Your Chavez Park Conservancy played a meaningful role in the park this year. We initiated and led a successful public movement to save the park from commercial development. We won grants and did the hands-on work to clean up and rejuvenate the historic Native Plant Area. We commissioned an original artwork that celebrates nature in the park. We engaged in other hands-on projects and maintained an ongoing online presence to highlight the diversity and beauty of nature in the park. Here are details.
Saving Chavez Park From Commercial Development
On April 29, Berkeleyside published an op-ed titled “Berkeley Marina Plan Would Destroy Cesar Chávez Park.” The piece targeted the Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP). The City had paid $1.1 million to an international landscape consulting firm with a mandate to commercialize the Marina. The consultants proposed installing a “Large Events Space” with a concert stage in the center of the park, and a “Large Adventure Park” with zip lines and ropes course in place of the Native Plant Area on the southwest side of the park, each operated by commercial vendors.
More than a hundred comments, almost all of them opposed to the BMASP commercialization plans, poured in to Berkeleyside within a few days. Then the letters began. Park visitors in large numbers took to their keyboards and wrote to City authorities to protest commercialization in the park. A prominent local landscape architect, John Northmore Roberts, with a long history in the design of Chavez Park, blasted the landscape consultants as uninformed and unprofessional. Santiago Casal, founder and curator of the Chavez/Huerta Solar Calendar, described the BMASP ideas as contrary to the Chavez/Huerta spirit. Key organizations with long engagements with this park — Sierra Club, Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) — wrote official letters denouncing the commercialization schemes. On July 13, the Zoom meeting of the Parks commission had well over 100 members of the public in attendance, the largest turnout ever recorded, and they spoke unanimously against the proposed commercial developments.
The flood of public comments filled a 180-page paperback book, Love Letters to the Park, published on amazon.com a week after the commission meeting. Each City Council member, the City Manager, and key Parks administrators got the book hand-delivered.
The Conservancy then started a petition drive opposing the BMASP development proposals. The petition gathered signatures like wildfire. Volunteers at a Conservancy kiosk in the park for four weekends in July and August took in an average of one signature every two minutes. The online version of the petition posted on chavezpark.org exceeded 1,000 signatures in three weeks. Paper and online signatures together by August 15 exceeded 1,900.
The City government felt the heat. Vice-Mayor Kate Harrison, followed by Mayor Jesse Arreguin, and then City Council members Ben Bartlett and Sophie Hahn expressed opposition to the BMASP ideas. On August 17, the City folded. The BMASP website posted an update with this language: “Please note that no development is being considered at Cesar Chavez Park in the BMASP process.” We sent out a victory notice to our list of more than 1,600 email addresses.
A relatively small group of dedicated park-loving volunteers was the driving force behind this victory. Among the volunteers who worked on the Conservancy’s petition campaign were Susan Black, Daniel Borgström, Virginia Browning, Helen Canin, Brian Gregson, Sheila Jordan, Émilie Keas, Mary Law, Martin Nicolaus, Lee Tempkin, and Sylvie Woog. Others circulated the petition in their neighborhoods, or posted information about the issue on benches in the park. Together with the speakers at the Parks Commission meeting and the letter writers, more than 125 strong, we became an irresistible force. The power of love for the park that people generated saved our park. We most definitely made a difference.
Starting the Native Pollinator Habitat Project
Your Chavez Park Conservancy has from its beginnings taken an active interest in the Native Plant Area that the dedicated pioneers of Design Associates Working with Nature (DAWN) established in the early 1980s. Decades of little or no maintenance left that 3.5 acre area desperately in need of TLC. After an unsuccessful effort in 2020 to commission an expert study for renovation of the area, we took the matter into our own hands. Under the leadership of Jutta Burger and Bob Huttar, experienced botanists and arborists, we launched a series of Saturday work days when volunteers entered the Native Plant Area to remove invasive weeds, clear garbage, and trim deadwood. The Parks Department responded to our initiatives with a major cleanup effort that restored an overgrown passageway, removed dangerous hanging tree limbs, and generally lightened the area and made it safer and more accessible.
Then in November 2021, we initiated a pilot program of establishing 40 native California plants in selected spots in the Native Plant Area. Thanks to regular watering and weeding by volunteer teams, almost all of these new plantings survived and thrived. Thus encouraged, in February this year we applied for and a month later won a grant of $4,740 from the Alameda County Fish and Game Commission for a broader Native Pollinator Habitat project. A supplemental grant of $2,500 from East Bay Community Energy for the same project followed. A team of volunteers from the Coast Guard Auxiliary helped with final clearing of deadwood and preparation of the ground at the end of August.
In November this year, the Native Pollinator Habitat Project moved into action. A dozen-strong team of volunteers, backed by paid Civicorps staffers, planted more than 120 native plant starters and 14 native trees in and around the Native Plant Area. Each new small plant was surrounded by a ring of mulch and a mesh screen to deter little creatures that like to munch on baby plants. Seasonal rains helped the new plants get their start. Among the volunteers who gave their time on stewardship days were Karen Brusin, Jutta Burger, Helen Canin, Carlene Chang, Clyde Crosswhite, Carol Denney, Bob Huttar, Nancy Nash, Martin Nicolaus, Phil Rowntree, Lee Tempkin, and Dave Wilson.
In this project, your Conservancy has had the benefit of consistent and effective support from the City’s Parks Department. Parks staff have hauled away the weeds, garbage, and other debris from our stewardship days, provided a lockbox for our irrigation supplies, upgraded the water faucet for attaching our irrigation hoses, and been helpful in numerous other ways with labor, tools, storage, and good advice. We could not have done the Native Plant Pollinator Habitat Project without Parks staff assistance.
A volunteer schedule to keep the new plants watered every two weeks has been established. With TLC, the new natives will not only brighten up the area, they will give a boost to the whole range of pollinators — birds, bees, butterflies, numerous insects, and small mammals — that are the foundation of a flourishing ecosystem. When the new plants are thriving, we’ll be able to look back on the new face of the Native Plant Area and celebrate the difference we have made.
A Brilliant Artwork Celebrating the Park’s Creatures
On May 10 this year, we unveiled a commissioned artwork by artist Bill Reynolds, showing 30 of the most commonly seen birds, bugs, and mammals in the park in an interactive web page where clicking on an image brings up the creature’s name, description, and voice. The project began in March 2021, when park visitor Émilie Keas came across an online painting of Minnesota songbirds in a forest setting. The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, an online journal sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had commissioned local artist Bill Reynolds to produce the artwork. We published an item about it (“Artist Wanted,” Mar 24 2021) and called for local artists to come forward and produce something comparable for Cesar Chavez Park. After months of frustration, Émilie contacted Bill Reynolds in Minnesota. He was happy to do it. An anonymous local donor stepped forward with funds that allowed the Chavez Park Conservancy to commission the artwork. Bill and his wife Mollie came to Berkeley and met a number of Conservancy supporters over dinner. Bill walked the park several times, soaking up the atmosphere and studying the wildlife. His painting went through a number of drafts, with Émilie acting as curator. The Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology generously licensed more than a dozen birdsong audio files posted by its contributors. Other audio files came from recordings made here in the park. In September, we issued a new trifold brochure by way of introduction to the park, featuring Reynolds’ art as the centerpiece. A poster-size version of the artwork is in development for next year, and a T-shirt design is under consideration.
Ghosting a Road: Habitat Restoration in the Nature Area
A much neglected part of the park is the “Nature Area” on the north side. This 7-acre meadow, not to be confused with the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary nor with the Native Plant Area, adjoins the north end of the Off-Leash Dog Area. Although the Nature Area is posted as off limits to people and pets, with a fine for violations, it was common for two-legged and four-legged creatures to trespass on it, inasmuch as the border was essentially unmarked. This became a fraught issue when Burrowing Owls took up winter residence in the Nature Area in 2019 and 2020. The threatened birds, protected by federal and state law, suffered repeated harassment from trespassers in the area. In the spring of 2020, Parks management finally installed a four-foot high chain link fence on much of the boundary between the Off-Leash Dog Area and the Nature Area.
Before the fence, Parks maintenance workers were in the habit of driving trucks across the Nature Area to pick up barrels of dog feces in the Off-Leash Area. Their tire tracks, particularly in wet weather, gouged an ugly scar across the Nature Area. This unofficial dirt road also served as an open invitation for people and pets to cross the Nature Area, despite the prohibition. After the fence was put up, this dirt road no longer provided access to the waste barrels in the Off-Leash Area, and trucks ceased to use it. In November 2021, with the blessing of Parks staff, the Conservancy led a volunteer work day with UC Berkeley students to make the dirt road disappear (“ghosting”) by blending it back into the surrounding meadow ecosystem. We planted a variety of native grass seeds similar to those already thriving in the meadow, and marked the area as a Habitat Restoration Project. Today, a year later, the ugly scar is almost invisible. Native grasses have sprouted and the habitat is healing itself. By next spring, we expect to be able to remove the pink flags and the signage that mark the project and unveil the restored Nature Area meadow in all its natural glory. Here, too, the Conservancy is making a difference.
Other Hands-On Projects
The Peace Symbol on the hilltop in the northwest corner of the park was built by unknown hands around the turn of the century. The Conservancy’s initial role was to dig it out from under a jungle of weeds in 2018 and restore it as an anonymous work of public art. Since then, a small group of volunteers, centered on the family of young Asa Scholz, whose memorial bench faces the Peace Symbol, has come together periodically, with Conservancy support, to dig out weeds, rearrange stones, and add mulch to renew this traditional symbol of togetherness, tolerance, and peace.
Rainbow Village was a short-lived campground approved by Berkeley City Council in 1984 for homeless people living in cars. It stood approximately where the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary is today. On August 16, 1985, two young people staying temporarily at Rainbow Village were murdered in the park and their bodies dumped into the North Basin. They were Mary Gioia, 22, and Greg Kniffin, 18. Mary’s mother commissioned a memorial plaque mounted on a stone near where the crime occurred. Over the years, the stone sank and weeds covered the plaque. We have advocated for several years to raise the stone and make the plaque visible again. This past November, Parks staff heard our pleas and did the work. We are delighted that they took the initiative. It required three men, a tractor, and two bags of concrete. Very near the water fountain on the east side of the park, visitors can now see the memorial to these young victims. The plaque joins more than 50 other memorial plaques in the park, most of them mounted on park benches. See “Memory Unearthed,” Nov 28 2022.
In October 2019, the Conservancy led a volunteer work party to plant wildflowers on what was then a strip of bare earth left by construction crews in the southeast corner of the park. Three years later, not much is left of that effort. Ground Squirrels, grasses, weeds and mowers have taken over. But a few tough flowers have survived. A line of Sweet Alyssum remains, and the spectacular Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) spreads its sunshine even into the winter months. See “Survivor,” Nov 11 2022. Here, too, your Conservancy has made a difference. It’s very small, but it’s beautiful and it’s real.
For many months, the Conservancy lobbied the Parks administration and the SCS Engineers firm to clean up prominent graffiti in the park, especially around the Flare Station. In late August this year, after months of being ignored, we were finally heard. Both the fence and the smokestack at the Flare Station got cleaned up. There is still other graffiti but these were the worst.
Stewardship of nature at the park begins with opening eyes and minds. We can’t value what we don’t see or understand. The blog on chavezpark.org, published at 5 pm every day ten months of the year, shines a spotlight on the great diversity of natural beauty in and around the park. With short videos, photographs, and explanatory texts, the visitor to chavezpark.org gets a daily journal of the birds, mammals, bugs, reptiles, amphibians, marine life and plants that make the park a vibrant natural experience at the current time. The blog also covers park events, issues, people, and picture postcard views. At year’s end, the chavezpark.org website contained more than 2,300 posts.
A special focus of the website in season is the Burrowing Owl or owls. Last winter, two of these rare and threatened birds settled in the park, both in the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the northeast corner of the park. One of them returned this fall and is resident there at year’s end. We created and distributed hundreds of copies of a trifold brochure about the Burrowing Owls. In August, we started an online petition to provide the owls with better protection in the area set aside for them. On September 11, the Conservancy had a booth in the Solano Stroll, where volunteers collected more than 300 signatures to save the owls in the park. See “Owls Have Friends,” Sep 12 2022. Later, the City’s Public Arts Commission heard a presentation about improving security for the owls. The chavezpark.org website has followed these charismatic birds on a daily basis, and helped many people see them for the first time.
The chavezpark.org website also consistently publicizes and promotes the seasonal gatherings to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes at the Chavez/Huerta Solar Calendar, created and maintained by Santiago Casal. These assemblies are important to give depth to the figure for whom the park is named. They’re also informative and humorous natural classrooms where prominent local teachers illuminate the astronomical puzzles that determine our seasons and our daylight budgets as this tilted ball twirls through space around the sun.
The chavezpark.org website maintains reference tables for the birds, plants, and bugs documented in the park. A special contribution this past year was made by Dallas Levey, a graduate student in ornithology at Stanford, who tallied the bird observations recorded for Chavez Park on eBird and broke them down by frequency, habitat, seasonality, and other criteria. No other park in Berkeley, or probably any nearby city, can boast of the wealth and depth of naturalist documentation that exists online for Cesar Chavez Park, thanks to the Conservancy.
Work To Be Done
Despite significant achievements in 2022, much work remains to be done in the park.
We have set more than 100 new native plants in the ground, but this effort will come to nothing unless we step up on a regular basis to supply them with water and keep weeds away. If you can help, please contact Bob Huttar, Volunteer Coordinator, via email.
Although we won the battle about commercial development in the park this year, we should have no illusions that the war is over. We need to remain vigilant and ready to rise again when the forces of privatization and monetization revive and try to take our park away next year or thereafter.
The Burrowing Owl Sanctuary remains unsafe. The fence around this area is too low, allowing loose dogs and people into the area. We lost one of the owls this past February. The Parks administration agrees that the fence needs to be replaced, and a private donor has offered to pay the cost. Details. But the artists who designed it, and bizarrely the Audubon Society, oppose any change. See “Open Letter to Audubon’s Glenn Phillips,” Sep 20 2022. We have to work harder to win public opinion on this issue; the owls depend on us.
Already the first issue of the chavezpark.org website took up the cause of replacing the porta-potties in the park with regular, permanent, flush-toilet park restrooms. Porta-potties are designed for temporary use. They have been the only facilities in the park for thirty years, at a huge profit for the vendor. With the passage of the T1 bond in 2018, the Parks administration made noises about finally installing at least one permanent restroom in the park. A sewer connection to one location was reportedly built when Spinnaker Way was resurfaced this year. But the porta-potty on that site has been re-installed. At this point Berkeley remains the only East Bay city that offers its nationwide and international visitors these stinky outhouses in the park. Is this really the best we can do? Is this the face we want to put forward?
Chavez Park is the only park in the region that has no restrictions on drones. Park visitors continue to suffer annoyance and irritation, and there is obvious harm to wildlife. Weirdly, the park has regulations about kites, but none on drones. We need an advocate or team of advocates who can take up this issue and do whatever mobilization and negotiation may be required.
The repaving work that was done this past year on Spinnaker Way, Marina Boulevard, and University Avenue was most welcome. It solved the drainage problem that previously left huge puddles on Spinnaker Way, and finally got rid of the washboard bumps that destroyed car suspensions on University. But some things were forgotten. The pathway from University Avenue to the Virginia Street Extension, which formerly served bicyclists, wheelchair users, and pedestrians, is now in worse condition. Heavy construction equipment damaged it. Now cyclists, the disabled, and pedestrians are forced to use Marina Boulevard, which has great pavement for cars but practically zero shoulders. The original pathway should be repaired and upgraded. In this same area, the low seawall along Marina Boulevard opposite the hotel has for more than a decade had a narrow gap that allows sea water to flood the path at high tides. It would take very little time and materials to plug this gap. The City shows no concern for the pedestrians, bicyclists, and disabled that have to try to navigate around this salt water lake that blocks their right of way.
By far the biggest long-term project in the park is to curb the minority of irresponsible dog owners who run their animals off leash in places where that is against the law. Because of these owners we have paths with dog poop, holes big enough to break ankles where loose dogs have tried to dig out squirrels, and we have ground-dwelling bird species that cannot forage peacefully or get established for nesting because unlawfully loose dogs harass them. Park visitors can help here by politely approaching such owners, reminding them of the law, and asking them to leash their pets. Responsible dog owners with their own dogs on leash can be very effective with such reminders. A number of park visitors are newcomers who are unaware of the dog boundaries in the park, and they respond positively and gratefully. But there is a hard core who see themselves as an elite above the law and will not comply. Some become belligerent. We very much hope that the existing dog owners’ group will join our efforts to curb irresponsible dog ownership in the park. There are underlying structural problems. The existing Off-Leash Area is ill-defined, sprawling, remote, and without fencing. The existing signage at key points is inadequate or missing. As a result, too many dog owners wrongly consider Chavez Park a second edition of Point Isabel. This problem was created by an unthinking City Council 22 years ago. One day it needs to go back to City Council for rectification.
Since its founding a bit over three years ago, the Chavez Park Conservancy has made contributions. This past year, we played an important role in saving and improving the park. We were able to lead public opinion, organize people, and set in motion a movement that stopped a powerful city administration and a big-dollar consulting firm in their tracks. We were able to win grants and organize volunteer stewardship days to clean up the Native Plant Area and replace expired botanicals, and plant new ones. We were able to commission an original artwork that celebrates the wildlife in the park both as an interactive website and as a print graphic. We maintained the Peace Symbol, restored a dirt road to nature, raised a buried memorial plaque, and got graffiti cleaned up. We maintained a daily blog celebrating the diverse beauties of nature in the park, and compiled a comprehensive catalog of natural assets found here. We did all that we do as volunteers. We have enjoyed the generous support of private donors and public grants, for which we are deeply grateful. We look with confidence to the year ahead.
— Martin Nicolaus, CEO
December 30, 2022