The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission’s session last night strained to find a middle ground between protection of endangered butterflies and closure of a widening budget gap. The Commission heard an illustrated presentation on butterflies from a member of the Xerxes Society, followed by a detailed rundown of budget numbers, mostly in red ink, by Parks Director Scott Ferris and his deputy Christina Erickson. The BMASP proposals for Cesar Chavez Park, although scheduled for the end of the agenda, came up throughout the lengthy session like a recurring headache. Opposition to the BMASP plan united former foes like Laurie Capitelli and Shirley Dean. Commission chair Gordon Wozniak floated the idea of a small raise in the parks tax as a way to ease the budget pressure behind the BMASP ideas for commercializing the park.
Former Mayor Shirley Dean spoke as chair of Citizens for Eastshore State Parks (CESP) and registered her group’s strong rejection of the BMASP “Events Pavilion” and “Large Adventure Playground.” Monetizing the park space amounts to privatization of public property. This is the wrong starting point to solve the Marina’s financial problems.
Commissioner Capitelli commented that he found himself agreeing with Dean. Parks should not be monetized. That’s just wrong.
Park visitor Virginia Browning spoke of her shock at learning of the proposed remapping of the park. This is a horrendous idea. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who don’t want this to happen. People, not to mention other creatures, need this place for a refuge. More people need to be made aware of this crazy BMASP plan.
Park visitor and dog walker Jeff Malmuth said he had spoken to no less than 75 people who had no idea before reading the Berkeleyside article about this drastic plan to completely alter the splendor of the park. They all want to participate and be part of the process.
Becky O’Malley, publisher of the Berkeley Daily Planet, said she had received many letters in opposition to the BMASP plan, and that there was widespread opposition to it.
David Fielding, a park visitor, said that the BMASP opinion survey asked leading questions that don’t allow real opposition. He wanted to see not only the BMASP process but also the Parks Commission meetings recorded and to allow audience members’ faces to be seen.
Kelly Hammargren, a long time close observer of Berkeley politics, said that the BMASP process was really poor. Unfavorable comments get ignored. Website content is missing. Multiple choices are offered, all of which are bad. When she read about what is planned for Chavez Park, she was horrified. Do parks have to offer commercial entertainment? We have world class views and don’t need entertainment. The BMASP proposals will not actually make money for the City; they’ll be losers. Seeing the City entertain proposals like this is very discouraging.
Commissioner Claudia Kawczynska joined in criticizing the BMASP process.
Commissioner Erin Diehm said there is widespread opposition to the BMASP proposals. Sometimes consultants come in from outside of Berkeley and don’t understand what we value in Berkeley. One of the new measures of park quality emerging since the pandemic is “birdability” — how well the park is set up for birding. The BMASP proposals would downgrade that. We have to enhance park revenue via a tax and/or we have to offload some expenditures. The Commission should recommend that some areas should not be commercialized.
Wozniak’s proposal to raise the parks tax drew support from the other commissioners present, and triggered some interesting off-the-cuff commentary from Parks Director Scott Ferris. Ferris said that the City Council, in response to the Marina Fund’s growing budget gap, had authorized Parks to hire the Hargreaves Jones consulting firm to figure out ways to raise Marina revenues. That’s what lay behind the BMASP proposals to monetize Cesar Chavez Park. But, looking at the bigger picture, Ferris said that the City Council was always going to cover the Marina’s deficit, no matter what, because the alternative of shutting the Marina down and laying off staff was unacceptable. The basic budget structure of having a separate Marina fund wasn’t working now, hadn’t worked in recent years, and really had never worked to begin with.
The meeting ended at 10:15 without any votes being taken on any of these issues. The commission under the present City structure has no decision-making powers and is purely advisory.
I spoke briefly in the early public comment period. A copy of my comments is below.
I am Martin Nicolaus, CEO of the Chavez Park Conservancy, a 501 c 3 nonprofit run by volunteers.
We are very pleased to win a $5000 grant from the Alameda County Fish and Game Commission, ratified by the County Board of Supervisors, for the installation of a Native Plant Pollinator Garden in the Native Plant area of Cesar Chavez Park. On top of that we have received a supplemental grant for the same purpose from the East Bay Community Energy agency, providers of clean electric power. We are grateful to Parks Director Scott Ferris and the whole landscape gardening staff for their support for the Native Plant Pollinator Garden at Chavez Park.
On the other hand, we are dismayed by the key proposals of Hargreaves Jones, the consultants driving the Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP), as they would affect Cesar Chavez Park. I have written about these proposals in Berkeleyside and on www.chavezpark.org and I believe the commissioners have a copy of that op-ed in their packets. These consultants are tone deaf to what park visitors love about the park. The BMASP plans, as they stand, would destroy the park in general and one of its gems, the Native Plant Area, in particular. All the work that has been put into the Native Plant Area and that will be added with the grant money just received will be cratered if BMASP goes forward.
We also have some current concerns. Many park visitors are upset with the recent clear cutting of perfectly healthy Monterey Cypress trees along Spinnaker Way. We need more trees in the park, not fewer.
We are also disappointed to see that the construction of a permanent flush toilet park restroom foreseen in the T1 budget is not happening. Berkeley is the only city in the East Bay, maybe in the region, that still offers its park visitors — including visitors from around the world — porta-potties. They are discriminatory against women and children, an environmental hazard, a stinky and disgusting blot on the habitat, a long-term uneconomical solution, and an embarrassment to the City of Berkeley.’
To end on the positive side, everyone is pleased with the repaving of Spinnaker Way and Marina Boulevard. We especially appreciate the planting of native wildflowers along the right of way and hope that more of them get irrigated and come up.