Friday, February 11, 2011

Dueling plans for Friendship Park on display

Sign on San Diego
February 8, 2011
by Elizabeth Aguilera

Friendship Park activists and the Border Patrol will unveil opposing design plans for the area around Friendship Circle on the border Wednesday.

Border Patrol plans include replacement of primary fencing and no changes in public access, while the Friends of Friendship Park's plan includes seating, landscaping and increased visiting hours for the public.

The Border Patrol is hosting the open house from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Marina Vista Community Center, 1075 8th St. in Imperial Beach.

Public access to the park, on the border near the most southwestern edge of the county, has been limited since 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security completed secondary fencing in the area that locked Friendship Circle and much of the park between the primary and secondary fencing.

The Border Patrol’s proposed design, called Surf Fence Project, would replace 1,200 feet of fencing from Friendship Circle to the surf. It will be made of “shade structure,” a slat-like fencing with spaces in between the slats, said Steven Pitts, spokesman for the Border Patrol.

Pitts would not comment on the Friends' proposal. He said the Border Patrol is focused on operational goals and safety of both the public and agents. Before the installation of secondary fencing, he said, the area was known as a place where agents were accosted with rocks and smuggling was rampant.

Members of the public are only allowed in the park on weekends between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for 30 minutes at a time. Only 25 people are allowed in at the same time. An additional barrier erected near the primary fencing keeps visitors from touching fingers or whispering updates to one another.

Since the changes were implemented, Friends of Friendship Park, a coalition of volunteers, have been pushing for increased access and a better design that would give the area between the fences a more park-like feel. The coalition’s design by San Diego architect James Brown, principal at Public Architecture and Planning, is meant to create a more inviting atmosphere.

Before the change in 2009, visitors could walk up to the fence, the monument and along the beachline. Guests to the park would visit with friends or family on the other side, touch fingers and chat through the fence. Some would tote beach chairs and set up picnics along the fence.

“That experience has virtually been eliminated,” said Jill Holslin, a leader of the Friends group. “You feel like you are entering into a prison on visiting day. It’s a highly militarized environment.”

Pitts said the Army Corp of Engineers is reviewing the Friends design and if it is approved it will go before Customs and Border Protection leadership for a final decision.

The design created by Brown allows public access up to primary mesh fencing at three points, the binational garden, the foundry monument and the beach area. The secondary fencing entries in the design would be flexible enough to be opened wide for regular park access and to be shut down for security reasons, according to the plans.

“You still have the fence, there is no negating that, but it takes away a little bit of that feeling of being in a holding cell,” Brown said. “We take the responsibility to create a park that fulfills current Border Patrol needs very seriously at the same time designing a park that allows enough flexibility that it can have a life in the future when there is not so much security around it.”

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