Eastshore State Park
Report on the Preliminary General Plan and the response from the EBRPD Board of Directors
By Paul Kamen
This is a brief analysis of the Preliminary General Plan and Environmental Impact Report for the Eastshore State Park as published in July 2002.
The ESP planning team deserves a great deal of credit for successfully navigating a perilous course among the various interest groups and political forces brought to bear on this planning process. They have clearly had to make some serious compromises. But the result shows a reasonable balance of the various forces at play. There is something in the plan for all of the major interest groups, although naturally they all perceive this "balance" as being less than ideal with respect to their own particular priorities.
This evaluation is no exception: the plan is light on access to water-borne recreation, and especially light on water-borne recreation that does not require ownership of one's own boat.
But this element is not absent from the plan, and if the details are implemented the right way, it could be a very successful waterfront park even from the water access perspective.
Commentary on the Plan, South to North
This area evokes the least controversy. There is consensus that it should be a nature preserve, with no human use of the narrow uplands and restricted water access.
The possibility of artificial islands, however, is mentioned In the plan as a means of expanding bird habitat. Representatives Sierra Club and Audubon (Norman La Force and Arthur Feinstein) have previously made it clear that they considered this a question that "had already been decided" and was no longer on the table as an option.
Even with new habitat islands, the Plan does not propose re-aligning the Bay Trail to the shoreline. This was one idea promoted in conjunction with artificial islands (so that upland habitat would not be lost). The Bay Trail now goes inland through the Emeryville commercial zone from Powell Street to the Bay Bridge.
Berkeley Beach and the Bay Trail, Ashby to University
This is another area that evokes relatively little controversy. Some CESP members (Ed Bennett) are still interested in converting frontage road to a northbound one-way, allowing a wider trail and more access. This is not in the plan. Presumably this would be strongly opposed by CalTrans, but as far as the park is concerned, there is no compelling reason to object to that configuration.
There has been some interest by kayakers in water access points on the Brickyard, and this is reflected in the Plan. However, these access points may be somewhat misplaced.
The composite photo/rendering shows a high tide shoreline - if the photo were taken at a lower low tide, the water access would be seen to be highly problematic. While it's true that most kayakers know how to read a tide book, it's also true that there are much more suitable locations for water access that could have been used instead, with much better utility at all tide levels.
A "promenade" is shown along the Brickyard Peninsula, and there is some objection to this from both the CESP and the "Let it Be" camps. However, it seems to be the word more than the actual design feature that evokes the negative response. "Promenades" may be unnatural features, but they are no more unnatural than the inhospitable rip-rap that this "hardened" edge treatment would replace.
The recreational beach shown inside (to the east of) the Brickyard Peninsula might also be misplaced. At low tide this entire cove is a mudflat, and the beach is notorious for rapid accumulations of trash (despite the annual beach clean-up). This cove, between the Peninsula and the freeway, would probably be more appropriately designated for wetland restoration and should be given preserve status.
The treatment of the Strawberry Creek outflow is good, but this was not an area of any significant controversy.
The Brickyard itself is to be one of the primary park entry points and the probable location of park headquarters and the main visitor center.
Provision is made for allowing a café/market/food service concession to remain, and with any luck Seabreeze Market will be allowed to continue exactly as it is now. It is very easy to imagine a State Parks bidding process resulting in a new concessionaire, and the same mediocre food service that characterizes other State Park food concessions. This is definitely something that is not broken and should not be fixed, even if it involves a lease-back to the City to avoid State Park protocols.
The amount of parking on the Brickyard is not specified. There is a critical need for more parking during waterfront festival events (Berkeley Bay Festival, Fourth of July, Kite Festival), and if the park becomes a popular family destination, parking will be in high demand on all summer weekends. The right amount of parking will remain an unresolved controversy.
Playing fields have also been left out of the plan for the Brickyard. Arguably they work better here than on the Albany Plateau, due to (probably) more stable ground and much better bicycle and bus access. But the Brickyard is not as big as the Plateau, and if there is an advantage to having all the fields in one place, the Plateau can absorb more of this use.
The Northwest Corner of the Meadow is one of the best locations for a boating facility, but the Meadow is sacred turf to CESP and the politics made this a difficult proposition from the beginning. It is much to the planning team's credit that the development of a small portion of the meadow was shown on some of the earlier alternatives, but inevitably this feature had to go.
The plan now reflects the very strong desire by CESP to leave all of the meadow as a conservation area.
The north shore of the Meadow is a shoreline that is to be "softened" by removing or covering the rip-rap shoreline to produce a more gentle slope into the water of the North Sailing Basin. Most of the waterfront is badly in need of this kind of "naturalization" treatment, and this is not an inappropriate place for it. The very small-scale details of the water's edge are critical to the waterfront experience, so this is a very positive element of the plan.
Unfortunately the all-conservation approach to the Meadow leaves no room for active recreation. The case can be made that, like the Brickyard, the Meadow would have been a better location than the Plateau for playing fields. It has also been argued that if only two or three of the 73 acres of the Meadow were used for parking (at 135 cars/acre), then a much wider range of park users could served, even during the most popular times of the week.
The North Basin Strip
The daylighting of Schoolhouse Creek is positive and non-controversial. The promenade to be developed along the strip evokes negative reactions for the same reasons as the Brickyard promenade proposal, but in this case there is little choice. The beach along this shoreline is extruding glass and other landfill constituents as it erodes, and a "hard urban edge" is probably the only treatment of the water's edge that is practical here.
The Plan calls for a launch facility and boathouse for non-motorized watercraft. This is the single most positive element of the Plan. It recognizes the importance of allowing park visitors an opportunity to float on the water instead of just looking at it, and this is where the real connection between the East Bay communities and the Bay itself can be re-established. Water-related activities are the only activities that are unique to the waterfront, and they are the surest way to build an environmental constituency.
Unlike the South Sailing Basin, which already hosts a number of sailing and windsurfing programs, the North Sailing Basin is a relatively large body of protected water that is suitable for entry-level rowing, kayaking, dragon boat racing, outrigger canoe instruction, and primary instruction in very small sailboats. In summer when the wind is up, it is a far more appropriate location for youth programs than the South Sailing Basin.
There appears to be some hint of recognition in the plan that non-profit cooperatives may have an important role to play here. Still, there is a danger that the usual State Parks pattern will be followed, and commercial concessions will take over the facility and only offer expensive market-rate access.
Non-profits, especially cooperatives that rely on volunteer labor, can dramatically outperform both commercial concessions and municipal programs in terms of boating access delivered at very low price points. This probably goes beyond the scope of the plan itself, but it is critical that the boating facility be implemented in a way that encourages and supports cooperative non-profits as the primary tenants. Otherwise, access to water-borne recreation will be available only to those who own their own boats, or at expensive commercial rental rates.
Organized boating programs now have the potential to serve the recreational needs of a large segment of the local community in a much more cost-effective and interesting way than playing fields. Consider the high cost of acquiring and maintaining a field, and the limited number of people who can use it at any one time. Also consider the new popularity of team paddling sports such as dragon boat and outrigger canoe racing. The water surface doesn't need maintenance, and the boats are inexpensive and easily maintained compared to fields. Perhaps more important, competitive paddling or rowing attracts many young people who are bypassed by the school athletic culture. It can make a huge difference in the lives of a large number of youth.
CESP and the Sierra Club have taken the position that the North Sailing Basin is critical habit for diving ducks from October through April, and that even non-motorized boating should be prohibited during these seven months of the year. However, there is no clear evidence that the proposed sailing and paddling activities would have a measurable negative impact on the ducks. Note that the South Sailing Basin, with several relatively intense programs in operation year round, continues to be popular duck habitat. Also note that in nearly all other conservation areas that need protection from boating activity, it is considered adequate to prohibit powerboats while allowing kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats. (This is the case in nearby Aquatic Park, a much more constrained body of water with equal or greater habitat value. Paddling and rowing is allowed all year, but water-skiing is prohibited during the winter migrating bird season.)
There is complete consensus that all boating activity near the shores of the Eastshore State Park should be non-motorized. The Plan calls for the "appropriate resource agencies" to evaluate the need for further restrictions. This means that it will probably fall on the California Department of Fish and Game to make the call.
This is a very positive element of the plan, as it removes this evaluation from the local politics of the Sierra Club, CESP and other interested parties, and puts it in the hands of a State agency which much more likely to follow a scientific and objective process. If this process determines that restrictions are in fact necessary, they might take the form of access channels or buoyed "no-sail" areas within the North Sailing Basin that protect the habitat yet still allow the boating facility to function year-round.
One deficiency of the plan is that it does not provide for a buffer between the freeway and the North Basin Strip. The freeway is far and away the most significant negative environmental factor on the waterfront, especially on the relatively narrow North Basin Strip, and a berm covered with dense vegetation would go a long way to mitigating this existing negative impact. Some CESP members (Sylvia McGlaughlin) insist that a berm would block views from the freeway, but in fact there is no existing view of the Bay or of the North Sailing Basin from a mid-sized car driving along the part of the freeway in question. The view is from the Gilman overpass, and this would not be affected by a barrier berm along the portion of the North Basin Strip that is in the Eastshore State Park.
The plan calls for this to be a recreational beach with some efforts made to preserve the existing sand dunes behind it. However, existing use is heavily skewed towards off-leash dog running, and the plan ignores this very large constituency. Dog-friendly beaches are extremely rare, and the plan should make some accommodation. One possibility is the smaller beach to the south of Albany Beach, near the abandoned Fleming Point pier.
One of these two beaches should be designated as a dog beach, while the other should be dog-free. Even if the dog beach is the smaller one, it would be a compromise that the dog lobby would probably be happy to accept, and it would have the practical effect of making the dog prohibition on the larger and more sensitive Albany beach more easily enforceable.
Bob Arnold of CESP continues to characterize the Eastshore State Park Plan as "trying to put three gallons in a two gallon container." But with over eight miles of shoreline and 260 dry-land acres, the metaphor is more accurately stated as "three gallons in a ten gallon container." Considering the urban environment, perhaps it would have been a more balanced plan if this big container held four or five gallons and not just three.
A good example of this is the plan for the Plateau. Speakers at workshops and public hearings wax poetic about their experience of the Plateau as a wild and natural place for solitary walks and contemplative views. Study the aerial photo/rendering of the Plateau in the plan: Even with four playing fields, the wide band of natural perimeter around the fields allows the same solitary walks and the same contemplative views. Add a couple of trails down to the secret beaches on the Plateau's north-west side, and the potential for a natural and isolated experience is enhanced, not compromised, by the park plan.
Playing fields continue to be a major area of contention, but the need is compelling and the City of Albany is officially in favor. Criticisms that the site is too cold and too windy are mostly unfounded. Differential settlement could be a problem, but this is a technical question that cannot be answered by public opinion.
Playing fields, aside from their primary purpose, might have a significant role to play in popularizing the Eastshore State Park. Families will come to the waterfront for one purpose and discover others, especially those recreational opportunities unique to the waterfront.
The Plan shows a compromise with windsurfers who would really like vehicular access to the south-east corner of the Bulb, which would open up access to the best windsurfer launch site on the entire East Bay shoreline. This was not considered a sufficiently compelling reason to allow cars on any part of the neck or Bulb, so the access point has been placed about half-way out on the neck. It's not so far from parking to make it totally impractical, and it leaves the Neck and Bulb totally non-automotive.
Here is where the plan has it seriously wrong. "Let it Be," the group advocating a "hands off" policy with respect to dogs, art and building debris, appears to represent the overwhelming consensus of the people who use the Bulb now and are likely to continue using it in the future.
And, as a practical matter, enforcement of dog and art prohibitions is going to be expensive and ineffective. These rules will beg for the kind of low-stakes civil disobedience that will ultimately be a major embarrassment for State Parks if the policy isn't adapted to local preferences.
Point Isabel and surrounding tidal flats
The plan gets good marks here. There is provision for improved sailboard access, and the North Point Isabel (Battery Point) area is retained for off-leash dogs.
Appropriate barriers are planned to protect the mudflat habitat area from dogs. Albany mudflat is properly designated a preserve area, and all boating activity is restricted.
The recurring theme throughout the EIR is "no significant effect." This has left the planning team free to work with the perceived merits of various land use and project options, at least to the extent permitted by the political realities. The EIR does not appear to give any of the various factions the validation they would need to launch a credible challenge to the Plan.
The East Bay Regional Park District
At their meeting on August 6, the EBRPD Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve the Preliminary General Plan.
They also passed a number of "reservations" indicating disagreement with some elements of the Plan.
1) Unanimous: The Eastshore State Park should be a "Park" and not a "Recreation Area."
This is understandable in view of the long history of advocating a "Park," and it would be a symbolic blow to the people who devoted so much time and energy to the creation of the park. There is probably little of substance at stake here, but the planning team seems to feel that it fits the definition of "Recreation Area" more closely, and that "recreation" is the primary intent of the enabling legislation.
The result is that we will have the "Eastshore State Park Recreation Area," even if it's not officially known by that name.
2) 5:1 vote: The only off-leash dog area will be at Point Isabel and North Point Isabel.
This is going to cause a lot of friction, and will be widely perceived as the wrong decision, especially with respect to the Albany Bulb and Beach.
3) Unanimous: The State should consider acquiring adjacent properties to expand the park.
4) 3:3, no action: Three board members are opposed to playing fields in the park, three are "open to the idea." With no majority there was no action taken on this point.
5) There is strong consensus on the Board that the State, not the EBRPD, should manage the Eastshore State Park.
This is not good news for the dog lobby, who would prefer the much more liberal EBRPD dog rules than the restrictive State Park dog rules. But it is probably good for active recreation in general. EBRPD will at some point be out of the process, leaving the implementation details to State Parks and the Coastal Conservancy (and possibly Cal Boating, the likely funding source for the boating facility).
More background and commentary at www.BerkeleyWaterfront.org