Thanks to the combined efforts of sports fans and of East Bay cities from Emeryville to Richmond, a new ball field complex in Berkeley is nearing reality.
And it’s about time, says Doug Fielding, president of the Association of Sports Users.
“If you came to me and said the Daily Planet wants to schedule a pickup game against, say, the San Francisco Chronicle and you’re looking for any week night or any time on a weekend except Saturday night, I would have to tell you we have nothing open until February 2006,” said the Berkeley manufacturer.
Fielding, who is president of the Companion Group, a company that makes barbecue tools for retailers ranging from Williams Sonoma to Orchard Supply, is a key player on the local sports scene and one of the reasons Berkeley is about to get new playing fields where Gilman Street meets the bay, said Berkeley Parks and Recreation director Marc Seleznow.
It took years of political maneuvering, an alliance of East Bay cities and a parks district plus millions of dollars to bring the dream into reality, but if all goes as planned a pair of year-round artificial turf rectangular playing fields will open in the fall of 2006, the first phase of a complex that will also include baseball diamonds when it’s completed.
“There’s a deficit of at least 11 or 12 fields,” said Seleznow, explaining why Berkeley has teamed up with Albany, Richmond, El Cerrito, Emeryville and the East Bay Regional Parks District to build the complex.
The Berkeley City Council, which is serving as lead agency under a Joint Powers Agreement with the other jurisdictions, is scheduled to vote its final approval on the complex on Sept. 27.
The first two fields are scheduled to open 11 months later, with development of the three baseball fields—two softball and one regulation hardball—to follow as additional funds are raised.
The site, currently used as the overflow parking lot of Golden Gate Fields, belongs to the East Bay Regional Parks District and will be operated on a self-sustaining basis by a private operator.
Fielding has been advocating for extra fields for more than 12 years, and his alliance began doing maintenance on several fields about ten years ago. The organization incorporated as a non-profit eight years ago, and now schedules play at 23 fields, mostly in Berkeley and Albany, and represents about 17,000 players organized into 25 to 30 groups, he said.
One of the major reasons for the group’s formation was that most of the fields in Berkeley were being allocated by the city for city-sponsored adult softball teams.
“Youth teams couldn’t get on any of the fields,” Fielding said. “That was a big part of what got us started.”
The first new fields in the East Bay were originally slated for development by the Albany City Council and Waterfront Commission for the Albany Plateau at the end of Buchanan Street at the base of the Albany Bulb. Environmental groups, including the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, Save the Bay and Citizens for the Eastshore State Park (now Citizens for Eastshore Parks) mobilized against the site, urging instead its development as wildlife habitat.
During the planning process for the state park’s 2,000 acres, ball field advocates won agreement that some of the park’s upland acres would be reserved for their sports.
“The East Bay Regional Parks District and the environmental community came up with the 16-acre (Gilman) site, which was owned by Magna Entertainment.” Seleznow recalled. “They worked a deal and got the Parks district to buy the land.”
The cities created the Joint Powers Agreement late in 2003, with Berkeley as the lead agency. Originally, the plan was to raise grant money for simultaneous construction of all the fields, but one of the grants fell through, leaving only $3 million for the two artificial turf fields.
“We’re now hiring a designer to see what we can build, and in the meantime we’re hoping other grants will come through,” said Seleznow.
For the moment, the focus is on the planning commission, which needs to revise the Waterfront Specific Plan to allow construction to commence. Other city commissions are also conducting their final reviews, but no one doubts that the fields will be constructed on schedule.
Fielding said several forces have reduced the availability of fields. First is the remarkable upsurge in women’s participation in field sports. Currently, he said, girls account for about 40 percent of the youth soccer teams, and there are now many more women participating in all field sports.
Second is the rapid increase in urban infill development, which is eating up the vacant lots and fields once used for informal play.
Third is the increasing awareness, driven by the media, of the need for physical activity to combat heart ailments and maintain good health.
“We don’t have any over-40 women’s leagues yet, but they’ll be coming along too as players get older,” he said.
Fielding said the rectangular fields are being constructed first because the artificial surface will allow year-round play, unlike grass fields which aren’t playable during the rainy season.
“They’re also available for more sports like lacrosse, football and rugby,” he said.
The location hasn’t won universal approval. Some, like L.A. Woods of Berkeley, say that playing so close to a heavily traveled freeway poses significant health risks to the developing lungs of young players.
In written comments he filed with the city last Thursday, Wood noted that the section of West Berkeley nearest the I-80 also has the city’s highest rate of asthmatic children.
Citing concerns about soil contamination, noise, traffic and wind-born contaminants—concerns minimalized in the city’s Environmental Initial Study on the project—Wood called for citing the complex further away from the freeway.
The Parks and Recreation Commission will hear an update on the project when they meet Monday at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.