Moving South Berkeley Forward is working to transform the Old Santa Fe right-of-way, which includes this undeveloped lot, into an elongated greenway. Photo: MSBF

A coalition of community members, UC Berkeley students and Berkeley High School students is working to transform several blocks of the old Santa Fe Railroad right-of-way in South Berkeley into an elongated greenspace, encompassing walking paths, dog parks, play areas and community gardens.

The group, Moving South Berkeley Forward (MSBF), has eyes on rehabilitating the old line from the intersection of Oregon and Sacramento streets, north-northwest to Bonar Street and Bancroft Way. The tract has been left largely undeveloped since trains stopped running — passenger services in the late 1950s and freight trains after that — and the city of Berkeley assumed ownership.

“We’re hoping that part of it will be a community garden, but not the entire way,” said Kayhill Verceles, a Cal senior and mentor for the program.

The various uses of the prospective greenway will largely depend on neighborhood interest, as well as levels of contamination. For a half-century, the Santa Fe Railroad saturated the right-of-way with metal contaminants such as arsenic to suppress weeds, said Verceles. The students have been collecting soil samples for tests.

“We know that there’s arsenic there, but we don’t have the measurements,” said Verceles, who became involved with MSBF in 2018 while working at the UC Berkeley soil lab with professor Céline Pallud and Ph.D. student Sarick Matzen, whose research focuses on phytoremediation — using plants to remove soil contaminants. She is working towards a degree in nutritional science, physiology and metabolism.“That’s why we’re doing the samples. We want to be able to say this is how deep it goes, how much we need to dig up.”

Students canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on more than 150 doors, asking residents what changes, if any, they would most like to see along the old right of way, as well as some questions about their general level of health, residents’ access to healthy foods, and how far they travel to buy groceries. About 95% of the residents in South Berkeley said that they strongly wanted the land to be developed into a greenway,” said Verceles.

Berkeley acquires the right-of-way

The precedent of transforming railways to greenways already exists in Berkeley.

In 1977, Berkeley residents approved a $500,000 bond measure to acquire and develop the 3.1-mile stretch of the Santa Fe right of way through Berkeley. Two years later, the City Council determined that it should be developed for a combination of housing and parkland. Cedar Rose Park was developed on the north end of the right-of-way and Strawberry Creek Park was developed on the south end of the right-of-way.

In addition, three other projects were built: a youth-training garden for Berkeley Youth Alternatives, Spiral Gardens (2003) and a pathway running north of University Avenue for three blocks, stopping at Delaware Street.

In 1979, the Santa Fe Railway ceded a section of its Oakland local line to Berkeley, which then built the Ohlone Greenway.

Another group is working now on a three-mile pedestrian and bike path stretching from downtown Berkeley to Emeryville. Their concept is called the Shattuck-Adeline-Stanford-Greenway Vision Plan. 

Rehabilitating the old South Berkeley right-of-way will be pricey and no funds have yet been identified. Labor will be a cost, but it’s hardly the most expensive component of the project. MSBF would like to see the complete removal of the top four feet of the soil of the old right-of-way, along the stretch between Bancroft Way and Ward Street. That’s about 1.6 acres of earth or more than a quarter-million cubic feet of soil.

“A lot of people have said that if something is contaminated you can just do raised beds or don’t grow food there, but that’s not really equitable,” said Verceles.

Corrine Haskins, the coordinator of the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative, a nonprofit group overseeing MSBF, is not asking Berkeley to cover the cost of soil removal. They want the former owner and presumed polluter, Santa Fe Railroad — now Burlington Northern Santa Fe — to foot the bill.

“I want them to pay for removal of the soil and to replace the soil,” said Haskins. “But I cannot post them [contact them]  until I accurately know how extensive the [contamination] is.”

But Haskins wants Berkeley to contribute to the project.

“Then I’m looking to the city to match whatever they [the railroad] do,” she said, such as paying for fencing, footpaths and general maintenance. “It won’t be tomorrow, because it really is hard work.” Still, she wants to see something open, accessible and safe, without making South Berkeley residents wait too much longer for a dog path or a plot in a neighborhood community garden.

Haskins also wants the eventual greenway to meet the same level of safety as greenspace elsewhere in the city, such as Codornices and Cedar Rose parks, where parents can feel reasonably assured children at play are at low risk of heavy metal contamination.

“It’s either equity or equity sort of,” said Haskins. “I’m asking Berkeley to meet its standards. I want that same standard everywhere.”

In November, the City Council allocated $10,600 to the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative (BCGC), an Ecology Center program, to help fund the MSBF program. It would help pay for Verceles’s position. BCGC has been serving as a liaison with the city since it was founded in 1995 to support schoolyard gardens and neighborhood gardens on public and private land.

In a November memo to the council, City Councilman Ben Bartlett explained how the funding would fit in with Berkeley’s long-term goals.

“The MSBF training program prioritizes one of the City’s 2020 Vision goals — increasing the college and career readiness of at-risk Berkeley youths,” Bartlett wrote.

In 2017, the BCGC partnered with the UC Berkeley Department of Environment, Policy and Management. Their students serve as mentors (for course credit) to two low-income Berkeley High School youth each, providing instruction and guidance on empirical data collection and community and environmental advocacy. All the Cal student mentors are of African American or Latinx heritage, as are the selected high school students. The high school students receive a wage of $15 an hour for their four hours of work put in from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every other Saturday.

A section of the undeveloped Santa Fe right-of-way. Photo: MSBF

Each week, the group researches a set of concepts, what they feel those terms mean, and how those terms are present in their community. (For example, food security vs. food sovereignty.) MSBF wants to increase the number to 12 high school students and six Cal students, prioritizing Black and Latinx students. 

Berkeley’s 2020 Vision goals include providing more opportunities for young people, closing the opportunity gap for African American and Latinx youth, and increasing college and career readiness for at-risk youth. By requiring that all high school students actively continue their education in order to participate, MSBF is in accord with Vision 2020’s aim that “Every student attend school regularly,” according to the memo.

Presently, MSBF operates off a mishmash of grants and community donations to fund its work.  Some of the larger grants that make up their budget include $10,000 from the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, a grant from UC Berkeley made available to projects that partner campus and community, as well as Berkeley funds to pay for Verceles’ position through 2020. 

But rehabilitating the old right-of-way is a pricey proposition. The group is just getting started.

“Right now what we’re really looking for is to expand our funding,” said Verceles.

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.