A tiny corner of Costa Mesa has been ground zero in a long struggle over a mound of dirt.
At the end of Canary Drive, an incline connects the paved suburbia to the occasionally wind-swept grassy bluff at the northeastern edge of Fairview Park.
But for nearly 20 years, the inconspicuous slope in the Upper Birds neighborhood has been the source of two major city studies, public and private debates, tax dollars spent and a petition signed.
What many folks there have wanted was a staircase. With handrails.
Others, though, including a former city mayor, took the opposite view. They've contended that a staircase would draw more people, thus more traffic and parking problems on their quiet, secluded street.
Leading the case for some stairs is Bob Graham, who was recently appointed to serve again on the Parks and Recreation Commission. The retired Gardena High School science teacher lives in the Lower Birds, a neighborhood across Placentia Avenue from the Upper Birds — a fact of residence, he admitted, that makes him somewhat of an "outsider" to any issues facing Canary Drive.
He led a door-to-door petition that, he said, effectively shows a majority of Upper Birds residents want a proper, safer and easier way to get into Fairview Park.
"The thing that saved it, that allowed me to do it, is there was no selling involved," Graham said. "All I had to do was explain it: 'We're trying to put stairs up at the end.' Everybody knows Canary Drive because they've all gone up there."
Graham, a lifelong Newport-Mesa resident and Newport Harbor High School alumnus, said pushing for Canary's access was "just something that needed to be done."
"I've seen too many things in the city that ... made it Goat Hill at one time," he said. "And we're climbing out of that situation. It's something that needed to be done, and I tried to get it done."
As of this week, the saga involving the stairs proposal could finally be nearing an end. The majority of the City Council voted Tuesday to give the stairs another incremental OK.
The idea will be now submitted as a capital improvement project for the city's 2013-14 fiscal year budget, said interim city engineer Fariba Fazeli. The council will consider it and all the other projects this June.
"It's not a project yet, and they get to vote on it during the budget hearing," Fazeli said. "If it gets approved, we start the design and construction."
If approved this summer, the estimated completion date is September 2014.
'A very dangerous situation'
The story of getting improved access from Canary Drive to Fairview Park dates to at least 1995, when the city commissioned a Garden Grove-based firm for a "bicycle/pedestrian ramp" on the hill. The firm's report addressed the stability of the slope and its use as a possible entrance to the park.
As would be discussed through the years, the firm opined that the slope's steepness "presents a very dangerous situation to many cyclists and joggers trying to access the trail located in Fairview Park. It also poses grave danger to many students who try to use this route to [Estancia] High School."
In 1999, another firm was hired. It presented five options for the slope, each with an estimated cost: install a long ramp for $190,000; a switchback ramp for $33,000; stairs for $36,100; a different ramp for $38,000; or buy, then demolish, the house at 2689 Canary Drive to make room for a "looping ramp system" that could accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers and even emergency vehicles.
The looping ramp's estimated total cost? More than $700,000.
Driving up the cost of the $190,000 long ramp was two nearby underground water lines, which would have required a costly relocation.
The council received the five recommendations in December 2000, and the following February, voted to kick the issue down to was then called the Parks, Recreation Facilities and Parkways Commission.
Councilwoman Karen Robinson, however, who lives on Canary Drive, abstained from voting, but not without declaring her opposition to the idea. According to the meeting minutes, she said Canary is "private and isolated," and better access to Fairview Park would create significant traffic on the street. She also suggested planters to prevent access from bicyclists and skateboarders.
That July, the parks commission gave its recommendation to the council: They should approve an estimated $75,000 stairway and beautified retaining wall.
Then at that month's council meeting, Councilman Gary Monahan made a motion to make it all happen, but with the smallest stairway possible. The motion failed to find a second.
Another motion that would have removed any notion of Canary Drive access from Fairview Park's master plan, as well as build a retaining wall to close off access, also failed. Robinson again abstained.
In effect, the issue was delayed to that August to hear more residents' input.
A Daily Pilot editorial from the time was critical of Robinson and the lack of park access.
"But even more disturbing is the idea, the impression at least, that the residents of this street are trying to deny an obvious improvement to the park that would benefit far more people than live on this tiny block," the Pilot wrote. "It sure seems like a bad case of NIMBYism to us."
By November 2001, the council moved to address Canary Drive's access when that section of Fairview Park's development was up for design planning.
For stair advocates, however, the decision effectively put the project in limbo. There was no foreseeable date in the future of when Fairview Park's "Area G" would be up for discussion.
Receive and file
Graham never gave up on his effort for the stairs. His advocacy for all of Fairview Park was recognized by then-Mayor Monahan in 2004 with a Mayor's Award.
While a Parks and Recreation commissioner from 2004 to 2008, he again brought up Canary Drive access.
At Graham's request, in 2006 the city's director of public services opined that people using the Canary Drive slope were exposed to potential danger, that it is "improper access and should not be used."
"Those who do, use it at their own risk, and the nature of the hill is open and obvious to anyone who uses it," William J. Morris wrote in a 2006 inter-office memo that reviewed the slope for risk management. "It is, therefore, recommended that no [warning] signs be installed."
He also wrote that no claims have been filed against the city related to the hill, and that any attempts to fully block park access from that street would likely be futile.
In 2008, Graham again brought up the Canary Drive topic. That June, the commissioners voted to continue the item to the July meeting. During that July session, the commissioners voted to receive and file a report that effectively left the Canary Drive slope as is, without any stairs or wall, until Area G is discussed.
The vote was unanimous.
'You got those stairs in yet?'
After a short jaunt up the Canary Drive slope he's long sought to improve, on a windy Wednesday afternoon, Graham stood on the hill overlooking the expanse of Fairview Park and adjacent Santa Ana River. The day before, during the council meeting, he called the hill a "Third World country trail."
He noted the water lines that would've made putting any ramp there expensive. He noted the sandbags the city has placed on the hill to curb its erosion. He noted the wall next to the hill that, after rainy days, gets mud all over it from people scraping their shoes.
He also complained about lack of access to the park's northern edge. "Here's the deal: There's no way to get through from here to Harbor Boulevard. And from here to the river, the only other access point is on Placentia."
"You don't see it when you just look at a map or something," he added. "You don't realize the accessibility to it is kind of unique and restricted."
There's also the recent unveiling of the 37-acre Wetlands & Riparian Habitat down the way, Graham said.
"We're gonna have a lot more activity up here," he said, "and it's going to be timely to get the stairs in."
After going down the hill and back onto Canary, Graham said hello to the few passersby.
"You got those stairs in yet?" said a passing jogger.
"You bet!" Graham replied. "I've got my hammer and nails in the car."
Later, at his house in the Lower Birds, Graham showed a picture of the hill's post-rainstorm muddy conditions.
"Here's the mud," he said, pointing to some pictorial evidence. "Look at that, for one of our top neighborhoods in town. Forty years. That's ridiculous."
Graham still has all his survey materials, including the written reasons advocates gave for some stairs: safety for my children, have slipped coming down, bad knees, wife needs the stairs, need stairways, handrails, "should be a no-brainer," need access for daily walk.
And what of concerns that his petition was faulty?
"It wasn't faulty," he said. "What I said is I want to put up stairs and a handrail. And then they took it to mean there would be stuff beyond that. No, the petition is that simple. That's it. It was nothing more ... some of the people who didn't want it were stirring it up, saying there's gonna be more stuff coming down the pike, this isn't all of it, blah blah blah."
He said he can't fault the dissenters, though, for their parking concerns. And despite reports of people drinking or doing drugs in that area of Fairview Park, he doesn't equate having stairs to spurring an uptick in burglaries or graffiti.
Graham compares the potentially dangerous hill to graffiti: "When you got something like that sitting there, it says people don't care. Pull in, park, throw your trash in the street."
With the council's latest vote on it, Graham said it's time to move on. He doesn't want to provoke any additional antagonistic sentiment over it.
But what of the story's prolonged nature?
"Can you believe it? That somewhere along the way, somebody didn't say, 'Just spend $15,000, put in a cheap, dirty staircase, with handrails, and be done with it.'"