John Hinkel Park in North Berkeley has a woodsy, natural feel. Some neighbors fear that will be lost if Berkeley installs a patch of artificial grass. Photo: Kate Darby Rauch

The proposed use of artificial turf to stabilize a section of slope in a long-planned renovation of John Hinkel Park in North Berkeley is sparking debate among neighbors, whose opinions range from passionate objection to “no big deal.”

The artificial turf, essentially synthetic grass made to look real, is slated for a 10-by-14 feet chunk of hillside behind a proposed swing-set. Park planners say the turf would secure the slope in such a way that allows placement of the swings, which were historically located at the spot.

Bringing back swings was listed as a high priority in community feedback on the John Hinkel face-lift, said Scott Ferris, city parks director. Other top priorities for the nearly 5-acre park were natural play features for children such as rocks to climb, and retaining the park’s abundant oak trees.

Artificial turf essential makes the swings possible, said Ferris, explaining that other modes of slope stabilization such as a retaining wall don’t meet current swing swing-set safety requirements. He also ruled out vegetative covering, saying years of trampling have left that section of hillside with heavily compacted bare clay soil that doesn’t support plant-life.

The slope in John Hinkel Park that would get a 10 x 14 patch of artificial grass. Photo: Kate Darby Rauch

The artificial turf would hold up to clamoring kids, he said. Natural grass will still occupy other, larger areas of the park.

But to some John Hinkel fans–neighbors and community members–any form of fake or plastic vegetation is aesthetically incompatible with the steep, woodsy park, home to native oak, bay, and buckeye as well as two creeks. Some feel it’s also a health risk.

“We request that this plan be revamped or dropped so that Berkeley can maintain the wild nature of the park without leveling the park side, installing artificial turf and play equipment, as described in the master plan, which will drastically alter the character of the park,” reads a letter from the Arlington Neighborhood Group sent to Councilwoman Sophie Hahn earlier this summer.

“I am against the astroturf because of health implications,” said Pauline Bondanno, a park neighbor, health educator, and leader of the opposition to the turf. “ I am fine with no swings, no new slope.”

The letter specifically questions the health safety of artificial turf.

“What is the impact on flora, fauna, the deer, the birds and other wildlife that congregate here? What is the impact on the stream and waterfalls of artificial turf off-gassing? What is the health impact on small children and families who live around the park?” the letter asks.

Links between artificial turf and health are being investigated, with a mix of research results to date. This focus is largely on what’s called crumb rubber turf, with thick padding often made from recycled tires.

California led the nation in regulating artificial turf lead levels, eight years ago.

Ferris is quick to point out that what’s planned for the John Hinkel is not this “rubberized in-fill turf that’s subject to off-gassing.” And the AstroTurf brand isn’t planned for the site, he adds, clarifying up a common community misconception.

“People frequently reference off-gassing for turf, and the associated rubber odor, based on their experience with crumb rubber infill turf,” Ferris said. “The John Hinkel turf has no infill because an inert, recycled foam material placed under the turf provides a safe surface for play.”

The turf meets all state and federal safety standards, he said.

It’s already being used in a small section of Berkeley’s Totland Park, and in several Berkeley elementary schools including Rosa Parks, Washington, Jefferson, John Muir, Le Conte and Berkeley Arts Magnet.

The patch of artificial grass at Totland, a park in Berkeley. Photo: Kate Darby Rauch

According to Matthai Chakko, city of Berkeley spokesperson, the use of artificial turf in Totland wasn’t controversial. People seem to appreciate a section of park where you can sit without getting wet or muddy, he said. Other sections of Totland have natural grass.

Charles Burress, spokesperson for the Berkeley schools, said he is not aware of the turf causing any significant controversy, though there were a few objections. “[The] installation of turf at the schools was part of larger construction projects that were accompanied by advisory committees and community meetings. It appears that the turf elements of the construction projects did not generate much discussion in the three schools whose principals I heard back from, he said.

Not all John Hinkel neighbors are concerned.

“I think it’s completely harmless,” said John Hitchen, a neighbor, former East Bay Regional Park superintendent and member of the city’s Public Works commission. “There’s a lot of plastic artificial substances around; everyone’s car is plastic. This grass is like an artificial Christmas tree or bath mat.”

He favors a wait-and-see approach: “If the artificial turf is the price of swings, let’s put it in and if it proves a bad thing, we can take it out later.”

For former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, a park neighbor, the lack of city policy around using artificial turf is most disturbing.

“My primary concern at this point is not just Hinkel Park, it’s the policy that would be set around the use of artificial turf at a public park,” Dean said.

Personally, she’s against plastic in parks.

“We’ve got to cut down on the use of plastic, and artificial turf is plastic, there’s no getting around it. I’m not going to say I’d totally ban it, but I’d be very skeptical of its use,” said Dean.

The park renovation plan is slated to go before the city’s Landmarks Commission for review on September 7, a required step because John Hinkel is a registered landmark.

Dedicated in 1918, the park was donated to the city by its namesake, philanthropist John Hinkel. The park features an outdoor stone fireplace and rustic amphitheater, built by the Civil Works Administration in 1934.

An original redwood clubhouse was damaged in a fire in January 2015, and removed by the city. The renovation plan calls for using wood from the clubhouse in a new picnic area.

A few other aspects of the John Hinkel renovation brought divergent views such as creating new paths and paving under picnic tables, to meet ADA standards.

Though there’s widespread agreement that the renovation should preserve John Hinkel’s wild, rambling, open space feel as much as possible.

Ferris said he feels good about the more than two-year planning process, which included several community meetings.

“It’s a process,” he said. “Sometimes you can get consensus, and a lot of times you can’t. You do the best you can and try to design to consensus. We heard a very clear consensus about saving trees, making it as natural as possible, and making room for swings.”

See Berkeley’s plan for the park.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...