In late April, homeless advocates discovered the city was installing jagged rocks under Interstate 5 at Imperial Avenue to discourage camping. The motivation seemed clear: Imperial leads straight to Petco Park, home of this year’s All-Star Game. The rocks, advocates argued, were part of a larger effort—similar to one in San Francisco before this year’s Super Bowl—to get homeless people out of the area.
But a city spokesman told a different story. He said it was at the request of residents of Sherman Heights, a working-class neighborhood several blocks east of Petco Park.
“The new landscaping along Imperial Avenue is meant to address safety concerns raised by neighborhood residents in Sherman Heights who use it as their main connection to Downtown,” public works spokesman Bill Harris wrote in an April 25 email.
Sherman Heights residents have long complained about encampments blocking the sidewalk, but their complaints aren’t what drove the rock installation, according to emails obtained by Voice of San Diego through a public-records request.
In fact, Sherman Heights is never mentioned in dozens of emails exchanged between city staffers discussing the rock installation. Rather, the rocks were part of a larger effort to clean up the area prior to the July 12 All-Star Game and improve the flow of traffic to and from Petco Park. Early plans, emails show, called for rocks not only along Imperial Avenue, but also along two blocks of a wall lining Petco Park’s Tailgate Park as well as outside the New Central Library, all in an effort to deter camping and loitering near the ballpark during All-Star Game festivities.
Michael McConnell, who runs the Facebook page Homelessness News San Diego, was the first to post photos of the rocks being installed. That post and subsequent ones generated hundreds of comments, many expressing shock over the project’s $57,000 price tag.
“Starting with the aggressive encampment sweeps in March, it has become increasingly obvious that the city is attempting to hide the issue instead of solve it,” McConnell said in an interview. “It’s sad that the city does not understand that the sharp rocks are not just anti-homeless, but anti-community as well.”
According to emails, John Casey, the city’s liaison with the Padres until March, took the lead on getting price quotes for the rocks. In multiple emails, he urged city staff to move the project along. “Any breakthroughs?” he wrote in a November email. “The Padres and SDPD are asking me when we can see the curbs painted red as well as the rocks at the underpass and Tailgate Park wall.”
In early January, Casey emailed City Traffic Engineer Linda Marabian and laid out a checklist of remaining work to be done before the All-Star Game.
“Back to the vision of Imperial as a Gateway to East Village,” he wrote. “The wrought iron fence has been installed on the wall at Tailgate Park and works well at discouraging loiterers. Remaining work in anticipation of the All Star game is: Rip Rap rocks under the I-5 overpass at Imperial on both sides of the street. Rip Rap rocks at the base of the Tailgate Park wall from 12th to 14th.”
In a March 4 email, Casey told Marabian that the Padres were wondering if the rocks could be installed prior to Opening Day on April 4. Installation wasn’t completed until mid-May and was scaled back just to include rocks along the overpass wall. Original plans called for rocks curbside, too, so they’d be on both sides of the sidewalk.
In a statement, the Padres said they “did not suggest or request that rocks be installed and it was never our intent to deter homeless from the area.”
The statement goes on to say that the organization only asked that the city install “No Parking” signs and lights under the bridge and paint the curbs red.
“We made this request to the City given that the area was also dangerous for pedestrians walking to our games because they were forced to walk in the street around parked cars due to limited access to the sidewalks,” the statement says. “Ensuring that our fans can safely and efficiently travel to and from Petco Park is a top priority for the Padres.”
Harris, the city spokesman, declined to comment.
In an interview with Voice of San Diego, Casey, who’s no longer working for the city, said the idea for the rocks was his. He said he came up with it after noticing jetty rocks along the waterfront. His first thought was to put rocks along the top of a section of Tailgate Park’s wall to deter loiterers. Then, driving down Imperial Avenue one day, he wondered if the rocks would work there.
“The vision was to make Imperial Avenue a gateway to East Village, not a back alley,” he said. “The All-Star Game was a convenient deadline to get the process moving with a completion date.”
Casey said Mayor Kevin Faulconer wasn’t involved in the project. He said he’s not aware of any larger push by the mayor to clear out homeless encampments before the All-Star Game.
“It wasn’t like the mayor said, ‘Make this look better for the All-Star Game.’ There was not that level of involvement at all,” Casey said. “There was no citywide plot to displace homeless people as the articles in the paper made it seem. If it was, they would’ve done it in other areas.”
McConnell is unconvinced. He said it’s become “increasingly obvious” that stepped-up downtown clean-ups in areas with homeless encampments and enforcement actions in and around East Village are in anticipation of the All-Star Game. A block over, on Commercial Street, where it’s not unusual to see a half-dozen tents, the city has installed permanent signs warning of abatement sweeps.
What’s more, the rock installation might have made things worse for the Sherman Heights residents who were used to justify the project.
On a recent Monday afternoon, several people were setting up tents just a couple blocks east of the overpass, on the Sherman Heights side of the freeway. A spokeswoman for Councilmember David Alvarez, whose district includes Sherman Heights, said that while some residents appreciate the new walkway, others have complained that the rocks actually drove homeless folks further into their neighborhood. Alvarez’s office, the spokeswoman said, wasn’t consulted about plans for the rock installation.
In one email discussing the project, Marabian, the city traffic engineer, cautioned that the project could have unintended consequences for Sherman Heights.
“Unfortunately, if we remove people from sleeping here,” she wrote, “they will go around the corner and sleep somewhere else.”
Lisa Halverstadt contributed reporting to this story.