Before 16-year-old Nikki Embalzado moved to San Francisco from the Philippines a couple years ago, a big open park greeted her outside her school. There, she and her friends would peel away from their phones, connect with the grass under them, and play with their fellow park-goers.
Now a SoMa resident, Embalzado flocks to the Yerba Buena Gardens behind the Westfield Centre or Victoria Manalo Draves (VMD) Park on Folsom and Sherman streets. Those two green spots are her solace, an escape from tall buildings, no backyard space, and cramped living quarters. She may not have as much room to run around, feel the sun on her skin, or breath fresh air — but Yerba Buena is one of the few places for her friends to hang out.
“That’s the only place I can go,” Embalzado says. “There’s not much space.”
The John O’Connell Technical High School student happens to live between the two parks, a neighborhood where few other options exist. (She also finds Dolores Park too crowded.) Green space in SoMa is so scarce, Recreation and Park spokesperson Tamara Aparton says, that the Gene Friend Recreation Center on Folsom and Sixth streets has become a busy hub for at least 1,500 kids a year enrolled in recreation programs there, plus the more than 50 youth who use the drop-in after-school program daily.
VMD Park is also heavily used. Students from Bessie Carmichael Elementary School next door come there daily, as do after-school programs run by groups like United Playaz, YMCA’s Beacon Program, South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), and the West Bay Pilipino Center. The two-acre park — named after the first Filipina-American to compete in the Olympics — opened in 2006 with a softball field, a basketball court, playground, picnic area, and community garden.
But VMD Park, with its open skies and sunshine, is threatened. After years of pushback, the Planning Commission narrowly approved a development project in December that would demolish 1050-1060 Folsom St. and 190-194 Russ St., and erect a seven-story mixed-use building with 63 housing units.
Community advocates like SOMCAN opposed it because of the shadow it will cast on the park, another prioritization of for-profit development over habitability for the families who already live there. Because of the 1984 Sunlight Ordinance, Rec and Park reviewed the project and found it would cast a shadow on the northeastern quarter of the park during late afternoons between February and October. The basketball courts and the children’s play area would be affected.
“You need that natural way of getting the vitamins you need,” Embalzado says. “If there’s a shadow there, what’s the point? It’s like taking someone’s childhood away.”
As Embalzado and 17-year-old SoMa resident Enrique Santos attest, without sun they wouldn’t have much motivation to go to a cold park with an atmosphere sapped of joy. Instead, they would likely go straight home or hang out with friends in food courts in between their time at SOMCAN’s youth program.
Santos, a Downtown High School student who has lived in SoMa since he was eight, mostly plays basketball with his friends at the Gene Friend Recreation Center but uses VMD Park as well. The alternative would be privately owned, publicly open spaces (or POPOs), but those have been criticized as insufficiently accessible to all or otherwise too small and geared toward Financial District employees on their lunch breaks.
“I’m in the park for a reason — to play and to get sweaty,” Santos says. “I’d rather stay home and not sweat at all. I’d probably feel more isolated.”
Rec and Park says keeping up the ratio of the green space to match the population boom is a priority, which is why the department opened the In Can Kaajal Park on Folsom and 17th streets in 2017. Another park, on 11th and Natoma streets, is scheduled to open by 2024 — but community groups stress the need for accessible parks nearby.
“People say, ‘Oh, why don’t you go to Golden Gate Park?’ ” says Alexa Drapiza, SOMCAN’s Youth Organizer, who grew up using VMD Park. “We love our park, and we want to make sure that people in the community are able to use it.”
Find more stories from our March 21 cover story on Sixth Street below:
Sixth Street: S.F.’s Innercity Home The city’s singular thoroughfare is alive at all hours — and much longer and more varied than you might think.
Sixth Street’s 2020 Redesign Prioritizes Pedestrians The SFMTA’s plan to improve pedestrian safety on Sixth Street brings the needs of a diverse community — low-income, disabled, and people of color — front and center.
Bini’s Kitchen: Mo’ Momos, No Problems La Cocina alum Binitha Pradhan is poised to open her largest restaurant yet on Sixth Street, across the street from a Nepalese SRO she didn’t even know existed.
That Lucky Bite, at Falafelland on Sixth Street The determined husband-and-wife team behind six-week-old Yemeni restaurant stake a claim to a difficult corner of San Francisco.