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The Agony of Aquatic Park (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Monday May 07, 2012 - 01:45:00 PM
Toni Mester

A special public hearing before the Berkeley City Council will be held tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 8) at 7 PM in the second floor chambers at 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way (Old City Hall). A single item is on the agenda: zoning changes to the master use permits allowing greater development, including two parcels directly on Bolivar Drive at Aquatic Park. 

That has environmentalists worried. The Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and Citizens for East Shore Parks oppose the increases, which could raise the height limit from 45’ to 75’, with extra allowances for a mechanical penthouse if required, and obscure views of the hills from the park and from the pedestrian bridge that connects Aquatic Park to McLaughlin East Shore Park. The mass or floor area ratio (FAR) could also increase by 50%. 

The environmentalists advocate set-backs of 100’ to protect over 70 species of birds that nest, feed, or over-winter in the park. In a May 2011 letter to the City Council, Mike Lynes, the conservation director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society says that “large buildings looming over the street…would make this part of the park less attractive to most park users” and that “increased artificial lighting can change the behavior of birds and other wildlife, alter nesting, foraging, and migratory patterns and result in increased predation on nests and adult birds.” 

The new allowances were proposed in an effort to attract the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to Berkeley, but since the lab has chosen the UC Richmond field station as its second campus, the City is reviewing the master use permits as sites for potential spinoff enterprises and other uses. 

An orphan park 

Aquatic Park is the largest of the City of Berkeley’s 52 parks, about 100 acres, 2/3 of which are lagoons, created by the WPA between 1935 and 1937 at the same time as the Bayshore Highway and the Yacht Harbor. The eastern edge of Aquatic Park is the natural shoreline of San Francisco Bay. 

Despite heavy use and many demands placed upon it by runners, dog walkers, water skiers, boaters, cyclists, birders, families who visit the children’s playground, and the disabled who enjoy the specially adapted cycling and sailing programs, Aquatic Park has often been neglected and abused by the City of Berkeley. 

Exposure to the freeway degrades the west side of the park, which could be used for leisure and picnics; yet many cyclists, runners and dog walkers suffer the unpleasant noise, emissions and hazards from flying rocks because the park location is convenient to many flatland neighborhoods and work places. 

In November of 2007, the City Council reassigned $1.5 million from a sound wall project over the protests of Councilmember Dona Spring, who had championed an alternative to the standard CalTrans concrete block wall. Although the Council resolution stated that the city “can request a sound wall or other sound reducing enhancements in the future,” nothing has been done towards building the much needed barrier. 

A freeway on-ramp along Potter Street between the radio tower and middle ponds makes the south end of the park dangerous for walkers, and about once a year, a car will actually drive into the middle pond at the sharp left turn from Bay Street. The on-ramp itself is dangerous, merging first with the Ashby ramp and then onto I-80 eastbound traffic, a tight squeeze at the best of times. Two years ago, a semi-trailer truck overturned down the slope towards the edge of the main lagoon. 

In the dark of night, stolen cars and dead bodies have been deposited at the south end, which provides an easy getaway onto the freeway. In 2009 the city started to clean up about 50 dens used by the homeless, addicts, and gay men. Parks Superintendent Sue Ferrera said condoms, hypodermic needles and even human feces were found in the nests. To facilitate police surveillance, dense shrubs have been cut back, removing foliage that birds use for food and cover from people and dogs. 

Dogs also concern the Audubon Society, which has periodically but unsuccessfully tried to get the City to enforce the leash laws. Aquatic Park is an on-leash area, though you would scarce know it from number of dogs that freely roam the uplands, chasing frisbees and harrying the shorebirds. 

To aggravate these problems, Aquatic Park is desperately in need of hydrologic improvements. The tidal tubes, built in the 1930’s, have not been cleaned of natural marine growth in over a decade, limiting their capacity, and the old Potter Creek storm drain that runs under the roadway between the main and middle lagoons needs to be replaced. Potter Creek comprises 1/3 of the City’s total watershed, and its main conduit cannot carry all the storm water to the Bay. The excess empties directly into the middle pond and through a lateral pipe that runs beneath the path on the east side of the main lagoon. 

Pollution from the streets and garbage from storm drains including cigarette butts and food encrusted paper wash into a delicate habitat where birds feed. Fresh water itself is toxic because the marine ecology of Aquatic Park is saline, and the storm water disturbs the tiny fish and insects that the birds eat. 

Who pays the plumbing? 

The City wants to correct some of these problems through the Aquatic Park Improvement Program (APIP), which has been four years in the making. The draft EIR, due in September according to Project Manager Deborah Chernin, had been suspended when the first consulting firm went bankrupt and is now being prepared by Atkins. 

APIP is a hydrology or flood control project or both, depending on who you talk to. The actual engineering was not specified in the project description of the notice of preparation but the DEIR should clarify what works are proposed. A channel may be dredged that allows storm water to flow from the middle pond into the main lagoon. 

That’s a controversial plan as many environmentalists believe that no polluted fresh water should enter the lagoons at all. But to bypass the lagoons, the Potter Storm drain must be replaced, called the “preferred option” or option 1 in the Public Works Department’s Watershed Management Plan. The cost to replace is high, over $17 million but that’s only $2.5 million over an alternative with smaller capacity, which would still pollute Aquatic Park by discharging storm water into the main lagoon. Both the Sierra Club and CESP have endorsed Option 1. 

The Potter storm drain is about 8% of the total cost of watershed improvements, which are estimated in the watershed management plan at over $200 million. The Potter Creek improvements are the biggest ticket item—$65 million. An analysis of the options can be found at the end of the plan and were presented to the City Council by the Public Works Department on April 3 of this year. Watching the video of the work session is the easiest way to catch up. 

The City Council hired Lake Research Partners to survey what kind of tax increases the voters are willing to fund, and the results so far do not indicate a 2/3 majority to pay for anything. The most popular combination is roads and storm drains, but not at the level that would actually underwrite what is required to fund the watershed plan, which is only one big infrastructure item. 

The Parks and Recreation tax fund “has a structural deficit of $462,000 in operations,” according to the City Manager’s report of April 3. The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department is drawing down the Parks Tax Fund “currently about $2.3 million. If the structural deficit continues at the current amount, and there are no other needs for use of the fund balance, it would be exhausted in about 5 years.” The Park and Recreation Commission’s report also “indicates that approximately $725,000 in additional funding is needed on an annual basis for major maintenance projects in the Parks system. This was based on staff’s estimate that an additional $400,000 is needed for additional staffing and $325,000 for equipment, materials and supplies. Currently $250,000 of Parks Tax funds is dedicated annually to major maintenance and capital projects” 

You get the drift. 

At the same time that the Parks and Recreation and Public Works Departments are crying for money, the Planning and Development Department is also running on a structural deficit and rapidly emptying its piggybank. The planners and the Planning Commission have advanced new rules for master use permits, which are like development agreements but without the contractual rigor that we got from the 1993 Bayer agreement, which has returned over $20 million so far in benefits to the City plus taxes and infrastructure improvements. 

Given the City finances, the master use permits ordinance, in its current iteration, is an imprudent giveaway of extremely valuable air space – without any firm mechanism for return, especially to fund the expensive plumbing of the water that circulates within Aquatic Park and empties into the Bay as well as other park improvements. 

Council members Worthington and Maio have called Aquatic Park “a gem” while Igor Tregub of the Sierra Club prefers “a diamond in the rough.” True, Aquatic Park looks good from the pedestrian bridge and from many points around its 2 mile parameter, but under the glitter, it’s dying a slow death. 

Saving Aquatic Park 

The reasons for the sorry state of Aquatic Park are many. It can be seen as a victim of district elections because District 2, in which it lies, has never elected a conservationist. Without an advocate in City Hall, the money to repair the decaying plumbing, erect a freeway barrier, enhance the facilities, and patrol the grounds has gone to other projects. 

Hard working and dedicated city staffers have struggled with the funds at their disposal, but one wonders whether the three departments involved share a united vision. Four years of Planning Commission hearings on the West Berkeley Project gave no evidence of cooperation with Public Works or Parks and Recreation regrding Aquatic Park. 

Individual citizens have power in this situation. They can help by attending the City Council meeting on Tuesday night May 8 and advocating for an Aquatic Park improvement fee for all development in West Berkeley, providing partial payment to fund Option 1 of the watershed plan, the replacement of the Potter Creek storm drain main conduit, and other capital investments including a sound wall. An annual fee would help maintain the park. 

They can state what they will and will not support on the ballot in November and the conditions that will gain their votes. 

Please support the position of the environmental organizations: to maintain the current heights and mass with protective setbacks of 100 feet to buffer negative effects on the wildlife and allow for natural bio-filtration of run-off. 

If you use Aquatic Park and want it retained as a recreation area and wildlife habitat, please tell the Council how you currently enjoy the park and how you would like to see it improved. 

Let’s end this agony and save Aquatic Park for the generations to come. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley