Report from the Forum on the Oakland Waterfront, Oct. 25 2000

Commissioners and Staff - here's my unofficial intelligence report from a day of spying on the Oakland Waterfront movers and shakers.

First reaction: Wow! They are doing some great stuff down there. Yes, they have many more miles of waterfront, and yes, they have the Port of Oakland and ship terminal developers pumping in some big bux. But there are some things that Oakland waterfront planners, along with the Mayor and a few Councilmembers, seem to "get." Things that still evade comprehension in the Berkeley government.

Primary among these is mixed use development. They have new market-rate housing projects, new office development, major new park projects, habitat and wetlands restoration, and the Bay Trail all along the same stretch of Estuary, all in the process of being linked up for mutual value-enhancement. Most impressive, they have the remarkable new Jack London Aquatic Center about to open. It will be home to a funded city sailing program, and also support a number of non-profits for various types of rowing and paddling. Again, I'm impressed with the number of people in positions of authority who "get it" with respect to access to the water surface, not just to the water's edge, and who also "get it" with respect to the role of non-profits.

On to specifics: After intros by Councilmember Nate Miley and City Manager Robert Bobb, there was a spectacular slide show by Deborah Cooper of the Oakland Museum. No, I can't scan her slides and use her script on my web page. And I'm not the first person to ask, either. Anyone writing a history of the Berkeley Waterfront would do well to copy her style, and strive to equal her depth of content. But dammit, it belongs on the web.

Then we were treated to a short talk by Mayor Jerry Brown - first time seeing him in person for me. Every time I hear him speak, at least since he's been Mayor, I feel better about having once voted for him for President. Best quote: "What is the message of history? The message is that it's just one damn thing after another." This in reference to the fact that all the major changes on the Oakland waterfront having been driven by things like gold, railroads, and technology rather than by government and planning.

For example, the defining event in Oakland's modern history, according to Jerry, was not the radicalism of the '60s that he was involved in, but the deal between Oakland and SF by which Oakland got all the container freight and SF got all the break bulk. This was 1962, when the SF Port Authority thought that containerization would be a passing fad. Ha ha!

Most of the day was a 4-hour bus tour. First we looked at "Middle Harbor Enhancement Area", a former military supply center. Piers are being removed and the 30-ft depths are being filled in to 3-5 feet. To a sailor this seems nuts, taking a perfectly good harbor and deliberately making it non-navigable. But it solves the problem of where to put dredging spoils for cheap, and creates a significant new wildlife habitat. I was assured that a large portion of the cove will remain open to non-motorized boats. Some 34 acres of park are being built ringing the harbor, and I came away convinced that it's going to be a nice spot and a worthwhile project. That is, as long as they leave a few 5 or 6 ft spots for small cruising sailboats, because after Angel Island and maybe Treasure Island Cove, there's a serious shortage of interesting non-industrial places to anchor out. Actually, it will be amazingly similar to our own North Sailing Basin in size, shape, and water depth by the time they're done.

The lunch stop was at the almost-completed Jack London Aquatic Center, located at Estuary Park at the mouth of the Oakland River. It's worth typing this in:

The Boating Center is a project being developed and operated by the Jack London aquatics Center, Inc. (JLAC). The JLAC is a non-profit 501-c(3) corporation that was incorporated in 1994. The JLAC has served as designer, contractor, and when completed, will be the operator of the Center. The facility is a 15,600 square foot two-story building which features a second-floor multipurpose room that will serve as classroom space, provide restroom and shower facilities, office space and storage lockers. 3,000 square feet of the ground floor will hold five boat bays at the aquatic center. JLAC will occupy two of the boat bays, which will offer year-round youth after school rowing programs and youth and adult kayaking and canoeing and rowing classes. The facility will have a 4,048 square-foot pile supported rowing boat dock to launch rowing vessels and small hand-carried boats. A sailboat dock, 1,549 square-foot disabled accessible, pile-supported, sailboat dock and lift to raise and lower boats into the water is planned to provide temporary mooring of sailboats.

The Oakland Office of Parks and Recreation and Cultural Affairs will operate boating activities from the facility, which will be primarily sailing programs. The JLAC will enter into agreements with a number of community groups for uses of two of the boat bays. It is anticipated that the boat bays offered through this arrangement will be on a fee basis and will involve payment of rent for equipment storage.

I'm amazed how many of the details these folks seem to have gotten right, even down to the organizational structure that allows multiple volunteer organizations to each run their part of the show. Note that they spent some $350,000 on just the docks and boat hoists, thanks in part to $100,000 kicked in by Coastal Conservancy.

How it applies to Berkeley: We can do this on the North Basin, if East Bay Regional and State Parks buy into the idea. Not so much for sailing, for which the South Sailing Basin is better, but for various kinds of rowing and paddling. I'm imagining a very similar boathouse at the north-west corner of the meadow, serving dragon boat racers, kayak paddlers, and open- water rowers. Maybe an outrigger canoe club too, although they like rougher water and might be a better fit for the commercial/hotel area near the foot of Gilman. Entry-level rowboat rental works well at both locations.

The goal is for any teenager In West Berkeley to be able to bike down to the marina for after-school dragon boat or outrigger practice on any day the weather allows.

Another fascinating possibility: The Cal Crew team, occupying a Julia Morgan-designed boathouse further up the Estuary, is going to have to move. They hope to be able to take the boathouse with them. The North Basin doesn't have the length or the protection to be a good crew venue, but if it's the only way for the structure to remain in service as a boathouse, who knows. Demographic trends suggest that Cal should switch from shells to outriggers anyway. Do you think a genuine Julia Morgan structure would look good somewhere in the Eastshore State Park?

Lots more, but that's enough recreational typing for now. I managed to swipe a stack of extra forum participation packets, which I'll distribute at the next Waterfront Commission meeting. I also made off with a copy of the "Estuary Policy Plan" on CD. This is a wonderful way to distribute a large and complicated document, and we should recommend to our planning department that they save some trees and some dollars by doing the same.