San Francisco preschool caught in crossfire of violent neighborhood battle over empty lot

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, June 16, 2023
SF preschool caught in crossfire of violent battle over empty lot
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A preschool tied into a battle over an abandoned plot of San Francisco land spoke about alleged harassment they say is targeting students and staff.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A local preschool tied into a years-long battle over an abandoned plot of San Francisco real estate spoke exclusively to the I-Team about alleged harassment they say is targeting students and staff.

It's the latest twist to a drawn-out dispute pitting a local business against a group of so-called 'guerilla gardeners' that are trying to access the deserted plot of land reportedly worth up to $50 million. It's called Parcel 36, or 'No Man's Land,' located at the corner of 22nd and Harrison St. in the city's Mission district.

The gardener group is part of an organization called 'Mission Greenway' that's been pushing to turn Parcel 36 into a public green space. Land use attorneys argue the problem is that it's private property.

In late May, the group was captured on surveillance footage making threats to Monkeybrains, a local internet service provider that has paid the back taxes to currently access the lot. In the footage, the alleged gardener group is seen demolishing their property on the land with a sledgehammer and power saw.

But new video released to the ABC7 News I-Team shows before this fight, an adjacent preschool was targeted first.

RELATED: Video shows 'neighborhood battle' over empty SF lot turn violent, prompting restraining orders

"Starting in October they came to the site and used power tools to break through fencing that had previously secured the site and had continued to do that repeatedly almost every day since then," said Christina Maluenda Marchiel, the co-director of Mission Kids Preschool.

"Every weekend since October?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.


Marchiel says the gardening group turned violent last October when they labeled themselves 'the guerilla gardeners.' She says that's when the group started using power tools to cut locks, chain, and a hole in the fence that secured the property around the preschool.

"They have engaged families verbally, heckled them as they were picking up their children from school," Marchiel said. "They have harassed staff coming and going into the facility...even during off hours on the weekend."

According to Marchiel, the group would scream at families and staff calling them "colonialists." Heather Lubeck, one of the teachers says she was often scared to leave school at the end of the day.

Aerial view of Parcel 36.
Aerial view of Parcel 36.

"It's been difficult," said Lubeck. "Our job at Mission Kids is to teach two and three-year-olds social and emotional skills so they can get along with others... Yet right outside the gate, I see a group of grownups that wants something, so they're just going to take it."

Surveillance footage from May 14 shows members of the alleged gardening group pulling a hose from a public park across the street to use on the lot. Marchiel says it was to water their garden. A week later surveillance footage shows a person came back with power tools to cut a hole in the fence.

"They have stolen water, they've punched someone in the face, they've brought sledgehammers to destroy property, they have restraining orders against them, they've used social media to bully people, they've verbally attacked kids and staff... it's literally the exact opposite of what we are teaching the littlest members of society how to be with each other, it's such a dichotomy," said Lubeck.

The I-Team discovered the dispute is a dichotomy in more ways than one.

A big part of this feud stemmed from the understanding this abandoned lot had no known property owner. Neighbors were told that's the reason the Department of Building Inspection was unable to enforce the rules and issue appropriate violations when incidents like the fence cutting and sledgehammer destruction happened.

Rick Swig, the President of the San Francisco Board of Appeals indicated the situation could've been handled more effectively if city agencies worked together.

RELATED: Empty SF lot with 'no owner' creating controversy after residents attempt to claim space as garden

"We had, I don't even know how many people, who didn't know who the owner was," said Swig. "Low and behold we find out the Assessor's Office, they knew about it the whole time. Boy, it would've been nice if the Assessor's Office had a pipeline to the Department of Building Inspection."

Santiago Lerma, the legislative aide for Sup. Hillary Ronen who has been extensively working on the issue, told the I-Team Mr. Swig's comments don't accurately describe the current situation of law and fact.

"The city is aware of the owners of all three parcels, but the majority were unable to be located," Lerma said. "At the Board of Appeals hearing, we heard from an attorney who represents the family who owns a percentage of one of the parcels, but does not have controlling property rights over the whole parcel."

Lerma added there are more than 15 listed owners of one parcel of 'No Man's Land' -- each owning a certain percentage but none with the right to sell, lease or develop the land individually.

In other words, the mystery of Parcel 36 didn't have to be such a mystery. In June, one of the lot's property owners came forward during a public hearing discussing the matter.

A land use attorney made this argument during the hearing.

"It is not within their legal power or any city agencies power to dictate the current and future use of this parcel because the parcel is private property," said Julia Graeser Mata, an attorney representing Monkeybrains. "There is no such thing as private property that does not have a legal owner of record."

The I-Team repeatedly tried to speak with Mission Greenway but we were told they were unavailable for an interview. The group only responded to ABC7 News via Instagram regarding the incident involving Monkeybrains caught on surveillance footage.

"Monkeybrains has threatened to call ICE on members of our community," said a spokesperson for Mission Greenway. "Monkeybrains investigates community volunteers and has since made these ICE threats, which is a form of extortion. It is truly insane."

Rudy Rucker and Alex Menendez, the founders of Monkeybrains, deny those accusations - adding they were the victims of this group's harassment and assault. Both have secured temporary restraining orders against the individuals seen in the video to prevent any further violence.

A permit to put up a legally sanctioned fence between the preschool and Monkeybrains was denied in late April. The San Francisco Board of Appeals has since sent a letter to the Mayor and several city agencies demanding more action be taken to resolve this.

In the meantime, Monkeybrains and Mission Kids are hopeful peace will come back to the neighborhood.

"I hope we can work together legally to take steps to share this space and share our community," said Marchiel.

Take a look at more stories by the ABC7 News I-Team.

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