Wildflowers in the Berkeley Meadow. All photos by Sean Gin

By Jim Rosenau

In 1961, the Oakland Tribune reported that the city of Berkeley planned to fill another 2,000 acres of shoreline for development, including building an airport. The story prompted Berkeleyans Sylvia McLaughlin, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick to call a meeting with local conservation groups and found the Save San Francisco Bay Association (now Save The Bay), one of the earliest and most successful regional environmental organizations in the world. (For those of you keeping score on Berkeley innovations should note that this was a year before publication of Rachel Carson’s, “Silent Spring”.)

A gem of their efforts is now emerging. The 72-acre Berkeley Meadow (the land just to your right as you head west from Hwy 80) is to be dedicated this weekend at an event honoring both McLaughlin, now 95, and Dwight Steele, who died in 2002, two founders and stalwarts of Citizens for East Shore Parks. They, fellow co-chair Norman LaForce, and CESP deserve our thanks for the decades of work that went into protecting our waterfront land from commercial construction and creating the 8.5-mile long state park.

Even if you don’t attend the ceremony on Saturday, at least go out and stroll the Berkeley Meadow right now while its seasonal ponds are full and the native grasses are still green. You will see, ten years after the creation of the state park, a wildlife sanctuary fabricated from scratch. What you won’t see is more than a handful of the 2 million annual state park visitors, though this prime spot is just a short bike ride from West Berkeley. The adjacent, city-owned César Chávez Park on the north waterfront gets most of the visitors along its paved trail. But here, only a few hundred yards away, the Meadow, our state park managed by the East Bay Regional Parks District, is an almost wild place, trisected by two wheel-chair accessible paths.

Joggers on a path that runs through the Berkeley Meadow

Combine this walk with the César Chávez loop for a contrasting figure-eight walk, one heavily used, the other almost empty. In the Meadow you will find dry footing in most weather and, depending on wind speed and traffic, bird song louder than the freeway. It’s where I go to feel alone under a big sky without getting in a car. I often go to watch the sunset and then the full moon rise plump over the hills. And you can count on the freshest air in town coming through the Golden Gate.

This is a story of how a wasteland came to be and how, a half century later, it was reborn as a wildlife sanctuary in our midst. Yet the builders of this land did not have bucolic intentions. Like much of the bay shoreline, Berkeley’s waterfront lands are entirely fabricated, consisting of construction waste and municipal garbage. Beneath the Meadow lies 12 ft. of fill, placed there between 1953 and 1967. And, though humans built this land, it was privately owned until just ten years ago. The underlying bay floor was granted to the railroads in exchange for putting in the line just east of Hwy 80, along the historic shoreline. Once filled, planners floated a series of contested development proposals for almost 50 years.

Save the Bay’s first victory came in 1965 with state legislation  placing a moratorium on new bay fill. Then, in 1969, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission was given a permanent mandate to ensure public access along all shoreline developments and restrict buildings within 100 feet of the water. These two legislative victories put an end to decades of dumping, but leaving the bay just a third for its original size. Only four miles of bay shoreline were held as public parks in 1965. The long work to create permanent, public open space in Berkeley and around the bay had just begun.

“Bird species of concern”, like harriers, kites and burrowing owls have all been observed on the Meadow

Santa Fe Railroad and a developer proposed a million square-foot shopping mall for the Meadow in 1971. Berkeley rejected the shopping center and was sued by the developers, the case going all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1980, where Berkeley prevailed. The mall was instead built at Hilltop in Richmond.

In the 1980s, Santa Fe’s real estate spin-off, Catellus, lobbied East Bay cities for development rights and was fought by Citizens for Eastshore State Park, founded in 1985 by Steele, McLaughlin and others. CESP lobbied against shoreline commercial development and for public ownership of the waterfront lands from the Bay Bridge to Richmond. They conducted both behind-the-scenes negotiations and public campaigns, winning elections in Emeryville, Berkeley and Albany to stave off development. On December 6, 2002, the State Lands Commission voted to purchase the land, ending a half century of contention.

But simply transferring ownership does not make a successful park. These lands, were left essentially unregulated for decades. Off-road vehicle drivers, illegal dumpers and urban campers along with a mix of opportunistic plants and animals made the most of these open spaces. If you visit the Albany Bulb today you can see a closer approximation of the landscape that had grown up on its own in the Meadow. Park planners were faced with competing user groups, advocating everything from organized sports to dog walking to bird watching. In the end, the Meadow was designated as wildlife habitat.

New land at Berkeley Meadow has been planted over with native grasses and shrubs, much of this from seed

Today, a three phase, $6 million re-planting of the Meadow has been completed. First non-native vegetation was scraped away, then the land capped with clean fill and  contoured to form naturally filling seasonal ponds. The new land was planted over with native grasses and shrubs, much of this from seed. The plantings on the Berkeley Meadow are meant to create open habitat with long sightlines favored by nesting shorebirds. So called “species of concern,” like harriers, kites and burrowing owls have all been observed on the Meadow, though it’s likely they were there at times before the project. “It’s our best approximation of the historic landscape that might have been present a half mile inland,” explained Brad Olson, Environmental Programs Manager for EBRPD.

And, unlike any most of the local waterfront, the meadow was fenced to keep humans inside a few constrained pathways, dedicating the land to wildlife.

How should we describe this land ? It’s not the preservation of damaged habitat. Nor is it the a restoration of what was once there. It’s more like a form of restitution for decades of dumping. The Meadow, rebooted, is the wildest place in town.

The Berkeley Meadow Dedication takes place on Saturday, April 16, 2011, 11:30 am at the Meadow (take the Berkeley Meadow southwest entrance, along Marina Boulevard).

Jim Rosenau is an artist who lives and works in Berkeley. He is a member of Save the Bay, a former member of CESP, and was a planning commissioner in Emeryville during the mid-1980s when Catellus was actively pursuing development of the shoreline. Photographer Sean Gin graduated with a fine art degree from UC Berkeley in 2010. He lives and works in Berkeley and his work can be seen on his website, SeanGin.com.

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  1. An 1892 map of Berkeley (you can see it on the wall in the Central Library) shows Berkeley’s tide lands in parcels owned by at least a dozen different people.  So at some point the AT&SF RR must have bought the land parcel by parcel from those people.  When that happened I don’t yet know.  It was not by way of a Federal grant of land.

    John Undefhill

  2. An 1892 map of Berkeley (you can see it on the wall in the Central Library) shows Berkeley’s tide lands in parcels owned by at least a dozen different people.  So at some point the AT&SF RR must have bought the land parcel by parcel from those people.  When that happened I don’t yet know.  It was not by way of a Federal grant of land.

    John Undefhill

  3. There were other choices besides a shopping mall.

    I participated in the “Design Charrette” of the early ’80s, a collaboration involving local stakeholders and U.C. city planning profs (Fran Violich was heavily involved) to see what we could come up with for Berkeley’s waterfront. We were motivated by Santa Fe’s proposal to turn the Meadow and the North Basin Strip (where the soccer fields are now) into an even higher-density version of the Emeryville waterfront, dominated by high-rise hotel and office towers.  

    What evolved was not a shopping mall and not the current Eastshore State Park plan. We plotted out a dense but small-scale mix of low-rise residential, commercial and recreational uses for the North Basin Strip and the east half of the Meadow. Think Fourth St., but with narrower streets and an urban waterfront along one edge. There would have been just enough building height to block the sights and sounds of the freeway, and a fair amount of open space on the west part of the meadow and the brickyard. Plus a restored Berkeley Beach.

    But CESP prevailed with their open space monoculture. Mixed use was out of the question, and Fourth St. happened on the east side of the freeway.

    Here’s a link to an article I wrote about it in 1983: http://tinyurl.com/6bk96ag

  4. Yes, there are almost always pluses and minuses to anything.  Looking back, having a mall on the Berkeley Marina would have meant far more vehicle miles traveled and accompanying pollution in Berkeley.  it would likely have interfered with the development of the successful Fourth Street area and its competition would have probably left Downtown Berkeley in even worse shape than it is now. 

    Looking forward, as well as back, an auto-oriented mall on the waterfront is probably not a use that would be welcomed over the next twenty years.  In general, the Bay Area needs to be moving much more towards transit-focused development patterns.  A Marina Mall ain’t that.  (AC Transit struggles just to maintain its current service to the Marina area.)

    While retail sales is definitely a source of jobs, mall jobs are generally low paying jobs, and difficult to support a family on.  Look around a mall and you’ll mostly see salespeople in their twenties.  Malls won’t support a long-term community. 

  5. Thank you Fishmeal for your excellent reply. I think my biggest peeve is that you cannot see the sunset from the west platform of the pedestrian bridge, even though that should be an excellent viewing area. If the dirt mound is landscaped into a grassy hill with a viewing area at the top, that will be nice. Berkeleyans like sunsets!!

  6. Keep in mind that today’s unsightly mound of dirt will be tomorrow’s grassy hillside.

    Knapp Excavators won’t be there forever. When the hill is contoured and planted, it will be a valuable feature of the park that provides many more views than it obstructs. It will also buffer the west side of the hill, and the brickyard shoreline, from the sights and sounds of the freeway.

    Can you imagine if Cesar Chavez Park had been leveled before it was converted from a dump to a park? Would you rather have the hills and the views, or a flatland dominated by the freeway?

    All that said, the attractiveness of the Brickyard as a recreational destination will always be compromised by the freeway, and also by the strong magnetism of the marina and the open Bay just a short distance to the west. The Brickyard is a good place for a visitor center and maybe a park maintenance yard, I guess, if there’s ever money for them, but there’s not going to much interest in picnics or shoreline recreation other than at Seabreeze Market. At least, not on the east side of the hill. And the cove east of the Brickyard Peninsula is far too shallow for water access anyway. The planners who drew that sketch obviously never saw it at low tide.

    The Peninsula itself, on the other hand, would be perfect for protected open space and habitat protection. A very short run of fence is all that’s needed, compared to the miles of fencing that attempt to keep protected areas of the Meadow people-free and dog-free.

  7. The Berkeley Meadow is a wonderful oasis of greenery and peace enjoyed by many. But creating a habitat where native grasses thrive and “species of concern” sojourn in abundance has not been without some indirect “human” costs which should also be laid out on the balance sheet.

    While the current Hilltop Shopping Center is no doubt an “eyesore of concern” and not much of a destination shopping mall, its placement on the Berkeley Marina would likely have had several tangible effects. First, it would have provided our city with significant sales tax receipts for the last 40 odd years which could have better funded many of the local government programs and services many residents desire but which now must be financed increasingly alone by beleaguered Berkeley homeowners (as our local retail sector has declined almost to the point of collapse).

    Secondly, at least judging from the current and historical workforce at Hilltop, a large shopping mall on the Berkeley Marina would have provided a fair amount of decent local employment, including many entry level jobs, in our service sector oriented economy, just at a period of time when many local factories and other blue-collar jobs in south and west Berkeley were being lost. The workforce at Hilltop remains extremely diverse, exactly the sort of socio-economic and racial diversity which has declined dramatically in Berkeley, especially northwest Berkeley over the last 40 years. The Daily Cal recently ran a lead article profiling this alarming and disturbing decline in the real diversity of our local community just in the last decade alone, but really going back as a trend at least 40 years now:


    There are probably also some negative carbon emission implications of pushing retail shopping centers out of our community. Driving to Hilltop and back or to Emeryville or Walnut Creek or Marin to find a larger shopping mall or more diverse shopping options does add to our total pollution index.

    So, significant, long term loss of commercial sales tax receipts, loss of at least several hundred local jobs, including part time and seasonal jobs for at risk youth, which indirectly leads to a less diverse and more economically troubled community and some increased (but probably minor) pollution effects for Berkeley residents travelling further for certain kinds of shopping trips.
    Unpopular points to raise, no doubt, but it’s important to see the other side of the balance sheet. In other development oriented communities, likewise no one wants to contemplate that the new strip mall lies on formerly productive agricultural land or comes at the expense of the grassland, bird and wildlife, open space and fresh air…

  8. Two minor typos which I noted without close proofreading:

    On December 6, 2002, the S[t]ate Lands Commission voted to purchase the land, ending a half century of contention.

    It’s more like a form o[f]r restitution for decades of dumping.

  9. Here is a sketch from a couple of years ago.
    According the the Minutes from the Jan. 12, 2011 Waterfront Commission:
    Don Neuwirth, formerly the Manager for the East Shore State Parks General Planning Process, updated the Waterfront Commission on recent development at Brickyard Cove. The state has hired Marta Fry Landscape Associates out of San Francisco for a contract of close to 5 million dollars to plan and design the park.

  10. Thanks for checking. As an FYI, it was posted a day or two before my posting above. I remember it did appear immediately when I posted it (at least on my screen).

  11. This is a terrific article that’s marred, like so many online articles these days, by a lack of proofreading. It’s a bit like the Dirt Hotel obscuring the sunset, but should be far easier to take care of! The substance of the piece and the readership deserve better.

  12. Thanks for the clarification. I was not able to find this while researching the story and tried to write my way around it.

  13. The Santa Fe Railroad did not run along the bay in Berkeley. It ran near Acton and University. The “Santa Fe” restaurant used the old Santa Fe station. Now that building is a part of the Berkeley Montessori school. Catellus was the landowing spin-off of the Southern Pacific Railroad which ran closer to the bay. The Southern Pacific was bought by the Union Pacific and Santa Fe became a part of Burlington Northern-Santa Fe. Some BNSF trains use the old SP right-of-way now between Oakland and Richmond as there are no longer any Santa Fe tracks.

  14. So where can a Berkeley citizen like me voice a complaint about this unsightly mound, the “Brickyard”? It actually makes me mad thinking about it. A few weeks ago I raced down on my bike to the pedestrian bridge to watch the sunset over the Gate, and all I saw was that piece of crap! It really makes no sense, as the platform on the bridge could offer great views of the bay if not for that obstruction. I have heard about the visitor center, which is great, but they need to remove the “Dirt Hotel” first…..

  15. What a fascinating article! My family visits the Berkeley waterfront often and I am so grateful to the people who worked for so many years to make this open space possible. Thank you!!

  16. that would be the Dirt Hotel– a deal between EBRPD and Knapp excavators to store all the dirt.Kind of an ugly entrance to the park? that area is called the ‘Brickyard’ and State Parks and EBRPD have not been able to agree upon a design. Eventually, a visitor center should be there.

  17. From the Berkeley Waterfront Commission (PDF) Jan 12, 2011 minutes:
    The state has hired Marta Fry Landscape Associates out of San Francisco for a contract of close to 5 million dollars to plan and design the park [at Brickyard Cove].

    Here’s a concept from 2005. I know, doesn’t really explain the dirt though…

  18. I, too, was put off by the fenced pathways, having been used to roaming the meadow for years. But now that it’s done and I see what is outside the fence (the whole park, essentially) I appreciate that there is someplace close to home not dedicated to homo sapiens. Would that we smart apes could be trusted to stay on the trails.

  19. Wow that’s really lame. I’m all for a Park Center, but they should build it at ground level. Right now it just totally blocks the view of the Golden Gate. Who are these “planners” anyway? I really hope they get rid of it….

  20. I was under the impression they were going to build a permanent building there.

    Not sure what. Park center? Or a better building for the Sea Breeze?

  21. I think the meadow and park are great, but what about the huge dirt mound just south of the Sea Breeze market? That is a huge, unsightly mound of crap, and it blocks sunset views from the pedestrian bridge. In my mind it HAS to go!!! But it sure is a whole lot of dirt to haul away. Anyone know what the plan is for the dirt mound?

  22. Hi Jim, good story. One of my favorite walks when I have the time is to leave my house, walk over the pedestrian bridge and through the meadow and then around Cesar Chavez and back. So I’ve been watching the meadow evolve over a number of years. (Has it really been ten?) So it looks like the fences are staying. I was sort of hoping they were coming down.