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)

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...