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

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, June 9, 2023
'Neighborhood battle' over empty SF lot turns violent
Empty San Francisco lot called "No Man's Land" worth up to $50 million is at the center of neighborhood battle prompting violence, restraining orders.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A years-long battle over an abandoned plot of San Francisco real estate reportedly worth up to $50 million has turned violent.

Neighbors call it 'No Man's Land.' It's sat vacant in the city's Mission District for decades.

The feud to access it has pitted a local business against a group of neighborhood guerilla gardeners - escalating from punches and threats to sledgehammers and power saws.

Now a local business has taken the alleged attackers to court.

'No Man's Land'

For decades the lot the city labels parcel 36 has been abandoned at the corner of Harrison and 22nd Street. But over the past five months, a local business says they've captured some unwanted visitors on camera.

One of those visits turned violent.

"I personally did hear one of the members say that he was going to take kerosene and burn it all to the ground," said Alex Menendez.

Menendez and his business partner Rudy Rucker purchased a warehouse adjacent to the empty lot to house their company headquarters. The two founded MonkeyBrains, a low-cost internet service provider that serves tens of thousands of customers in the city, including public housing.

They paid the city around $20,000 in back property taxes to access two of the three parcels that make up 'No Man's Land.' Since then, they say it's been months of harassment.

What happened?

It was May 24 just before dinner. Rudy Rucker walked out of his building to see four people on the parcel of land they had paid taxes for.

"You're a f*****g a*****e," one of the guerilla gardeners yelled at Rucker. "Get the f**k away before a fight ensues, we don't want to fight."

"You're violent!" said Rucker.

Surveillance video shows the group appeared to be messing with their newly-built planters. An argument ensues after a man in the group started screaming at Rucker about some cement he said was on the property. The woman beside him grabs Rucker's bag of chips and throws them in the dirt.

"Give me back my dinner," said Rucker.

"You want those?" the woman said, before throwing them to the ground again.

"I'm skipping dinner with my family because you guys are f*****g up my work," said Rucker.

The surveillance video shows the argument escalating further after the woman in the video is seen punching Rucker in the face and then threatening him.

"I will f**k you up," she said.

Court records identify the alleged attackers as Jay Martin and his wife Elizabeth Creeley. The couple is part of a group that calls themselves "Mission Greenway." They've been advocating for years to turn this 'No Man's Land' into a public greenspace. Last October, Creeley spoke to ABC7 admitting her group got fed up waiting to speak to the mystery property owner and broke the lock to begin a community garden.

The 'mystery'

The garden is still there, but the legal property owner is still somewhat of a mystery.

"The mystery is the location of the owners, we know their names, we know who they are, but we've not been able to find them," said Santiago Lerma, a legislative aide for Sup. Hilary Ronen who represents the area.

According to Lerma, the last company that owned this part of the land went defunct in 1936.

"We've never heard anything like this in my life. The city attorney is baffled," said Lerma. "We have rules in place to make sure this doesn't happen, but this one just slipped through the cracks."

Lerma says since 1936 nobody has come forward to claim the land he estimates is worth between $20 to $50 million.

"So that adds to the mystery," he said. "Nobody has come forward to claim the land."

The unclaimed land sat vacant until February of this year. That's when Rucker and Menendez paid the back taxes on part of the land and started to use it.

According to the city, if property taxes on a parcel of land remain unpaid for anywhere between five to seven years, the city has the right to auction off the land. Rucker and Menendez avoided that auction by paying the taxes. Lerma says it also appears they meet the legal standard for what's called a 'prescriptive easement.'

"A prescriptive easement is basically a non-recorded property right where somebody has the right to be on property that is not theirs," Lerma said.

A judge will ultimately decide if the easement will be granted.

As for the Mission Greenway Gardeners - did they have any grounds to be on the property?

"None that I know of," Lerma said.

Yet after the first punch on May 25, surveillance footage captured alleged members of the same group coming back the next day with what appeared to be a sledgehammer and a power saw.

Rucker and Menendez say they made another attempt to demolish the planters they were trying to build on that portion of the lot.

"It was this weird, almost kind of bizarre, surreal engagement where they were taking screws out of the form that we made and we were putting them back in," said Menendez.

Video shows the gardeners were out from daylight to dusk messing with the planters until SFPD arrived to detain them. Rucker and Menendez say they declined to press charges for felony vandalism.

Sierra: "How many times has this group come onto the lot?"

Menendez: "Countless."

Rucker: "At least a dozen times... to harass and intimidate us."

Menendez: "It's been crazy."

The ABC7 News I-Team made multiple attempts to speak with the four individuals involved, but we have yet to hear back. Records show they've been ordered by court to stay away from Rucker, Menendez, and the lot.

The two founders say the harassment hasn't stopped since February. From vandalizing their front door to dumping mounds of dirt and stumps allegedly to block any access into the loading dock, and even resorting to cyberbullying. Menendez says the group posted a picture of him shortly before the first attack on May 25 with a target on his shirt that wrote: "This is what mafia looks like."

Sierra: "How many times has this happened?"

Menendez: "The negative posts on social media? Maybe 30 or 40 times."

In an effort to make it stop, restraining orders were filed.

"It's depressing," said Menendez. "We all live in an urban area. We should be coexisting, figure out ways to work together."

A hearing to determine whether those temporary restraining orders will become permanent is scheduled for later this month.

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