Park Week 6/30/23

Birds Hanging In

Three birds are showing great love for the park, or something, by remaining longer than usual. The Surf Scoters have been here in the North Basin, around the Open Circle Viewpoint, for a month now. That’s an exceptionally long rest break for a migrant species that’s normally breeding up in the boreal forests of Alaska and Canada this time of year. I wonder if they’re quietly breeding here. But there’s nothing resembling their normal nesting habitat in this neighborhood. They may have just decided that breeding this year is not for them.

At least two male Savannah Sparrows are still here, hanging around the meadow on the southeast flank of the park. The park destroyed their nests three weeks ago by mowing the area. If birds feel grief, and they probably do, these sparrows have cause. With their nests destroyed, and the females having departed, these males probably don’t know what else to do but keep singing. As the Mexican folksong goes, “Ai ai ai ai / Canta y no llores / Porqué cantando se alegran / Cielito lindo / los corazones.” This short YouTube video records one of the males singing this morning.

I thought the Red-winged Blackbirds were all gone. I hadn’t heard any of their characteristic whistles on the north and northwest sides of the park where they traditionally nest and raise their young. Thursday morning, alerted by park visitor Mary Law, I heard and then saw a lone male perched on a Barn Owl box on the east side of the park, where they’re rarely seen. Its whistle, a single downsloping call, sounded unlike any that I’d heard these birds make previously. Merlin’s Sound ID, usually very sharp, couldn’t name it. If you want to hear it, check out this short YouTube video.

Plants Plus

Photographer Joell Jones, featured in last Friday’s post, returns with this snapshot of a blooming Lupine with a bumblebee sipping its nectar and carrying its pollen. Photographer Susan Black, who has published her work here a number of times, contributes this quick-reaction capture of a Brown Pelican flying overhead as she stood under a Torrey Pine in the Native Plant Area. The Coastal Buckwheat doesn’t grab eyeballs from a distance. It’s a pale green ball. But up close it reveals a heap of tiny flowers loaded with nectar. Conservancy volunteers planted this in the Native Plant Area last November. Besides the bumblebee, it had two native wasps and an unidentified fly testifying to the plant’s reputation as a major pollinator magnet.

Politics: The Marina as Strip Mall

Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission meeting June 21 2023

A subcommittee of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront (PRW) Commission has produced a third draft of its proposed “Report & Recommendations to City Council Regarding Berkeley Waterfront Specific Plan.” I’ve reviewed the first draft here on May 12 and the second draft on May 26 and again on June 21. The third draft was presented at the June 21 PRW meeting. It is longer, eight pages of single-spaced text; you can view it here. If it is approved by the full PRW Commission, as expected, it will be submitted to City Council. Here below is my commentary on the third draft. I’m going to focus mainly here on what the document has to say about Cesar Chavez Park, but a look at the bigger picture is necessary. 

 “I. The Specific Plan Must be Organized Around a Vision for the Berkeley Waterfront Area

The report begins by urging that the Waterfront Specific Plan must be organized around a “comprehensive vision.” It points out that currently there is a diversity of distinct “nodes of activity” such as the hotel, boat basin, Chavez Park, and others, and these don’t necessarily integrate and may be in competition or conflict. That’s quite true, but it’s normal and to be expected in any substantial and complex area. 

The report holds up as a model the “Presidio/Tunnel Tops/Crissy Field” area in San Francisco which it calls a “resource with broad appeal to the entire community.” But on closer look, this San Francisco area actually consists of three different administrations with their separate budgets, each entity with its own website. It has been the scene of bitter controversies.  It has also had the benefit of National Park money, such as a recent $200M grant, plus major corporate donations.  These may be lovely places but they are far from a valid comparable for the Berkeley waterfront.

A credible vision for the future has to begin with an accurate view of the present. The paper gives cause for concern on that score.  The document says, for example, that “The Waterfront is one of the few areas of Berkeley that extends deep into the Bay that provides a myriad of water and Bayfront experiences.” Unless Berkeley has suddenly annexed Emeryville and Albany, the Marina is not “one of the few” such areas.  It is the only such Berkeley area.  There is no Marina B.

There are other cognitive gaps. The document calls for establishing a kayak rental and launch facility, apparently unaware that a very good one already exists, run by Cal Adventures. I’ve used it myself, years ago. Likewise it calls for  a windsurfing launch site, when one has been in place on the south side for years and gets regular everyday use. Cal Sailing Club runs it. The report wants to build a cafe near the park, unaware that a nice cafe accessible to the public already exists in the Hilton Doubletree hotel next door to Chavez Park. The report calls for revival of the annual fishing derby, apparently forgetting that the fishing pier has been shut down for eight years now. A census of bird, plant, and other species in the park does not have to be constructed, it already exists. There’s more of the same.

The report doesn’t get that the waterfront already has a comprehensive unifying vision. It is a waterfront. The unifying magnetism that holds all its “nodes of activity” together is contact with the waters of the Bay.  That’s not only a geographical and social/psychological reality, it’s the core of the trusteeship under which the City has the privilege of managing the land. Remember, the whole Marina is a landfill, an encroachment on the waters of the Bay owned by the State of California. This is why, for example, the City can build recreational amenities related to water, such as boating and tourism, but cannot build condos or shopping malls. That’s the actual vision, and it’s a good one.  The basic question we should be asking about any plan for the waterfront is, how does this relate to the water?  

The subcommittee’s vision has no anchor in the waterfront. It sees the Marina as just another piece of commercial real estate to be developed. The draft says for example that “Community businesses and brands should be featured throughout the Waterfront Area….” That would turn the Marina into a strip mall. The principal report author, Allan Abshez, was heard at the recent PRW Commission meeting to complain about the State regulation that would bar, for example, a yoga studio at the Marina. Well, what does a yoga studio have to do with the water? If a yoga studio is OK, why not a sports equipment store? Or a motorcycle dealership? Or a Walmart? Or condos? Several other passages of the report envision broad commercial development without reference to the water connection. The underlying vision of this report, in all three drafts, has been to promote a Marina dedicated to commercialization and privatization. Like the historic thrust of the Santa Fe Railroad and its successors, the report wants to bring commercial Berkeley to the waterfront, instead of bringing the waterfront to Berkeley.  That’s not a vision that Berkeley has ever subscribed to, nor is it likely to do so in the future.

“II. Fiscal Recommendations”

The previous drafts of the report contained meritorious criticism of the fiscal structure of the Marina.  Current bookkeeping improperly burdens the semi-fictitious “Marina Fund” with expenses that are normally borne by the City, while conveniently omitting the major source of revenue that the Marina generates in the form of the hotel tax and the sales tax. As other critics have pointed out, the Marina is not broke.  The Marina is a cash cow for the City’s general fund.  The subcommittee report recommends that Marina bookkeeping be fundamentally reworked. 

This is useful, but not enough.  The big gap is that the report doesn’t attempt the required budgetary reconstruction.  Maybe there is not enough information to do it in detail, but a reasonable estimate should be possible. What really is the fiscal status of the Marina, once the fake costs are omitted and the real revenues included? A credible Master Plan for the waterfront has to be founded on real bookkeeping.  The report should figure out the Marina’s fiscal reality and present it.  That would be a contribution.  

The report would also benefit by factoring in the proposed WETA ferry in the financial picture.  No estimate of this project shows anything other than a big financial drain on the city’s taxpayers. If the Marina is fiscally under water now, it will be sunk like the Titanic if the WETA ferry is built.  

Without a more comprehensive review of Marina money, the report’s numerous recommendations have no discernible funding.  In its present form, the report is not likely to impress City Council. 

“III. Planning Principles”

This section of the report is a blend of apple pie generalities such as “great design” with a grab bag of specifics.  Of course, everyone favors great design.  What does that mean concretely?  

Among the specifics, the draft recommends improving the pathway along Marina Boulevard and other trails. Good.  That needs to be done. It also recommends abolishing car parking facing the Bay between the dead pier and the dead Hs. Lordship’s site.  Bad idea. Walk there on a summer’s day and feel the frosty gale blowing in.  You’ll understand why people sit in their cars there instead of on benches to have lunch and view the Bay. Car parking in that spot is great design.  

What’s missing here is historical perspective. As the 2003 Master Plan for the Marina illustrates, great planning principles often don’t make it into execution.  The 2003 plan, for example, called for building permanent bathrooms and a Park office in Chavez Park.  Hasn’t happened.  Many of the excellent 2003 landscape design ideas never made it to the shovel stage.  

The current report could make a real contribution if, instead of repeating platitudes, it analyzed why the great planning principles of the past died before execution. Why are these Master Plans routinely ignored?  How are real decisions made? Don’t look for answers in this subcommittee report.  

“IV. Cesar Chavez Park”

When it comes to Cesar Chavez Park, the report makes the not unreasonable point that there should be a comprehensive Master Plan for the park as part of the Waterfront Specific Plan. Last summer’s popular movement against commercial development in the park was just that, against commercial development. It was not opposed to park modifications of every kind. There are definitely areas needing improvement, and if they are done in a planned, thoughtful way, so much the better.

Here, too, the subcommittee report recites virtuous generalities about biodiversity, access to nature, and social equity.  No one could disagree.  The devil, however, is in the details. As soon as we get to specifics, the virtue goes out the window.  Case in point:

The first and only specific area in Chavez Park that the report addresses is the Off-Leash Area (OLA).  Here this third draft backs off from the previous drafts which correctly called for appropriate fencing of this loose-dog range to protect ecologically sensitive areas.  Now it just wants the area to be “appropriately demarcated.” 

Demarcation, 2019

We have had experience with demarcation. In late 2019, Marina supervisor Alexandra Endress undertook to post thin blue stakes, four feet tall, every ten feet along the dog park boundary to demarcate it.  See “Dog Park Expands,” Nov 6 2019.  This demarcation effort was promptly sabotaged by extremist dog owners who pulled up the sticks and threw them in the trash. See “Didn’t Look Up,” Nov 9 2019, photo right. More than 300 of these demarcation sticks linger unused in a Marina warehouse. Numerous boundary signs have similarly been destroyed or stolen.  Every other demarcation effort short of a sturdy fence will meet the same treatment.  Even if signs and markers remain standing, how will you get loose dogs to respect them? “Demarcation” only contributes to converting all of Chavez Park into a second edition of the Pt. Isabel dog park.

The subcommittee, two of whose three members are dog owners, does not ask the fundamental question how the unfenced Off-Leash Area serves the park’s biodiversity, ecological value, and attractiveness. A serious study would show that it has negative impacts on all three. Loose barks sink parks. Before any Master Plan for the park is adopted, the OLA needs to undergo an impartial and thorough reassessment of its value as a park asset in its present form.  

The report also ignores the obvious fact that only a minority of park visitors come to the park with dogs. And only a fraction of those ever use the Off-Leash Area.  Much of the time the area sits empty. And only a fraction of those who use the OLA love its lack of enclosure. Many dog owners would be happier with a more compact and contained area to keep their dogs from running out of sight, and to keep big dogs and little dogs separated. Many dog owners, and most other park visitors, would much prefer a professionally designed dog park.  

The report proposes detailed enhancements to the OLA but has nothing more than vague generalities beyond that area. Yes, infrastructure. Yes, native plants. But there’s not a word about the Native Plant Area, the Chavez/Huerta Solar Calendar, Glider Club hill, the Highline Kites spot, the ground-nesting bird grasslands, the Sky Window sculpture, the signage throughout, the memorial benches, the Barn Owl boxes, the seasonal Burrowing Owl sanctuary, the Open Circle Viewpoint, the Protected Nature Area, the Red-wing Blackbird breeding area, Peace Symbol Hill, the Flare Station, or the specific bodies of water on three sides. 

The report bemoans habitat loss and species decline in general, without addressing the specific measures that destroy habitat and kill species in the park, such as mowing during grassland bird nesting season and inadequate fencing to protect wintering Burrowing Owls.

A list of other specifics for Chavez Park on Page 5 deserves brief comment.  A public café already exists in the hotel.  It has nice views of the boat basin.  A very good nature interpretive center and an outdoor activity center for children and teens already exists in Shorebird Park. Where and why would a second one be built?  A bike rental rack could be built in a side road off Spinnaker Way.  A kayak rental facility already exists on the south side of University Avenue.  Another cannot be built on the east side of the park because the North Basin water is a bird preserve under East Bay Regional Park jurisdiction, and the north and west sides of the park are too rough and windy. Outdoor weddings and birthdays have been held in the park since it was opened and do not need officially set-aside “areas.”  The picnic areas are fine, leave them alone. Don’t clutter up the scenery with unneeded structures. Clutter is not great design.

Omitted from the list, but wanted by many parents: a kids’ playground. And the report has nothing about restrooms, drones and motorized model airplanes, off-road bicycles, graffiti, boat trailer parking, or open trash barrels.  The report is out of touch with park visitor concerns of long standing.  

Concert Venue that BMAS:P wanted to build in central meadow

Last summer, park visitors including many dog owners united in a common revolt against City proposals for commercial development inside the park, notably a concert venue in the main eastern meadow, and zip lines in the Native Plant Area.  Although we won this battle, we cautioned that commercial interests destructive to the park would be back. Proof is in the subcommittee’s recommendation for something called an annual “Superbloom Festival.”  “Superbloom” has nothing to do with plants blooming. It’s a sprawling high-priced ticketed multi-concert event originating in Munich, Germany.  It features not just one but multiple concert venues like the hated “Lovebox” that BMASP proposed. It’s a recipe for ecological disaster. Birders and doggers, despite many differences, will unite and rise up again if the park pursues the “Superbloom” menace. 


The concluding sections of the subcommittee report argue that Marina development should not be primarily focused on hotel rooms and restaurants, but should include a broad variety of commercial uses. “Berkeley businesses, brands and arts should be encouraged to have a presence in the Waterfront Area so that they can play a central role in promoting the Waterfront Area’s identity as an expression of the Berkeley community.” That florid language means, in so many words, converting the waterfront into a strip mall and the park into a concert venue. That’s the real vision of the subcommittee report. 

The report asks that these and other uses should be approved on a case-by-case basis by the members of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission. Absent clear and principled criteria, the case-by-case approach is an invitation to conflicts of interest and corruption.  The commission is an unelected body.  Making decisions of this kind is not part of the commission members’ job descriptions or usual qualifications. In recent years, the City Manager has reduced the powers of commissions to purely advisory roles.  

If the draft in this form goes to City Council, I intend to submit a Park Visitors’ Majority Report by way of an alternative, informing Council of the realities on the ground and urging Council to cast a skeptical eye on the report as it concerns Chavez Park.

Live Longer with Green

Living near green spaces such as parks can add two and a half years to your lifespan. That’s the conclusion of a research study published at midweek in Science Advances and discussed in the Washington Post at this link.

The researchers looked at long-term exposure to surrounding green spaces and how that affected biological aging among a group of more than 900 people in four U.S. cities.

“Our study shows that being near green space caused some biological or molecular changes that can be detected in our blood,” said Lifang Hou, a preventive medicine professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the study’s principal investigator.

“We know the benefits of green space in reducing premature mortality,” said David Rojas-Rueda, an epidemiology professor at Colorado State University who has studied the health benefits of vegetation but was not involved in the latest paper.

“This study explains how this could happen by describing how green spaces can modify how genes are expressed,” he wrote in an email.

“This is one of the first studies that really kind of demonstrates how exposure to nature, living ingreener areas, may get under our skin and lead to these kinds of fundamental changes to these biomarkers of aging,” added Peter James, an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studies nature and health but who was not involved in the research.

The study should “serve as motivation for policymakers to incorporate nature into people’s daily lives,” said James. “We need to start changing our perspective on green space and really viewing it as an essential piece of infrastructure, just the same as sewer systems and garbage collection,” he said. “This is something that we require as human beings to thrive, to be healthy.”

Update on Perimeter Trail Project

Park visitor Rachel Bradley read the Open Letter to Scott Ferris from Dave Mandel that I reprinted last Tuesday, and sent an inquiry about the trail project to City Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes Chavez Park. Kesarwani’s chief of staff Beth Gerstein forwarded Bradley’s inquiry to Ferris, and had the following reply:

The perimeter path around Cesar Chavez Park has been funded through a $2M grant from the State Coastal Conservancy (SSC) that was a part of the $15M allocation from the 2022 state budget overage to the City.  The City Council took action in December to recommend 5 projects for this funding. We have completed the grant application and received approval from the SSC Board for this project in March. We are working to execute the SSC agreement now, have completed the CEQA process, and are negotiating a design contract with an on-call Waterfront design consultant (In advance of the arrival of the $15M, we ran an on-call RFP so that we would be ready to execute these projects as soon as the funding arrived). We will start the public process for this project as soon as the funding is in place and designer contract has been finalized.

Ferris’ response doesn’t give an estimate when the work may begin but does raise the hope that it will be sooner than the projected Summer 2025 date.

Squirrel of the Week

This Ground Squirrel was giving out the rhythmic whistle that may be an alarm signal or it may be hiccups,. As I set up to film, it stopped whistling and padded over to me, sniffing at one leg of my camera tripod, looking up at me, and gnawing on some seeds inches from my boot. It seemed to be sending me a message: feed me. I’ve run into begging squirrels elsewhere in the park as well. I haven’t seen it myself recently, but other park visitors have told me they saw people feeding the squirrels, including one party that was feeding them taco chips.

Feeding squirrels (and birds) is not a kindness. The park is an abundant buffet for everything they need for a balanced diet. Human food donations, especially highly processed junk foods, are bad for their digestion. As they come to rely on handouts they are liable to become obese, slow, and sick. Sustained food donations also lead to overpopulation, which provokes efforts to control their population by trapping, poisoning, and similar measures. That’s why feeding wildlife in the park is illegal. Chapter 6.50 of the Berkeley Municipal Code prohibits it, and provides fines and/or imprisonment penalties under Chapter 1.20 of the code.

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One thought on “Park Week 6/30/23

  • Thanks for your reporting – I didn’t know that Cesar Chavez Park was being hunted by commercial developers.

    May I make a suggestion. What about putting a directory (you know, like they do at malls) in a few places at the Berkeley Marina – not just directive signs. This way even us locals could learn a thing or two or three! I didn’t know there was a cafe at the Hilton Doubletree, for example. Nor did I know that Cal offered Kayak rentals. I took sailing with Cal 30 years ago but the kayak rental might not have been there at that time.

    I fully support keeping Cesar Chavez Park green; rescheduling the mowing so as not to disturb nesting birds. I am in agreement that we need green spaces for our health – at the cellular level.

    Thanks for your hard work and commitment to keep unnecessary commercial development away so we can enjoy nature. If money is needed, is there a place where donations for the park may be given? Maybe put that on the Park Directory (and if one already exists, sorry, I don’t know about it!) in the Park. I see you have a link above to donate now.

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