Berkeley groups want old railroad bed to be a public park


The Santa Fe Right of Way is closed to the public. Photo: Mary Flaherty

A group of local residents is asking the city to raise funds to turn an old, fenced-off railroad bed in South Berkeley, called the Santa Fe Right of Way, into open space with community gardens and a trail that connects to the Ohlone Greenway.

The challenge is that the parks department is already seriously underfunded. Officials are considering a measure for next November’s ballot for a tax increase of at least $20 on average, just to keep from having to lay off park maintenance workers.

Last Wednesday night, the Park Commissioners discussed the ballot measure. About 14 supporters of the Santa Fe project and several Willard Pool advocates urged the commissioners to fund these large projects, as well.

“We want to make sure that the Santa Fe Right of Way should be among the key — if not flagship — projects on ballot measure,” said John Steere, president of Berkeley Partners for Parks.


The Santa Fe Right of Way (SFROW) “mobile mural,” painted by the community in 2010, is a vision of the SFROW as a garden greenway. It hangs on a fence at Ward below Sacramento. Photo: Mary Flaherty

According to Steere’s group, the Right of Way was the Santa Fe railroad line from Oakland to Richmond until the 1960s. The city bought the land in 1977 and built Strawberry Creek Park and Cedar-Rose Park on part of it.

One section of the Santa Fe Right of Way has already been turned into a multi-use path. The trail splits off from the Ohlone Greenway near the North Berkeley BART station. It parallels Sacramento Street — but several blocks west — crosses University Avenue (with a dedicated stoplight), passes through Strawberry Creek Park and ends at Bancroft Avenue near Bonar Street.

The Right of Way land, most of it fenced off, continues eight blocks, nearly to Ashby Avenue. Developing this land in South Berkeley is part of the city’s 2000 general plan for open space.

“This is all about completion of existing Ohlone Greenway. The Right of Way has been behind fences for 40 years,” Steere said. Although, he explained, some sections of the trail would have to be on the street, because the city sold a few parcels for housing over the years. Still, several blocks remain wide open.

The best model for what the advocates envision, Steere said, is the section of the Ohlone Greenway between Hopkins and Gilman streets in North Berkeley. That strip features three community gardens, history plaques and artwork, along the multi-use trail.

At the meeting, Daniel Miller, director of Spiral Gardens which sits on part of the Right of Way at Oregon Street, urged the commission to get neighborhood input for the features along the path, such as tot lots and basketball courts.

The plan, Steere said, calls for possibility partnering with a non-profit agency to handle maintenance, taking some of the burden off the city.

In September, Councilman Darryl Moore from District 2 in southwest Berkeley, asked the city to get estimates for the project.

At the Nov. 13 meeting, the commissioners were leaning towards two ballot measures. The first would add at least $20 to the average parks tax of $230 per year, raising about $1 million. That would allow the parks department, which has eliminated three jobs over the past few years, to “stop the bleeding,” as one commissioner said, but might not increase the number of maintenance workers.

The second ballot measure being considered would amount to another $20 tax increase, on average, for a estimated $20 million bond, according to Commissioner Jim McGrath, to fund large projects, such as rebuilding Willard Pool and transforming the Santa Fe Right of Way, among others.

These proposals are all very tentative. The commission will return to this issue at its Dec. 11 meeting, and then make a recommendation to the Berkeley City Council. The council would consider the matter by February, said Scott Ferris, parks director.

The groups promoting the Santa Fe Greenway project include Berkeley Partners for Parks, the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative, the Earth Island Institute Restoration Initiative, and the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition Land Use Working Group, with 10 other community groups supporting them.

Willard Pool supporters turn out for parks meeting (10.17.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp supporters push to rebuild (10.17.13)
Commission, public discuss priorities for Berkeley’s parks (10.04.13)
4 public meetings planned on future of Berkeley parks (09.05.13)
Op-Ed: Berkeley — take steps to re-open Willard pool (11.19.12)

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Guest

    If we don’t have enough funds to fill our potholes (deficit of $34+ million for that project) or even take care of the parks we already have then we don’t have enough funds to build new parks.

    A park would be great there but unfortunately our city leaders have been mismanaging funds and ignoring crucial infrastructure repair for decades.

  • Guest


  • Woolsey

    Great idea, but fund it out of the general fund. No more tax measures. When folks actually want something from the City, the City Council holds it hostage and makes us vote an additional tax measure to fund it. Enough! Given the very high property valuations in Berkeley, the City is already very well funded.

  • Just Wondering

    Build new parks when the funds to maintain the existing ones either do not exist, are being spent elsewhere, or are being wasted?

  • EBGuy

    Hmmm… I really want to see the ROW built out, but I think it’s important to get the city’s long term financial obligations in order first. Once the pension reform initiative is passed, I’ll be ready to consider new parcel taxes.

    I take that back, if the city council and mayor endorses the pension reform initiative, I’ll vote for a parcel tax increase at the same time.

  • southberkeleyres

    I agree, the city is deaf to the thought of asking Berkeley’s city workers to contribute to their generous and unsustainable pensions. I won’t vote to approve any Berkeley tax measures in the meantime.

  • Gregory Lemieux

    Did they discuss the bioremediation efforts currently under study with the help of UC Berkeley?

  • Jim

    Enough is enough on the tax front. They are bleeding me dry.

  • Just Sayin

    Of course they improved the open space in North Berkeley before South…

    With that being said, we need to improve our existing parks first before we do this…

  • Tim C.

    just let each block be responsible for their own strip nearest their homes…and make them responsible for litter, safety, improvements. I think the word is………stakeholders…yeah, that’s it.

  • guest

    Berkeley tax-payers do not have to wait for state-wide pension reform. Act locally. Tell your Council member that you support negotiations to increase individual employee contributions to PERS and talk it up with your neighborhood association, who can pass action items. Find out how much the general fund would benefit from PERS contribution revisions before you decide on allowing the infrastructure to deteriorate further. Parks raise property values, which can offset a tax increase. Get the facts.

  • Truth Sayer

    Sorry, but they want everything. :-)

  • bgal4

    what is the agreement Miller of Spiral Gardens has with the city of Berkeley? Does he have a lease, does he pay rent? If so at what rate? What other funds does the city provide to keep his project afloat, including the Tuesday market at the corner?

    I asked the city these questions some years ago, they did not provide any answers.

    I suspect he is getting a free ride, no rent for public land.

  • southberkeleyres

    What if the council cares more about their fellow city workers than the resident’s financial security, and what if the council doesn’t have backbone?

  • Mary Flaherty

    One speaker at the meeting identified himself as Andy Olson and said he had worked on the bioremediation project with ferns and that it has been successful. I’ve e-mailed him and asked if he’d like to post a more detailed response. Other than his comment, the bioremediation wasn’t discussed at the meeting.

  • suckatash

    You know what else sits on this right of way? BYA’s “community” garden. It’s the saddest garden in the city. About 2 acres. And I believe BYA pays the city $1/year to “farm” it.

  • maryam

    This is right in my neighborhood. Of course I’d love to see this become a reality – but our public spaces here in Berkeley are inadequately maintained as-is. I’m in agreement with other commenters that lack of tax revenue isn’t the issue, mismanagement of funds is. It’s shameful.

    I don’t want a park down the street if it’s going to be filled with trash and smell like urine.

  • Not only have they ignored infrastructure for years while handing out benefits like Halloween candy, I’ve just received a $2000 bill from the city to repair a sidewalk that city owned trees have damaged. I can’t remove the trees and the city has decided that they can’t fix the sidewalks with the property tax they already get. I’ll be damned if I’m going to vote for another tax increase to create more financial burden for a city with the fiscal common sense of a 5 year old.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    The next people’s park coming to a location near you…

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    BTW the soil is contaminated from the trains and creosote from the railroad ties that was sprayed for years and years also weed killer was used non sparingly for the duration it was used as a railroad right of way.

  • Woolsey

    How about an initiative to reduce the parcel tax back to 1%. With the sky-high property values, this City should have more than enough funds to do what it needs to do. In addition to addressing employee retirement perks, the City should join the County and drop the Berkeley Health Department. Only 3 other cities in California operate their own health departments (Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon).

  • guest

    The council are not “fellow city workers”; they are paid a smallish salary that is not comparable to managers or uniformed employees. They are not in a union and do not participate in collective bargaining. The City Manager represents the City in negotiations. But the Council sets policies and can direct the manager. The city budget is roughly $150 million and 80% of that is salaries and benefits. If employees were required to contribute 5% of their salaries to PERS, the general fund would benefit by $6 M. That’s a chunk of change but not much compared to the bill for needed infrastructure repairs on municipal buildings, parks, sewers, storm drains, and flood control. Property owners should press the Council to get tough in negotiations but the City would still need to float bonds. Low interest rates make this a favorable time to issue bonds. We don’t have to pay back at an exorbitant rate. California munis are a stable investment, and Berkeley has a good rating. Do you want to see the physical assets of the City deteriorate?

  • L.

    Yes, seems odd the the soil quality wasn’t raised as more of an issue. Back in 2007 or so there was steam gathering to turn some of this land into community or orchards – until the soil quality reports came in and serious concerns about what would end up in that fruit were raised.

  • southberkeleyres

    I want to see most repairs and services paid out of the general fund as most cities that strive to live within their means. I want to see less waste, and rollbacks to what I consider extravagant benefits and pensions.

  • Guest

    The only reason things have gotten to where we need so much money to fix infrastructure is that the city has been squandering the general fund and treating Berkeley homeowners like a piggy bank they can raid any time they run out of cash.

    If we had had that additional $6m every year for the last decade our parks would be taken care of and our roads would be in much better shape.

  • guest

    There is a biological remediation effort on the Santa Fe right of way using brake ferns that is working to remove the arsenic. BTW there is no scientific evidence to show that contaminants such as heavy metals end up in the fruit of trees. It’s a myth.This subject came up during the remediation efforts at the Alameda Naval Air Base that is being turned over to the City of Alameda and was disproved by environmental activists. The problem with the Santa Fe ROW project is that there is no plan to speak of. The proponents have been trying to get grants for the planning but the city staff didn’t have the time to devote to a new project. So they did an end run around staff and the commission and went directly to Councilmember Moore who brought it up at the City Council worksession. It’s a good project but premature for implementation given the severe needs of the other parks. .

  • guest

    The general fund would benefit if city employees were required to pay 6 or 7% which is the standard, see PERS web-site for details. Now the City pays the ENTIRE pension package. Rising pension and health care costs are the City’s main expense. The past is past, “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” thinking. We have a new dynamic City manager who deserves our support. Tell your Council member NOW that the City needs to negotiate a package that reflects comparable pension contributions from other Bay Area cities and California cities of equal population. That’s called PARITY – the standard criteria in public employee collective bargaining. Berkeley is way out of line. But please do not sacrifice our parks while reforms are negotiated.

  • Fran Haselsteiner

    The area at Parker and Acton is operating as an off-leash dog area for neighbors and seems to be working well in that role. There are no off-leash areas in the neighborhood (San Pablo Park is on-leash only), so people have to drive to Ohlone or Point Isabel. I hope serious consideration will be given to continuing that use.

  • southberkeleyres

    When you think about it, it’s ridiculous that we have special assessments for basics such as Street Lighting!

  • Dan

    Raised beds with clean soil are the way to go

  • Bruce_Mc

    “The best model for what the advocates envision, Steere said, is the section of the Ohlone Greenway between Hopkins and Gilman streets in North Berkeley.”

    I just finished bicycling the trail from Hopkins to North Berkeley BART. A few feet in from Hopkins the condition changes from good to poor. The pavement is bumpy and cracked, and cracks are showing through places where they have been repaired. The trail gets very narrow as you get closer to the BART station, to the point where three wide, bikes or people, is unthinkable. The “best model” could use some attention and some money itself.

  • Mary Flaherty

    This from head researcher on that project, UC Berkeley Prof. Celine Pallud:
    “The results we have for the moment are very encouraging. Measurements done after 6 months of remediation showed that the ferns are actively removing arsenic from the soil. We will soon have a much more detailed set of data about arsenic concentrations in the soil and in the ferns after 10 months of remediation, which should help us determine how long it will take to remediate the site.”

  • Gregory Lemieux

    That is great to hear! Thanks for the follow up.

  • laurenceofberk

    We don’t need City money for this project. We can do it ourselves, just as we did in People’s Park. All the City has to do is take down the fence, and maybe not even that.
    If we do it ourselves, will the City suddenly find money for police action and lawyers?
    I’m 71, but I’ll get a blister there. Who will start?

  • Umm…

    People’s park is a cesspool and an open toilet. I doubt the people living alongside this empty field would be happy to have a homeless encampment spring up in their back yards.

  • laurenceofberk

    If the neighborhood does it, then the neighbors will be able to make the rules & determine the architecture, Mr. Anonymous Umm.
    Is Spiral Gardens a cesspool (not that People’s Park is one)? Is Halcyon Park?
    The point is for the neighborhood to build the space & keep it under control.
    Your fears are worse than useless. Neighbors can accomplish anything if they trust & work with each other.

  • S. Marty Pantz

    As usual, the City cannot think outside the box. A linear park along the old Santa Fe right-of-way could be self-financing. There are many oddly shaped lots formed when the track sliced through Berkeley and many abutting homeowners would be delighted to buy a chuck of land to square off their lots. Others would be amenable to enlarging smallish lots. Still other parcels might be created from scratch here and there. By selling off a quarter to a third of the land, the City could probably finance a continuous strip of parkland with little or no diminution of utility. Selling public land and making the park smaller is probably an unacceptable to the City of Berkeley. Once again , the perfeft may preclude the good. Too bad. This one is easy!

  • TN

    This land WAS offered for sale so that adjacent property owners could “square off” their lots. If you walk along the right of way, you’ll notice that several of the homes have yards that were enlarged this way. Some of the property that was large enough was used for building subsidized housing. Most of the homeowners along the right of way decided not to buy the additional land.

    There are some issues. If one were to create lots, they would be too narrow to build anything conventional. Secondly the right of way has arsenic pollution which has not been resolved.