Berkeley Meadows opens at long last

October 6, 2006 – By Denis Cuff and Martin Snapp

The skies were overcast but the mood was sunny as VIPs and ordinary folks rubbed shoulders Wednesday morning at the opening of a 17-acre slice of the Berkeley Meadow as the first developed part of the Eastshore State Park, which stretches from Oakland to Richmond.

Originally part of the Bay, the meadow was filled in a century ago to make a garbage dump. In the 1960s, developers proposed constructing a huge shopping center and office complex on the site, but a citizens’ revolt stopped that plan cold.

The loudest cheers of the day were for the leader of that revolt, 89-year-old Sylvia McLaughlin of Berkeley, founder of Save the Bay.

“This has been about 40 years coming,” she said. “But it’s only the first step. Now we have to transform this land so it looks like a real park, rather than a linear vacant lot.”

Assemblyman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley/El Cerrito, who was mayor of Berkeley during the 1980s when the struggle to create the 2,200-acre, 8.5-mile long park was being waged, sounded relieved.

“I have watched this park grow, parcel by parcel, improvement by improvement, lawsuit by lawsuit,” she said.

Her husband, Berkeley’s current mayor, Tom Bates, called the day “the proudest moment of my career.”

Bates wrote the original enabling legislation in the 1970s, when he was a state assemblyman. Then, as a member of the Budget Committee, he set aside money for the park year after year whenever the voters passed a new bond measure.

“Tom really took the lead,” said East Bay Regional Park General Manager Pat O’Brien.

For Bates, it was a bittersweet occasion.

“I wish Dwight Steele could have been here,” he said.

Steele, who teamed with Bates, McLaughlin, former Albany Mayor Robert Cheasty and Sierra Club leader Norman La Force of El Cerrito to found Citizens for East Shore Parks, died in 2003.

“We always used to talk about making this happen in our lifetime,” said Bates. “Unfortunately, it didn’t happen in his.”

One of Steele’s assets was that he was an active Republican, giving park supporters access to both parties.

“We were getting stonewalled by the Deukmejian administration,” Bates said. “But Dwight got Pete Wilson to make a campaign stop here when he was running for governor and pledge to support the park. And when Wilson got elected, he kept that promise.”

The meadow embodies the character of the overall park: an abused natural area fixed up for new uses.

“Much of the shoreline park used to be used for dumps where trash fires often burned for days,” said Larry Tong, interagency planning manager for the East Bay Regional Park District.

Under a partnership agreement, the state provided most of the money to buy the park land, while the regional park district is responsible for developing and operating it.

To restore the first 17 acres of the 70-acre Berkeley Meadow, state and regional park officials spent approximately $3 million to haul away or seal off toxic waste, haul away concrete construction debris, improve habitat and build trails.

Park builders graded low spots to capture rain in winter and attract waves of migratory ducks and geese.

Crews also graded high spots for trails and overlooks with prime views of San Francisco’s skyline and the East Bay hills.

Workers painstakingly used hand tools to weed out nonnative plants and put in native ones to create a rich shoreline ecosystem.

Although controlled burns are used in some areas to kill nonnative plants, a fire was impractical in the Berkeley Meadow because thick smoke could easily drift onto and close the Interstate 80 freeway nearby, Tong said.

“The good thing about the Eastshore Park is it’s near a densely populated urban area,” Tong said, “and the difficult thing about creating the park is it’s so near a densely populated urban area.”

The meadow is classified as a conservation area appropriate for low-intensity recreation, under an Eastshore Park general plan adopted in 2002.

More intense activities will be allowed in park recreation zones, including Berkeley’s north basin strip where planners propose a visitors center, hostel, boathouse, picnic tables, and a waterfront promenade with steps to the water.

Those projects are many years off, though, park planners say.

In the meantime, many parts of the new park already are in use.

Many people already visit undeveloped portions of the shoreline park to jog, walk dogs, fish, picnic and launch sailboards.

Many dog walkers continue to flock to Point Isabel Regional Park in Richmond, an area opened nearly 30 years ago that has been declared part of the Eastshore Park.

Park officials say getting money to operate and develop other areas in Eastshore will be a challenge.

State and Regional Park operators spent more than $30 million to acquire and clean up the 2,200 acres in the Eastshore Park, about 365 acres of which is on land above the high tide mark.

But more money is needed to develop and restore other areas, including the other 53 acres of the Berkeley Meadow.

“It may take decades to finish the entire park,” Tong said.


Source: Contra Costa Times