After more than 15 years, student athletes at Berkeley High will finally have a baseball field and B-Tech students will have a basketball court while the San Pablo Park neighborhood will regain full use of their park. This triple play has come about because it appears the last bureaucratic hurdle has been cleared and the Berkeley Unified School District can start construction of the field at Derby and MLK.
A project that seemed a no-brainer was mired for years in controversy, opposition and, occasionally, hysteria. Now the field will break ground — barring any of the last minute snags that have plagued it — in late May. As with any long-running saga in Berkeley, there are heroes and villains. However, I want to focus on some of the heroes as the field finally became a way to bring people together, always one of its purposes.
A bit of history first, though. BHS baseball players had no home field and were forced to practice at San Pablo Park, which limited use of that space for the neighborhood. In 1997, baseball coach and history teacher Tim Moellering began his effort to get a regulation baseball diamond built at Derby Street. Superintendent Jack McLaughlin supported the idea and, in 1998, the proposal came before a joint session of the City Council and School Board. The reason for a City-BUSD partnership was that Derby street, between Milvia and MLK, needed to be closed in order to create the regulation sized field.
The District’s continuation school, later developed into B-Tech, was on the south side of Derby and a group of portables (later dismantled) occupied part of the north side of the street. The only other use of the space was a Tuesday afternoon farmers’ market, run by the Ecology Center.
Tim, who was one of my son’s coaches at Willard and a friend, called me to ask if I would come as a parent and speak up in favor of the field. Gladly, I said, thinking: who could oppose a baseball field for BUSD students? That was in November 1998.
It turned out there was fierce opposition by some people. It took years of meetings, lobbying and a concerted effort by Mayor Tom Bates, Councilmember Darryl Moore, the late School Board Director Terry Doran, along with former Supt. McLaughlin, Tim, the Friends of the Derby St. Park & Field and architect Susi Marzuola who created the compromise field design to bring the effort to agreement, allowing the field to be built and the street to remain open for the farmers’ market.
However, we had a compromise with no money to build a field. The long delays meant that the funds designated for the project in the 1999-2000 facilities’ bond approved by Berkeley voters had been spent on other upgrades at the high school.
When Bill Huyett became BUSD superintendent, he brought together a representative group to help draft a framework for the School Board for a new facilities’ bond that included funding for the field. Mayor Bates had gotten agreement from a majority on the City Council for the compromise design, known as “Curvy Derby” — because the street curved, but remained open, accommodating both the baseball field and farmers’ market.
With the passage of the bond in 2010, with key support from Karen Hemphill, School Board Director, serious work began to translate the field into plans, drawings and approvals by the City.
Josh Daniels, a new strong voice for the field who was a former BHS player coached by Tim, was elected to the school board. Josh’s support and negotiating skills became critical when, literally at the last minute, we ran afoul of changes in State requirements for treatment of storm water run-off. These threatened City approval of the project, needed before BUSD could begin construction. The snag was finally resolved with the District agreeing to pay for storm drain upgrades in exchange for City approval of the Derby street plans.
Our “field of dreams” means that the Derby street will now be a multi-purpose recreational field for both BHS and B-Tech, as well as a home field for the BHS baseball team. The Derby street field also returns San Pablo Park to full use for the neighborhood.
There is a terribly sad part to this story. Tim Moellering, who was the mainstay of the field campaign over the years, and the touchstone for all of us who worked on it, died last year of cancer. While he didn’t live to help break ground, he knew our effort was finally going to be successful before his death. Colleagues and friends of Tim’s, as well of the baseball field, are determined that the Derby street site will be named after Tim. Without his vision, persistence and patience, it would never have come about. It’s fitting that Moellering Field be one of his legacies.
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