The Sparring Match Heats Up Over the East Bay’s Shoreline

"The dog people want dogs, the soccer people want kids, and the bird people want birds -- that's the holy trinity of Eastshore State Park."

The large conference room at Berkeley’s H’s Lordship’s restaurant was filled to bursting last Thursday evening, when state and local parks agencies held their first public workshop about Eastshore State Park. More than 150 people filled the seats; others leaned against the flowered wallpaper or milled around near tables stocked with punch and coffee. Before the meeting was called to order, attendees gathered in clumps around the poster-sized flow charts and pie graphs displayed at the edges of the room. Talking to any one of them for a minute or two made it easy to tell where he or she drew the line in the sand. That’s because in the battle to define a park that will eventually encompass 1,817 acres along the bay, stretching from Oakland to Richmond, there are already–and have been for some time–entrenched opponents. In this world, you’re either a dog-walker, a bird-watcher, or a sports lover. As planning consultant Don Neuwirth puts it, “The dog people want dogs, the soccer people want kids, and the bird people want birds–that’s the holy trinity of Eastshore State Park.”

But as the battery of planning consultants and parks officials launched into their overview of their recently completed park resource inventory, a steady stream of attendees began to trickle out meeting in groups of three or four to fume. These were not the major players or large interest groups who have already been so vocal in presenting their arguments. In fact, some of them were just individual park users–a longtime fisherman, for example, and a handful of young dirt-biking enthusiasts. Their concerns will be duly noted by consultants, of course, but their input is unlikely to shape the major conceptual discussions that will decide the overall vision of the park. That larger debate–and it is crucial–was officially underway inside. Out here in the chilly night air, though, there was definitely a lesson to be learned about the daily use of open lands–and an insight into the far-reaching impact that changes to this space could bring.

Environmentalists have been working to secure state-park status for East Bay shoreline for at least twenty years. In the mid-1980s, proposals for massive development along this stretch of land–which includes the Emeryville mudflats along Highway 80, Berkeley’s Marina and Cesar Chavez Park, and Point Isabel’s dog park–were halted only after strenuous protest from the grass-roots group Citizens for the Eastshore State Park (CESP). By the late ’90s, the land had finally been bought by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and environmental cleanup of the land–which includes former landfill–is now underway, funded to the tune of $3.5 million by Catellus Corporation, the former owner. The park is now being managed by the East Bay Regional Parks District, which has designed a planning process that started early this year and will end, it is hoped, with a final park plan by October 2002.

An important landmark in that process will be classification by the state parks commission, which can designate the area as anything from a state wilderness area to a state recreation area, connoting a very different level of management and resource protection for each possible classification. While proponents of active use–off-leash dog-running or sailboat launching, for example–are sure to argue that parklands that abut so much urban development should be open to fairly heavy use by the communities that surround it, CESP has long argued that even former landfill can be restored to natural habitats. Allied with other environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and Save San Francisco Bay, CESP members point out that preserving or restoring the natural condition of the shoreline can play a vital role in the threatened ecological health of the Bay Area in general.

“Preservation of this park is important because there’s not very much natural shoreline left,” says Stana Hearne, CESP’s executive director. “It’s important for younger generations coming up to be able to go to the shoreline and interact with nature.”

But to the park users gathered outside the meeting, these concerns didn’t resonate much–or at all. “They got guys in there with their masters’ degrees,” said Carl Renowitzky, nodding his head toward the conference room, “and all they care about is the fricking owls.” Renowitzky had brought his ten-year-old twin sons with him to advocate for a park use that probably wasn’t on a lot of people’s agendas: BMX riding, or dirt-biking. The Renowitzky kids hang out at “Shady Eighty” (known to park planners as the North Basin Strip), a stretch of shore between Berkeley’s Meadow and the point at which Gilman Street hits the freeway. Here, they’ve built dirt jumps to practice their moves, which Renowitzky thinks could lead to a lucrative career at the X-Games.

“The parks are supposed to be for kids,” he complains, “but they don’t want the liability. The kids don’t have anywhere else to go.” The kid-built, kid-run BMX track has a tenuous position on the land as it is; bikers fear that state-park status will only bring stricter limits to their sport.

Other recreational users of the shoreline have more visibility in the larger debate, but they’re sure to butt heads with environmentalists as well. Paul Kamen, chair of Berkeley’s waterfront commission, advocates expanding boat access from the South Basin, where Cal Adventures and Cal Sailing Club currently operate, to the North Basin, which would offer a more protected launch for rowboats, dragon boats, beginning sailors, and youth programs. But the North Basin is bordered on one side by the Meadow, a hard-fought nature preserve that, Kamen admits, is “sacred turf” to environmentalists.

“I’m a member of the Sierra Club, and I consider myself an environmentalist,” Kamen argues, “but the park is a big place. You could do what would be considered very intensive water-related use and the place would still be 95 percent open and desolate. As far as the ducks are concerned, they might be annoyed by an outrigger canoe once in a while, but 95 percent of the time they’ll be left alone.”

While creating new structures and uses is likely to be adamantly opposed by CESP, Hearne says, existing facilities have a stronger ground. That’s good news for one other lower-profile stakeholder: Seabreeze Market. The market, which grew over twenty years from a catering truck to its current low-lying building, constructed by the owners out of shipping container boxes, serves up clam chowder, fish and chips, fresh produce, and more to an appreciative lunch crowd six days a week. Just off Highway 80 at the University Avenue exit, the market attracts a diverse clientele including big-rig drivers, families, and houseboat-dwellers. “That’s right next to the freeway, and it really serves the public,” Hearne concedes. Market co-owners Dottie Radcliffe and Bob Pickens have taken a highly proactive approach to securing their small business, distributing fliers to regulars, and attending all meetings with as many supporters as possible. So far, they’ve been able to draw enough satisfied customers to allow their voice to have certainly been heard by many leading the discussion, including CESP and planning consultant Neuwirth. And even if no one has directly argued for Seebreeze’s removal, Radcliffe thinks it’s better safe than sorry.

“It’s a state park, and the state doesn’t necessarily know about local concerns,” she points out. “If we just took it for granted, we could be left stranded.”

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