SF CHRONICLE: Interior Greenbelt Park at top of Mt. Sutro open

SF Chronicle

Interior Greenbelt Park at top of Mt. Sutro open
Kelly Zito, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, June 12, 2011

For generations, a flight of rickety steps squeezed between two Cole Valley homes seemed to belong to no one and lead to nowhere.

This month, however, San Francisco unlocked the long-hidden secret beyond that staircase – a leafy, birdsong-filled glen once owned by city forefather Adolph Sutro and fenced off for more than a half century.

The 12-acre spread, known as the Interior Greenbelt Park, is now open to members of the public, who can meander along the half-mile trail to the top of Mount Sutro, passing a seasonal creek as well as shrubs and plants not seen anywhere else in the city.

“Most people in San Francisco and Twin Peaks have been driving by these stairs for decades and never thought they was worth investigating,” said Craig Dawson, executive director of the Sutro Stewards, a conservation group that aided the city’s Recreation and Park Department in uncovering the trail.

Resurrection of the park – which lies very close to the geographical center of the city – also represents a major step in a long-running bid to link some of San Francisco’s largest green spaces. Just a few blocks north sits Golden Gate Park; to the southeast lies Twin Peaks.

In the 1940s and 1950s, city planners had hoped to create a sprawling park encompassing Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, Diamond Heights and Glen Park, Dawson said. As development pressures increased, however, homes, streets and parking lots reduced the area to a series of green islands amid a sea of concrete and stucco. Now, there is talk of routing the regional Bay Ridge Trail through the area, which also adjoins 60 acres of green space circling Mount Sutro and controlled by UCSF.

In that sense, the park revives an interesting bit of San Francisco history.

More than 100 years ago, the Interior Greenbelt pathway was a popular route for residents of eastern San Francisco (then known as Yerba Buena) who wanted to visit the so-called “outside lands” west of Twin Peaks. Much of the property was then controlled by Sutro, a Prussian immigrant who found success in the Sierra Nevada mine fields. At one time, he owned about 2,200 acres across the city, including the sandy shrub land on the shoulders of what was then called Blue Mountain.

Sutro’s forest
Through the late 1800s, Sutro planted eucalyptus, cypress and pines on the property and the trail was sculpted with switchbacks and fortified with stones to allow easy travel for horseback riders and ladies in long skirts. The land eventually passed to UCSF and other private owners. Then in 1957, the city purchased the Interior Greenbelt parcel and two others for $175,000.

The greenbelt property, however, was not to see the light of day. Worried about homeless encampments on the site, residents in the area blocked off the narrow opening to the land at Stanyan and 17th streets – apparently with the city’s blessing, according to Dawson’s research on public meetings. The 12 acres remained concealed for decades – just a tiny portion accessible from Edgewood Avenue.

Trove of plant life
Several years ago, the city’s Recreation and Park Department began exploring the property as part of an inventory of its green spaces. Because it was so overrun by blackberry bushes and deteriorating eucalyptus, the park was last on the list. Officials also had no clue what they would uncover, but to their surprise, they found a treasure trove of plant life, including snowberry, wood roses, fairy bells, wild cucumber, elderberry and at least one species never recorded in San Francisco’s botanical history: elk clover.

“It really is a beautiful trail,” said Kate Possin, a neuropsychologist at UCSF who was out walking her poodle Tigger on Wednesday. “I’ve already been here three times this week.”

Not everyone has embraced this week’s reopening, however. More visitors mean more pedestrian and car traffic in the quiet neighborhood around the overhauled entranceway. And one neighbor objected to the gateway’s close proximity to the side windows on her home. The city has attempted to address her concerns by erecting a tall wooden fence along the walkway.

“We know that support for this wasn’t completely wholehearted,” said Lisa Wayne, who oversees the city’s Natural Areas program within the park department. “But we do know … there’s a lot of interest in creating these open, green corridors in the middle of the city. This could be a real destination for people.”

How to get to Interior Greenbelt Park: The stairway entrance is situated on a lot between two homes at 1229 and 1235 Stanyan St., at the intersection of Stanyan and 17th streets in Cole Valley.

There are no signs at the entrance yet, but the city is in the midst of completing a new wooden stairway to the park.

E-mail Kelly Zito at kzito@sfchronicle.com.

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This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle