Oceanview, Merced, Ingleside neighborhood. It offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, the Farallon Islands and Mount. Tamalpais.

The land once belonged to the Brooks family. In the 1970s they sold it to the city with the condition that it would be a community park.

Shortly after the city took over the park it became a favorite hangout for drug dealers and gang members. It remained in disarray during the 1970s, 1980 and part of the 1990s when this community finally said we've had enough.

"I knew the reputation of this hill because I went to State and I didn't want to park my car across Junipero Serra back in the day and so when I saw this neighborhood, I came up for a fire, I am a firefighter in the city, I was stunned by what I saw, a hidden neighborhood, so I bought here," said

We invited the brooks' daughter, Winifred to revisit the park named after her family. For years, she had refused to return here because of years of neglect.

Despite his efforts, Vaernet has met with some opposition from a few neighbors and from the Department of Recreation and Parks for making some improvements on his own.

A year ago, Vaernet welcomed some art work, donated by students from San Francisco State University.

Larry Martin is the President of the Recreation and Park Commission.

"And they came and took all that stuff out of here because that was illegal. First of all, we put things up for other foundations and organizations but they have to get permits from us first to do it," said Martin.

But we visited two other parks that display artwork, Alamo Square and Cayuga Park. The carved sculptures is what makes Cayuga unique. All were placed here without a permit. But the artist was also a gardener for recreation and park.

Isabel Wade is with the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council. She says the city should work with volunteers not against them.

"It isn't satisfactory to just leave these natural resources, these community resources to fend for themselves, they don't fend for themselves. People like Peter have been amazing, but he needs help," said Wade.

Today, the artwork lives in the community garden and in front of Vaernet's home.

He says doesn't hold a grudge. Instead, today he's pushing the city to make better use of the park and to add play structures like this one found in the more affluent neighborhoods.

Vaernet's says his focus will always be on keeping this a community effort.

"It's an on-going project. I think my grandson will probably still be working out here pulling weeds and planting plants. I don't think this will ever be finished in my lifetime," said Vaernet.

We developed that story from an ABC7 Listens meeting, a forum we hold to get ideas about what's happening in your community.

We try to hold them every other month, and our next one is in El Cerrito, on September 23rd at the Community Center on Moeser Lane. We hope you can join us there.

Copyright © 2024 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.