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A Fresh Start for Berkeley’s Aquatic Park

By Riya Bhattacharjee and Rio Bauce
Tuesday August 07, 2007

In a corner of West Berkeley, amidst industrial rubble and smoke, two young minds are hard at work resurrecting what has long been a no man’s land. 

An offshoot of Tinker’s Workshop, Waterside Workshops was started by Helder Parreira and Amber Rich at Berkeley’s historic Aquatic Park in July to bring two new programs to the community. 

Berkeley Boathouse, a community boat-building workshop, and Street Level Cycles, a community bike shop, are housed in the old boathouse, tucked between the Aquatic Park lagoon and a bike trail right across the water from the Berkeley Pedestrian Bridge. 

“Aquatic Park has long been a forgotten frontier on the far west side of Berkeley, and this is exactly what we are working to change,” said Waterside Workshops executive director Amber Rich, who was formerly with Tinker’s Workshop. 

“When people look across from the highway or the pedestrian bridge, we want them to see a thriving community representative of what Berkeley has to offer, not a series of neglected, dilapidated buildings.” 

Both Parreira and Rich have worked wonders with the park, clearing off junk and storage space to make room for a bike repair studio and a workshop. Their success coincides with the Berkeley Parks centennial celebrations this month. 

“This place has come a long way,” said Parreira, looking around the boathouse where he teaches kids how to build boats from scratch.  

“In the 1930s the community used this place for a lot of boat-related activities. But at one point people stopped coming here and it became known as a shady place. The maritime heritage of Aquatic Park has almost entirely dwindled away in the last decade. The waters have become polluted, and the buildings have fallen into a state of disrepair. It’s going to take a lot of work for us to get it back to what it was.” 

With help from the Community Development Block Grant, Parreira and Rich leased a piece of land from the city that no one wanted and brought it back to life. 

“Until recently, there was little evidence of the waterside community that once prospered on Berkeley’s waterfront,” said Rich, daughter of traditional craftsmen. 

“This is what Waterside Workshops is hoping to change. Since we came to this location earlier this year, we have watched a community develop, and more and more people are coming back to the park.” 

On Wednesday, kids from all over the Bay Area thronged to the park to salvage bike parts and learn how to scrape and varnish a sailing rig.  

Under Parreira’s watchful eyes, they learned to preserve the dying art of boat building.  

Parreira, a native of the Azores Islands in Portugal, holds a degree in archaeology from UC Berkeley. His passion for traditional wooden boat building was evident from the intricately carved frames that adorn the walls of his studio. 

Next door, Street Level Cycles program director Chris Thompson was busy showing teenagers how to assemble a bike. 

An off-shoot of the bike repair program that was a part of Tinker’s Workshop, Street Level Cycles has been revamped to meet the needs of young people. 

“When I first came, I only knew how to patch a bike and put in tires,” said Berkeley High student Miguel Hernandez, 16. “Now I can put everything in.” 

Telly, Tu’ua and Brian, siblings who had biked down from Sixth Street, were busy rummaging for free bike parts and frames.  

Although open to the entire community, the workshop’s focus group is economically challenged Berkeley youth. 

Parreira told the Planet that the Pedestrian Bridge played an important role in the revitalization of Aquatic Park.  

“Where else in the world can you see such a beautiful pedestrian bridge?” he asked. “It’s designed to face Grizzly Peak one way and the Golden Gate Bridge another way. It’s a part of the Waterside Workshops logo.” 

Parreira added that the city had a long-term plan of linking up Fourth Street with Aquatic Park as part of the North Aquatic Park Plaza Project. 

“We are really excited about it,” said Rich. “There’s going to be a big signage which will help guide people to the park. It’s sort of a commitment the city has given to the park. Eventually we would like to rent out the handcrafted boats to people at a minimal cost. Sailing is not something most people ask for, but when they see it, they gravitate toward it. Part of the reason why people live in the Bay Area is because they want to be close to water. Because sailing is an expensive hobby, we want to use our non-profit status to make it available to people who might not be able to rent out boats at $50 per hour.” 

Despite its initial success, Waterside Workshops faces lofty challenges in the form of funding. 

“We have eight paid staff here and the rest are all volunteers,” said Rich, who is herself volunteering until grants are approved for her salary. 

“We need to do more outreach for donations from the community. Right now we are taking in bikes, tools and parts which would have otherwise ended up in landfills. The sky is the limit for what we want to do, and believe me, there is a lot.” 


For more information on the  

Waterside Workshop’s programs,