For years, faded signs have promised the residents of North Natomas that three lots mantled with dried grass and dirt would one day be turned into parks. Those promises are finally coming true.
At the other end of Sacramento, residents of a working-class neighborhood along Stockton Boulevard have fought for a decade to turn a field a few blocks from an elementary school into a park. By next fall, that effort should be complete.
And in Oak Park, one of the city’s more notorious parks, where drug dealers ruled for years, is getting a substantial makeover that includes a toddler play area, jogging track and new picnic grounds.
The work is being funded by $21 million pouring into Sacramento’s parks system over the next two years. It’s one of the most ambitious expansion and renovation efforts in recent memory for a network of green space that spans more than 3,000 acres at 222 parks.
Funding for the projects is coming from a diverse pot of money, including state grants and fees paid by developers.
Much of that funding has been available for years, but city officials held off on building new parks until money was available to fund maintenance staff needed to keep the parks clean. The city recently began shifting money from other projects into parks upkeep. The approval by voters last year of Measure U, a half-cent increase in the sales tax, also is providing a boost to the parks maintenance budget.
The list of projects reflects a broad spectrum, from the $50,000 renovation of a ball field in a small South Natomas park to next month’s scheduled opening of a $5.6 million youth baseball and softball complex at the sprawling North Natomas Regional Park.
The three new parks in North Natomas – Dogwood, Valley Oak and Wild Rose – will add 23 acres of parkland to an area of Sacramento where many residents have complained about poor city planning decisions made during the last housing boom. Even as hundreds of homes were built on the surrounding blocks and developer fees set aside for parks projects, plans for the parks were put on hold until Councilwoman Angelique Ashby redirected money collected from property-tax assessments on area homeowners from transportation and utilities work to parks maintenance.
“Life is happening out there, and for every year or decade that we put off that infrastructure, there’s a whole generation that doesn’t get the benefit,” said Ashby, who represents the area.
Even with the large-scale citywide effort, officials acknowledge some projects remain on the shelf. Plans for new parks in midtown and South Natomas are stalled as development fees, a key funding source, continue to lag in those areas. And most of the 207-acre North Natomas Regional Park is barren and will stay that way until more money is found.
“We’re definitely in better shape, but we’re not out of the woods,” said Jim Combs, the city’s parks director.
Park maintenance staffing has been cut by more than half in the past six years; volunteer corps and neighborhood associations still carry a heavy load in parks upkeep. But Combs said the new sales-tax revenue will help the city hire back about 25 percent of the workers cut during the economic downturn.
Development activity is also on the rise, and the amount of fees earmarked for parks development has risen slightly this year. That increase has created optimism among city officials and neighborhood activists that more funding will be available for expansion.
In the Fruitridge Manor neighborhood of south Sacramento, residents have lobbied for more than a decade for a park. The neighborhood of roughly 5,000 residents is one of the few in the city without one.
Now the city is moving ahead with a construction contract for what will be called Artivio Guerrero Park, named for a longtime neighborhood resident and youth advocate. The $2.8 million project is being funded by a state grant secured by the area’s council member, Kevin McCarty.
“It’s monumental,” said Mary Avila-Rogers, president of the Fruitridge Manor Neighborhood Association. “We’ve gone so long without a park. We’ve had to go outside of our neighborhood to find a place for our kids to play, for our seniors to walk.”
A state grant also will finance $2.8 million in improvements to McClatchy Park in the Oak Park neighborhood. The renovations include construction of a granite jogging trail with fitness equipment, a skate park, improvements to the irrigation system and security cameras. A few blocks away, behind Oak Park Community Center, work is progressing on a $625,000 soccer field.
“We want our kids out; we want them playing because it’s good for them. We want people to have pride in their neighborhoods and be outside in the parks because it’s going to limit crime,” said Councilman Jay Schenirer, whose district includes Oak Park. “It all relates to the health of a neighborhood.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat