A cruise ship berthed briefly on the East shoreline of Cesar Chavez Park in the Berkeley Marina this morning, demonstrating the feasibility of a new development plan for Aquatic Park. Photo: Paul Kamen
A cruise ship berthed briefly on the East shoreline of Cesar Chavez Park in the Berkeley Marina Monday morning, demonstrating the feasibility of a new development plan for Aquatic Park. Photo: Paul Kamen

By Paul Kamen

In a proof-of-concept demonstration early Monday morning, an 800-foot cruise ship berthed briefly in the North Sailing Basin, the body of water east of Cesar Chavez Park in the Berkeley Marina.

“This had to be done at high tide, naturally,” explained Capt. Fidley Grating in a press conference Monday. “But it does demonstrate that it’s feasible. We will be able to bring the ships into Berkeley’s Aquatic Park without any major dredging operations.”

The demonstration, conducted on the north side of the marina, is part of a plan that has been taking shape over the last year to bring new commercial, residential and technology-oriented lab and office space to West Berkeley, but without the cumbersome and time-consuming zoning and use permit process.

“The key is ‘navigable waterway,’” said Grating. “Any body of water that is open to the sea, or a river used for maritime interstate commerce, or any lake with shoreline in two different states, is defined as a navigable waterway. This designation means that the jurisdiction is federal. Maritime rules apply, including unrestricted access for vessels of all flags, domestic and foreign. Disputes are resolved under admiralty law, and local jurisdictions have no say in what kinds of vessels make use of the waterway.”

Asked to explain how Aquatic Park, a narrow lake in West Berkeley completely enclosed by land between the freeway and the railroad tracks could possibly be considered “navigable” for interstate commerce, Grating pointed out that the original shoreline ran right along the tracks, closely following what is now the east shore of the lake.

“The water of Aquatic Park was once part of the open Bay,” he said. “And you can’t make a navigable waterway non-navigable just by enclosing it. The historical status as navigable water persists, and that means we can bring in any ship we want. Downtown, they can’t even build 355 units in a simple 17-story glass box without all the locals showing up at the Zoning Adjustments Board with torches and pitchforks. But our ships will have over 4,500 residential units, no building permits required. And the best part is, no taxes of any kind to the city or county.”

In response to a flood of questions about how the ship was going to get into Aquatic Park, Traffic Congestion Commissioner Bart Carr outlined a plan to temporarily remove a section of freeway to allow the ship to slide into the narrow lake at an oblique angle. “Only 300 feet of the freeway will be affected,” he promised. “And by removing all the traffic diverters in West Berkeley, the peak traffic flows can be easily accommodated on north-south side streets.”

The Sierra Club was represented by Norman Conquest, chair of the Sierra Club East Bay Public Outcry Committee. With a surprising show of cooperative spirit, he gave assurances that the organization was fully behind the project, thanks in part to an undisclosed cash settlement that preempted CEQA and EPA legal challenges. “But one of the conditions of the settlement,” he warned, “is that the Berkeley High School girls’ crew team continues to be prohibited from rowing in Aquatic Park, because that will have an unacceptable negative impact on migrating birds.”

Leda Horticulture, from the city’s Commission of Cultural Micromanagement, praised the plan because the ship will bring three new movie theaters to West Berkeley. “Not to mention a couple of world-class bars and restaurants,” she added, “and two new public swimming pools, even though they are a little small.” However, Parking Ticket Revenue Commissioner Lisa Mercedes was concerned about the impact on local parking.

“We really don’t care. We don’t have to,” Captain Grating responded. “But to sell the units to our target market of young professionals, we’ll have to provide private parking and lots of it. This will be accomplished in phase two, when we bring in our second live-work ship and a surplus ro-ro car carrier to serve as the parking structure.”

When asked to clarify, he explained that ‘ro-ro’ is the term of art for “roll-on, roll-off,” and that thanks to the global recession, car carriers — ships that resemble giant floating parking structures with spaces for thousands of vehicles — “can be had for a song.”

Two 950-foot-long cruise ships fit easily into the north portion of Aquatic Park. Image: Paul Kamen
Two 950-foot-long cruise ships fit easily into the north portion of Aquatic Park. Image: Paul Kamen

“Phase two is more than just residential,” added Ilene Wright, a member of the Berkeley Commission for Employment Outsourcing who participated in developing the plan. “Because the shipboard offices and laboratories will be aboard a foreign flagged vessel,” she said, “the workers are technically not inside the United States. This is a great opportunity for foreign nationals to participate in the West Berkeley tech sector without visas or work permits. In fact they won’t even need passports. Their seaman’s papers will be enough to give them a few hours of shore leave every few days, where they will support a vibrant commercial district supplying food, entertainment and special services in the tradition of seaport cities the world over.”

She was cut off before she could elaborate on the “special services” when someone who only identified himself as “Snarky” praised the concept for providing badly needed mixed-use high-density infill. Architect Chuck Pelican made the case for using older ships with art deco styling in keeping with Berkeley’s downtown architectural fabric but, in response, city planner Ira Pander claimed that true art deco was impossible on structures designed by more than three people. This was disputed by realtor Eric Circus, who insisted that “large passenger ships are inherently art deco” and cited several examples.

While they were debating off in a corner, Aquatic Park activist Toni Viewmeister complained that the ships would block the views from many shoreside locations. “On the other hand,” she conceded, “the upper deck cabins and shuffleboard courts add far more new views than they obstruct. And who could fail to appreciate the dramatic juxtaposition of a huge ship in that little lake?” she asked. “At least the ships will block some of the freeway noise.”

The last scheduled press conference speaker was Les Flood, of the Berkeley Commission to Reverse Global Climate Change, enthusiastically endorsing the plan. “I can assure you that this project will be completely unaffected by any foreseeable rise in sea level,” he said.

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