Aquatic Park cleans up, tackles brackish reputation

Japanese Lantern Ceremony at Aquatic Park on Saturday. Photo: Rachel Gross.

On Saturday evening, hundreds of flickering paper lanterns floated serenely across the main lake of the Berkeley Aquatic Park in commemoration of the victims of the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now on its sixth ninth year, the Japanese Lantern Ceremony for World Peace has become an annual Bay Area tradition, with hundreds showing up to decorate the lanterns and watch the ceremony from the shore.

Lanterns with hand-written messages. Photo: Rachel Gross.

Aside from the whooshing of cars on the nearby I-80 freeway, the event was met with quiet excitement, marking what main organizer Steve Freedkin called “a visionary time to reflect on how we’d like the world to be”. Children and adults folded paper cranes and emblazoned lanterns with peace-filled messages, while a musician played a traditional Japanese bamboo flute.

Besides hosting community events like the lantern ceremony, the aquatic park — a 70-acre, man-made lake and waterfront area adjacent to the Berkeley Marina — is a popular locale for hiking, cycling, boating, bird-watching and frisbee-playing. But it’s also dealt with significant challenges to its image.

In October last year, park officials were “shocked” by the number of needles and condoms found along the perimeter and damage to the habitat by trampling, according to Sue Ferrera, superintendent of the park. Ferrera has worked to restore the area by leading coastal clean-ups, planting California native plants and removing “dens” in the underbrush where people were having public sex or illegally camping. She has even fenced off certain areas of the lagoons to prevent future trampling.

Then, in November, the body of a murdered 23-year-old woman was found in the park; the body of her infant son was found in the San Francisco Bay near the Marina, which shares water with the park. Since the incident, Berkeley police say they have continued to do regular night and early morning security checks of the area, often responding to community complaints including car theft, homelessness and other “suspicious activity,” according to Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.

Work is underway to restore the park's natural habitat. Photo: Rachel Gross.

While illegal activity is alarming, Ferrera’s focus is the destruction of the wildlife habitat, which includes fish and migratory birds. By restoring the park’s natural surroundings, she said, she is also making the area a more appealing spot for recreation.

“The same things that displace wildlife displace people,” she said, adding that the city considered the park “a really precious area, and we want to see it restored and protected.”

Despite its history, the aquatic park has no worse a reputation than many other urban parks, according to Ferrera. But some residents disagree.

“What Berkeley thinks the park is and what it actually is are very different,” said artist Deborah Oropallo, who has lived next to the park for 20 years. “It’s a gorgeous park, but it’s very sketchy.”

Oropallo said the park has long been neglected by the city, resulting in a multitude of abandoned buildings and a dearth of park-goers. She said several of the buildings along the perimeter of the park have burned down, and she has seen a mortuary truck enter and leave the park on two separate occasions.

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who attended the lantern ceremony, agreed that the city “has not been a very good environmental steward of the park”, often dumping rusted junk metal by the railroad tracks. (The park is in Councilmember Daryl Moore’s constituency.) And the park’s lagoons have been used by the city to hold floodwater overflow, an issue currently being discussed by the Berkeley City Council, according to Mark Liolios, a longtime cyclist and park-user who runs a habitat restoration volunteer group called EGRET. Floodwater can cause the shoreline to collapse and contains waste and toxins that hurt the wildlife.

One of the park's lagoons, which some say is used to hold toxin-filled floodwater. Photo: Rachel Gross.

Liolios added that his group’s efforts to remove weeds and otherwise improve the area around the main pond have helped reduce inappropriate sexual behavior at the park. But although the instances of camping and trampling have fallen, he said these are not the greatest threats the area faces.

“A condom is horrible for a park visitor to find, but I’m sorry–some sexual activity in a private area does not really have that much of an environmental impact,” Liolios said.

In fact, environmental and safety concerns haven’t stopped many visitors from enjoying the aquatic park.

“I love the park. I feel safe here all the time,” said Byron Solis, an Albany resident who brings his neice to the playground on the East side of the park twice a month.

But Oropallo, who originally helped build the playground, said she no longer lets her two children ride their bikes through the area alone, citing a lack of lighting and people in the vicinity.

“It always makes people feel safer to be with other people, and I never felt safe in that park,” she said.

Some of Oropallo’s concerns may soon be assuaged. In addition to the recently-opened Waterside Cafe, part of Waterside Workshops, the park may be attracting more visitors with its “Touchdown Plaza” where the Berkeley Marina bridge touches down at the North end of the park, according to Ferrera. The plaza will be home to the city’s new animal shelter, which will replace the Berkeley Animal Care Services on Second Street. Construction for the shelter is expected to last one year.

Amber Rich, who runs the Waterside Workshops, said visitors have been steadily increasing to the park as nonprofits open up and groups increase their clean-up efforts.

“It’s really being rediscovered,” she said.

Addition 8/10: Berkeley City Councilmember Darryl Moore, whose district encompasses the aquatic park, said he has worked closely with Ferrera in her efforts to clean up the park, including cutting down brush to prevent instances of trampling and public sex.

“I’m an openly gay man, so I’m a little sympathetic to those who are closeted and feel they have nowhere to go,” he said. “But it’s simply not appropriate. The park should be available and open to everybody in the district — families, kids — not just one group of people.”

Moore added that while floodwater poses an environmental hazard for the park, it would be economically impractical to implement the $30-40 million pumping system recommended by the city’s public works department to alleviate the problem at this time.

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  • elmwood neighbor


    Many people don’t seem to know that Berkeley Aquatic Park is a WPA Project:

    “Aquatic Park was constructed between 1935 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It was built as part of the Berkeley Waterfront Project along with the construction of the Bayshore Highway and Yacht Harbor. Tide gates were constructed to help keep the water level constant in Aquatic Park Lake. A citywide celebration entitled “Pageant of the Land and Sea” was held on May 7, 1937, to formally dedicate the park for public use.

    Aquatic Park Lake was designed to conform to international standards for Model Yacht Racing, and in 1938 both the National and Pacific Coast Regatta for M-class Boats were held at the park.” 9 August 2010

  • TN

    I spend a lot early mornings in Aquatic Park. It is a potential jewel. It is beautiful even in its current somewhat worn condition.

    I think that a lot of the social issues with the park could be reduced if we were able to improve pedestrian and bicycle access to the South end of the park from outside the park. Currently the shortest access from Berkeley is via 67th Street to Bay Street in Emeryville. There is no access via Ashby Avenue. I don’t think that many pedestrians or cyclists from Berkeley find that route very welcoming.

    There were pedestrian access tunnels built into the railroad overpass on Ashby Avenue. These access tunnels are now blocked off and there are no sidewalks to them. Look for them as you drive onto the freeway. I wonder if they could be placed back into service.

    The relative isolation of the South end allows people to act in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise in public. There aren’t enough eyes there.

  • guest

    Gay/bi/queer/questioning men having sex is not devastating the park.
    To bring up the issue is heterocentric bias. Especially when you lump condom usage and needles together. Some homeless people use needles for drug use – its a terrible shame. But the needles have nothing to do with consensual homosexual sex.

    There is a public beach in San Francisco that has open gay sex. It’s ok by the park, the police and the city. And because it’s open, it’s safe and cleaner. If Berkeley just allowed gay men to have sex in a certain area of Aquatic Park, then there wouldn’t be an issue.

  • I very much agree with TN. The southside is a little more welcoming since the cleanup, but still attracts some unwholesome visitors. I always appreciate the frisbee players and the comfort their presence provides. Even when walking my dog, some visitors have a vibe that makes me very uneasy.

    The southside of Aquatic park has been left out of enhancements like the Pedestrian bridge on the North end of the park. Surely the residents of Berkeley’s southside deserve equitable access to biking, and walking along Aquatic Park, the bay and the marina.

  • JNG

    Guest: I don’t see where the article pinned the blame for condoms on any particular sexual orientation. You seem to take it for granted that it was gay men having sex.

    With that said I fail to see why – absent being homeless – gay men or any other consenting adults of any persuasion need to be having sex in public at Aquatic park. This is supposed to be a park suitable for the whole public, not a bordello.

  • Diane

    A public park shouldn’t be a place to have sex – I don’t care who does it, gay or not doesn’t matter – it makes the place unusable for the rest of us. The park is certainly a bit run down and dodgy, and I don’t consider it a safe place to hang out.

  • Zach

    No one has the right to commandeer part of a public park for a private purpose, whether that be sex or any other private activity. “Guest”, you are right that things would be different if the City and citizens of Berkeley collectively decided to allow gay men to have sex in a certain area of the park (although there would still be an issue since public sex is still illegal under California law). But Berkeley hasn’t done that. Just like the sex needs to be consensual, so does the use of public space.

  • Chris

    Does anyone know why there is no sound wall set-up on I-80? I think having a respite from some of the highway noise would go a long way to make the park more serene/enjoyable.

    Kudos to everyone for their hard work – aquatic park really is a diamond in the rough.

  • Lindsey

    I live a few blocks from Aquatic Park and often see men heading out from the bushes or towards them. As a woman walking alone, it doesn’t bother me because I know it is not a woman’s company they are seeking. I just wish they’d take their used condoms with them when they are done. Children are very drawn to the cave like structures the bushes create- they would be very likely to pick up a used condom out of curiosity. I find people flinging frisbees across the path while I’m walking through the park way more annoying than men having sex in the bushes. Both activities are ways for people to enjoy the park for personal pleasure. I benefit from neither and that is just fine.

  • Flip

    “To bring up the issue is heterocentric bias.” ???

    Horseshit. I’m as sex-positive and pro-diversity as the next person, but the bottom line is that rampant cruising — gay, straight, bi, TS, whatever — degrades the Aquatic Park experience enormously. And the drug use that DOES overlap (not exclusively, but seriously, are you suggesting recreational drug use and cruising don’t often accompany each other?) only makes it worse.

    Google “Aquatic Park” and “sex” and you’ll learn (along with lots and lots of other things) that Berkeley has been talking about addressing this situation FOREVER, without a helluva lot to show for it. Frankly, our massive City bureaucracy, which sure doesn’t lack for funds, has got a dismal track record when it comes to dealing with basic, basic, basic practical issues like making a public park perform like a public park instead of a bath house (or the International Blvd. “track,” for that matter, just in case you think this has something to do with “heterocentric bias”).

    How about a quote from Councilmember Darryl Moore? Surely you contacted him? This cesspool is in his district, after all.

  • Another Gues

    I googled “berkeley aquatic park sex”, and was aghast to learn that at one time city of Berkeley employees were paid from our bloated taxes to hand out condoms at aquatic park, all in the name of “HIV prevention”. This means that the city has actually encouraged people to come from all over the bay area to have open sex in a public park. If we can invade Afghanistan, there is no reason our police can’t sweep Aquatic park and arrest anyone found violating any law. Of course, they are too timid to sweep up Provo park, right across the street from the police station, to arrest any BHS kids in possession of drugs, so why should they worry about Aquatic Park. And yes, I too wonder if Mr. Moore somehow considers the freedom to have public sex a civil rights issue.

  • Hi guys,
    Just wanted to apologize for the oversight of Councilmember Darryl Moore–I’ve contacted him and will add his response as soon as I receive it. If you have any other questions, just ask!

  • TN

    I think that if more people were there to enjoy the South end of Aquatic Park, there’d be little need for police involvement to resolve the issues. I think that calling on the police to bust people who are cruising would be a misuse of police resources. The Beat 15 officers, who have coverage of the area, have more important things to do given the many serious issues in West Berkeley.

    In order to have more people make use of the park, we need to improve accessibility.

    The more people who feel that they have an “ownership” interest in Aquatic Park, the more support there will be for better environmental stewardship.

  • TN: altogether way too sane. You have a karmic debt to put forward some notions that make no sense whatsoever.

  • Bethany

    I used to be able to enter Aquatic Park from the southside without crossing in to Emeryville by crossing the tracks at Heinz and cutting through the bushes into the park. But access to the tracks has been cut off by a gate that went up at least a year ago. Now I avoid the southside all together and only use the park for the playground on the north end. There are many nice spots around the park toward the south end that more people would be able to enjoy if there was pedestrian access from the southside. The parking lot on the south end is very uninviting particularly for families.

  • CJ Higley

    TN: I agree with you, but the City and its police force have a role to play in creating a safe environment that gives the rest of us the space (both physically and psychologically) to “take back” the park. There is a tipping point after which community presence may be enough, but we’re not there right now. The City’s acquiescence in allowing a small group of people to appropriate the park to the effective exclusion of all others doesn’t help.

  • Susan Krzywicki

    We have seen changes in our canyons here in San Diego: cleaning them up and making them accessible means that they draw people in and become magnets for people who want to appreciate nature, our heritage and the out-of-doors.

    Here is a program I know has done some good work on this in San Diego:

  • Susan Schwartz

    Thanks for the story on Aquatic Park. A weakness — which as a former reporter I understand — is lack of a time perspective. Many citizen efforts have gone into saving and improving Aquatic Park, among them:
    –the waterskiiers since the 1970s (no longer politically fashionable, but they brought users and eyes — the city invited them for that purpose)
    –the rowers, working at the southwest corner
    –the building of Dreamland for Kids by Berkeley Partners for Parks volunteers some 14 years ago (after the old play structure rotted out and was not replaced);
    –Mark Liolios’ 10 years of effort removing litter, suppressing weeds, and unearthing WPA-built terraces, bringing hundreds of volunteers for cleanups each year as well as leading tours and bringing birdwatchers to the south end through Aquatic Park EGRET; and
    –Berkeley Garden Club’s creation of a beautiful drought garden.

    Most recently, of course, Waterside Workshops is bringing new uses and still more users and saving the historic buildings at the north end of the park. Even the group I head, Friends of Five Creeks, has had a small role in removing invasives to preserve habitat and increase visibility.

    It’s a bit disingenuous for the Parks Department, responsible for the park’s upkeep, to be “shocked” at camps, litter, and condoms there. I hope Parks has turned over a new leaf. But after 25 years, I will be convinced on seeing consistent cleanups, removal or cleanup of their own dump of discarded equipment at the south entrance, trimming up the brush caves that invite camping on the west side, actively encouraging citizen efforts and seeking out new uses (benefit races around the loop? a course for dirt bikers?), and doing something about the tarp-covered toxic soil that their contractor illegally dumped on the shore near the best shorebird habitat.

  • laura menard


    great post, particularly the emphasis on the history of efforts contrasting current status.

    Our local park was unsafe for children to play because of gang violence for years. The community effort to reclaim the park and streets has made a huge difference. The city parks dept is the weak link though and the community center is still profoundly disconnected and not inclusive or serving local residents. All the meetings and resulting promises from various city staff was a waste of our time. I do not think the parks dept has the community best interest in its primary mission. Like most of Berkeley services, they are comfortable not being accountable.

  • TN

    I was at Aquatic Park this morning and despite unseasonably cool weather, it was calm, serene and very enjoyable.

    It struck me as I walked around, that some of the overgrowth that we see when we go to the park may not be on City of Berkeley property. Much of the overgrown vegetation is on the embankment for the rail tracks and right of way. I don’t know exactly where the property line is, but surely some of it must be on private property.

    I don’t know if there is an arrangement between the city and Union Pacific Railroad for maintenance and upkeep of the vegetation. To what extent is the City of Berkeley responsible for the growth on the embankment?

    At a time when the city budget is very limited, perhaps we should be getting Union Pacific to do a better job in maintaining its own property.

  • Tim

    There is a photo pool on Flickr of Aquatic Park pictures… many of them documenting the wide variety of birds that frequent the area. Check it out:

  • Maz_mcc

    Whatever. When I go to a park, it’s to get away from the city and see birds, or to remind myself I’m connected to nature / the earth. 

    Gay men having sex there is not something that I should have to make allowances for any more than junkies shooting up or indeed, anyone at all being allowed to have a “sex area” there. Go to a fkn nudist beach or a cruising joint.  Better still hook up thru the internet.Do you see families showing up at gay bars trying to have their sunday picnic, or conservationists showing up at bath houses and shooting galleries trying to build wildlife conservation habitats in them? No. That would be quite inconsiderate wouldn’t it?