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Love Letters to the Park

This book documents a case study in how not to do landscape architecture. Just before the Covid shutdown, the Berkeley city administration hired an international landscape architecture powerhouse firm, Hargreaves Jones, to redo the Berkeley Marina. The HJ firm specialized in transforming abandoned industrial brownfields. The Berkeley Marina, however, is not an abandoned industrial brownfield. The largest portion, the 90-acre Cesar Chavez Park, was the municipal dump fifty years ago, but since then has developed into a spectacular park with a diversity of established constituencies. Without contacting any of those constituencies, and relying solely on the political capital of the city administration, HJ drafted a set of proposals for commercializing key portions of this park. The city was turn over major acreage to private interests for money-making purposes.

When the news of these plans became public knowledge, there was a snowballing movement of opposition. All kinds of park users, no matter what their specific interest in the park, hated the HJ proposals. And were not bashful in saying so. A flood of letters, emails, and comments descended on park authorities. More than a hundred people — an unheard of number — swamped an obscure public hearing. Two thousand signed a petition to Save Our Park.

This book came out at the height of the opposition movement. It found its way into the hands of each City Council member and key city administrators. It collects more than 125 voices speaking of their love for the park as it is. Three weeks after its publication, City Council began to crack, and the city administration, sensing defeat, retreated. It formally abandoned plans for development in Cesar Chavez Park. This was a complete victory for park visitors who loved the park.

You can get this paperback from here. Or you can read it in its entirety on the website, which led the opposition, here.

Back cover


The Big Picture is that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The small picture is the same. The difference is that we have more leverage on the local issues. Berkeley is a small university town on the east bank of San Francisco Bay. It has, or had, a pier that stretches toward the Golden Gate Bridge. At the base of the pier lies a peninsula known as the Marina. It hosts a boat basin, a hotel, some restaurants, retail, small parks, playgrounds, a sailing club, and workshops. On the north side of the Marina, taking up 90 acres, stretches Cesar Chavez Park, Berkeley’s largest. The entire Marina is built on garbage, more than a century of it, to a depth ranging from about 12 feet to more than 60 feet. You can’t see that now. The only reminder is a kind of smokestack near the middle of Chavez Park, where landfill gases, mostly methane, get burned off. Everything else looks civilized, if in parts dilapidated, and Chavez Park itself wears the mask of Nature. This is the Anthropocene. The foundation of nature here is entirely man-made, impressed on the primal mud of the Bay, washed by the tides on three sides, raked by the western wind. Since the garbage trucks stopped coming in the 1980s, nature’s own nature has taken root and thrived here. Here birders have spotted more than 200 species. Botanists have identified nearly that many species of plants. There are enough insects, reptiles, and mammals to make it interesting. And the views are world class. What was once, in the living memory of many, a garbage dump, today evokes descriptions like oasis, refuge, treasure, and sanctuary.

The budget underlying this district is a mess. Because all the land was built on the waters of the Bay, which belongs to the State of California, the Marina land is State property. The City of Berkeley holds it in trust. In a symbolic salute to this trusteeship, the City created a budget silo called the Marina Fund. This is supposed to operate like a sovereign state, with income and outflow to balance. But the City conveniently siphons off the Marina’s largest revenue source, the hotel tax, into its General Fund. And the City burdens the Marina Fund with items that benefit the whole city, such as annual festivals and playgrounds, and with costs that everywhere else come out of the City’s budget, such as road work and maintenance. As a result, the Marina is a banana republic, bled of its wealth and crushed with overcharges. To the surprise of no one familiar with its warp, the Marina budget in the teens slid ever deeper toward the red.

A rational government might reconfigure the spreadsheet so that Marina revenues remained within the Marina and the City would bear costs that serve the City. Better yet, it would end the threadbare fiction of a Marina Fund altogether and merge the district’s budget with the City’s. But this is Berkeley. Berkeley’s government met the looming red ink by spending $1.1 million to hire an international landscape architecture firm, Hargreaves Jones Inc., with the mandate to squeeze more blood out of the turnip. The Marina must be made to yield additional revenue. The project got the title “Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan” or BMASP.

The timing was fortuitous. The parties executed the consulting contract on March 3, 2020, a blink ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic. As in many other cities, Berkeley government went into bunker mode. Minimalism ruled democratic processes. Checks and balances were swept off the table. Covid became the all-purpose excuse for bad performance or none. The BMASP was born in this suffocating atmosphere.

The focus of BMASP at first was the municipal pier. Originally built as an onramp for a car ferry that got people from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco in less than half an hour, it became a dinosaur in the 1930s when the Oakland Bay Bridge was built. Its abandoned outer stretches became a skeleton of tarry pilings, a nuisance to navigation, but too costly to remove. Its inner span remained and served for decades as a place to fish without needing a permit, and as a romantic stroll where countless lovers ambled and children ran.

Annual inspection is standard procedure for large infrastructure projects. It is a matter of public record that the City performed no inspections of the pier, zero, in the fifteen years between 2000 and 2015. Then, surprise!, engineers discovered that sizable portions of the underside cladding had fallen away, possibly impairing its load-bearing capacity. Paul Kamen, a long-time Marina activist and boating enthusiast, documented the damage by the simple expedient of paddling his kayak under the pier with a camera pointed upward. It would have been possible to reveal this damage a decade earlier when it was trivial in size and easily fixed. A stitch in time was not taken. The pier has remained closed to the public for seven years.

With this iconic people-magnet gone, the south side of the Marina went downhill. The big and popular waterside restaurant, Hs. Lordship’s, went broke and shut its doors. Vagrancy and crime escalated. People used to love to come to the pier area at all hours. Now they fear to visit, especially after dark. Demands arose for security cameras and police patrols. It was obvious that the pier somehow had to be revived. The problem is, where to get the money? BMASP’s proposal, backed by the Mayor, was a modified revival of the pier’s original function as a ferry terminal. There would be money from WETA, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, to be matched by the City, for a modest commuter ferry service.

The ferry plan became a focus of City controversy. Proponents hailed it as a bold step that would revitalize commerce on the south side and put Berkeley on the Bay Area map as a town that embraces a regional future. Opponents slammed it as a waste of money, a hazard to recreational navigation, and grounds for degrading the south side of the Marina into a parking lot. In early 2022, two of the leading critics of the BMASP ferry plan, boat activist Kamen and prominent veteran parks advocate Jim McGrath, resigned in protest from the Parks Commission. That caused a stir which at this writing has not entirely subsided. The McGrath/Kamen initiatives stung BMASP like a pair of yellowjackets. But the pier users and the boating groups did not form organized constituencies. The hornet’s nest was yet to come.

For years I was known in the park as the Toilet Guy. After a period of using the park mainly as a dog run, in late 2014 I got fed up with the disgusting porta-potties and started a petition to replace them with real permanent flush-toilet bathrooms. I also published a small paperback of park photographs. In 2015 I took nearly a thousand petition signatures and the book to City Council, where all the sage heads agreed that it was a beautiful park and the porta-potties were awful and had to go. (That agenda item remains unfinished.) Then I got engaged in a controversial campaign to save and restore the Native Plant Area, which led to actual progress. Among other volunteers, I’ve worked hands-on pulling weeds and trimming deadwood in this historic 3-acre oasis in the southwest side of the park. I worked planting wildflowers in the southeast corner, restoring the peace symbol in the northwest corner, and ghosting a misplaced dirt road on the north side. I helped hand out free masks in the park early in the pandemic. Each winter for the past few years I’ve served as an unofficial guide and documentarian of the Burrowing Owls. I’ve helped hundreds of park visitors see these rare and wonderful birds for the first time, and in the process I became transformed into the Owl Guy. Meanwhile I published more than 2,000 posts about the park and its natural attractions on the website, and founded the Chavez Park Conservancy. All this is by way of saying that in my experience, park enjoyment and park advocacy go together. Enjoyment without advocacy loses its subject. Advocacy without enjoyment loses its point. You need both. In other words, BMASP wasn’t my first rodeo. Still, nothing in my park history prepared me for the tsunami of public response to the BMASP proposals for Chavez Park.

I’d been ignoring BMASP, thinking it only concerned the pier over on the south side of the Marina. When I finally sat down and read the BMASP documents, my hair stood on end. BMASP had a lot in store for Chavez Park. I said so in a post on on April 21 2022. People urged me to take it to Berkeleyside, and on April 29, this local online daily published my op-ed, “Berkeley Marina Plan Would Destroy Cesar Chavez Park.” More than a hundred comments, almost all of them supportive of my points, poured in to Berkeleyside in a few days. Additional comments came to Park visitors were outraged at the BMASP proposals. Unlike the municipal pier, which had no established constituency, Chavez Park had a loyal and diverse community of people who loved and respected the park, and who were not hesitant to say so. Subscriptions to multiplied and a number of park visitors made donations to the Chavez Park Conservancy.

Great credit for mobilizing park lovers’ support belongs to Jeff Malmuth, a long time park visitor and dog owner. The Berkeleyside article aroused him to action. Within a couple of weeks, he had created a flier and taped it to benches and waste bins all over the park. Within two months, he built a list of more than 300 email addresses, and worked the list tirelessly. Between his list and the readers of, and visitors at the Chavez Park Conservatory kiosk in the park, more than 100 people participated in a July 13 Zoom meeting of the Parks Commission, an unprecedented number. Participants were unanimous in opposing the BMASP proposals.

This volume collects key documents in the BMASP affair. None are more important than the letters and comments from more than 125 individuals who shared their opinions. One side of these contributions is negative appraisal of BMASP. Terms like “appalling,” “horrible,” “outrageous,” and the like pepper these writings. The other, sweeter, more enduring and fundamental side is love for the park. You will see and feel as you read them a depth of emotional engagement with this space that evokes the love that people feel for another person, for family, or even the loftier passion people feel for a cause.

The Argentine-Cuban physician Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom I as a young man had the honor to meet, once said that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” Classical themes of political economy lie on the surface here: a free public space equitably available to all, threatened by a fake-progressive government pushing to promote private profit-making interests in the service of the affluent. It’s a small episode in the
long-running series of capitalist encroachments. But it’s one that the public can win. All it takes is the energy driven by love of the park. And there’s a lot of that, These writings prove it.

— Martin Nicolaus