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Alta Plaza Park

Mark Ulriksen | Alta Plaza: Dogs Only

From an abandoned quarry came a jewel of an urban park 

MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, Alta Plaza Park was barren and had been used as a quarry for filling other sites. There were dangerous holes, the biggest and deepest some 150 feet by 250 feet in size — a third of a block — in the center of the park.

The land had been set aside for a park early enough to prevent such treatment. “Alta Square” was one of six public squares or plazas west of Larkin Street that the Van Ness Ordinances of 1855 reserved for park use — the others being Lafayette Park, Alamo Square, Hamilton Playground, Jefferson Square and the present Funston-Moscone Recreation Center — but for a long time City Hall did nothing to develop the site, or the others, for that matter. The eight-block-square formula for these parks was inspired in part by the notion that if a park is spacious but not too large, its visitors will be safe.

One Milo Hoadley claimed prior ownership at Alta Square and sued repeatedly to obtain it. It was only in 1888, at the United States Supreme Court, that the not-very-civic-minded Hoadley was finally rebuffed without recourse.

Houses had been going up in the neighborhood — on Clay and Steiner in the 1870s, and Scott was built up by 1885 — and naturally there was growing agitation for development of the sad and barren area so unpleasantly visible from pretty bay windows in the area. But with Hoadley on the warpath, City Hall had remained frozen.

With 1890 came the thaw. Property owners in the area hired a designer named R. Ulrich to prepare a plan for Alta Plaza Park and he duly came up with walks, terraces, the still-treasured “cozy nooks for rest and meditation,” and plantings in the defunct quarry area that had for good reason been giving the neighbors fits.

Meanwhile, a newly energized City Hall appropriated $10,000 to develop the park and from 1890 to 1892 it was graded at last, holes filled, the still-present perimeter walls built, the Clay Street side terraced, the walks and staircases constructed, trees and grass planted.

It’s been said that the great John McLaren created the plan, but I doubt it. In the 1890s McLaren was ruling over Golden Gate Park for the Parks Commission. An entirely different department, the Superintendent of Streets, was charged with the work at Alta Plaza.

Whoever thought it up, the design, with its handsome stairs, formally capped walls and Beaux Arts symmetry, is excellent. The excavations were duly refilled and the four terraces create usable space out of the steepest natural slope, the Clay Street side at Pierce.

Over the years, some Alta Plaza events have made news. After the ’06 earthquake people took refuge in it. In 1938 a city supervisor thought selling it could ease a budget crunch, but thankfully the city attorney uttered a polite no. Then in 1971 a car chase for the movie What’s Up, Doc? was filmed on the Pierce Street staircase, and the damage is still visible.

Mostly, though, the park has been a neighborhood joy, good to look at, or from, and a place where people meet people of like interests. In recent years the entrances have been enhanced and protected with seasonal flower beds. And lines of Japanese plum trees have been planted on the Steiner Street side. Long may they flourish!

Excerpted from Gables and Fables: A Portrait of San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, by Anne Bloomfield and Arthur Bloomfield

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