With $500,000 to spend, how should Ohlone Park be reimagined?

The public has until April 9 to give feedback on giving two playgrounds a facelift and installing native gardens.

The playground at Ohlone Park in 2017. The two play areas on the eastern edge of the park will be renovated with funding from Measure T1. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Public will has shaped the long, narrow strip of Ohlone Park since its creation in 1969 when activists pushed for the land being cleared for underground BART tracks to be turned into a community space.

Now, the city is planning a facelift for the easternmost portion of the park, and neighbors near and far have a chance until April 9 to weigh in on the future of the block.

The block of Ohlone Park on Hearst Avenue bordered by Milvia Street and Bonita Avenue will receive an overhaul thanks to $500,000 from Measure T1 bonds. Though the planning process is still in early stages, the city has been gathering community feedback on Ohlone Park for several years, said Scott Ferris, Berkeley’s director of parks, recreation and waterfront.

When Berkeley residents approved $100 million of bonds via Measure T1 in 2016, which paved the way for dozens of projects, the city originally set its sights on redoing Ohlone Park’s basketball and volleyball courts in the western half of the park. But a community feedback process revealed a desire for change at the easternmost block at Milvia Street and Hearst Avenue, where two playgrounds were in need of repair, Ferris explained.

“In general, the community agreed that it should be this block that’s above MLK,” Ferris said. The consensus was that revamping old play equipment and installing a garden at Jean LaMarr’s Ohlone mural was the highest priority. Depending on how the public process goes, the project will likely be completed by mid-2022, he said.

schematic design for Ohlone Park
One concept for Ohlone Park would move the two playgrounds closer together. Image: BASE

In the current layout, the BART utility building with LaMarr’s mural sits between the two playgrounds and makes it difficult to keep an eye on both areas at once. One of two schema proposed by BASE Landscape Architects, which the city contracted for the project, would move the play areas closer together. 

Neighbors “like the idea of the tot park and the older children’s park being closer together so parents with children in both age groups can see them at one time,” said Miranda Ewell, a member of Friends of Ohlone Park (FOOP) and nearby resident.

FOOP has organized around other improvement projects for the park in recent years, applying for grants from the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund and Berkeley’s Arts Commission to pay for a garden around the mural — part of LaMarr’s original vision — as well as two meditation benches. This proposed renovation, which dwarfs the scale of FOOP’s projects, is a delight for the group.

“We’re basically just thrilled that this is coming together,” Ewell said. “From our perspective, it’s of course a wonderful project.”

With plenty of new housing planned nearby, “those people are going to be looking for places to exercise, play basketball, use the parcourses, picnic,” Ewell said. Ohlone is “a place that expresses a lot of the hopes that many of us in the community have for what our future can be,” she added.

Still, there are a few things that don’t appear in BASE’s plans that Ewell, and some other members of FOOP, would like to see in Ohlone’s future — firstly, a multipurpose space with a hard surface, say of decomposed granite or similar material, that visitors to the neighboring North Berkeley Senior Center could use for group exercise, like tai chi.

“We’re proposing that as a space that senior classes could use, because there are literally a thousand or more individuals who come to the senior center on a weekly basis and they don’t have any outdoor space,” Ewell said. “It would also be space for anyone to use, like any other part of the park.”

While Ferris didn’t rule out the idea entirely, the parks department resists paving open space whenever it can, he said. That doesn’t mean a senior space is out of the question — just not for this project.

“One of the things we’re trying to keep in mind as we do our park projects is, we don’t want to pave the world,” Ferris said. “The more you asphalt, the more you pave, the less pollinator plants you have for the bees, the insects.” 

Plans for improving Ohlone Park call for planting a garden near this mural of the Ohlone people painted by Jean LaMarr. Photo: Pete Rosos

Another thing missing from the current plan that FOOP would like to see is a permanent restroom in Ohlone Park. There are several portable toilets for public use throughout the park’s half-mile stretch along Hearst Avenue, but they’re frequently soiled and not ideal for a high-use area, Ewell said.

“We may be the only park at this point that doesn’t have a restroom,” Ewell said.

Ferris is aware that “everybody wants to see more restrooms throughout the city,” he said. The city has identified around $500,000 to fund nine or ten renovated or new public restrooms in T1’s second phase of funding, and Ohlone Park has already been tapped as one of those sites. The restroom wouldn’t be situated in the easternmost section of the park but would most likely be near the basketball courts between McGee Avenue and California Street, according to Ewell.

The bonds for that project won’t be sold until May or June of this year, Ferris added, so the dream of a permanent restroom in Ohlone is still a ways off.

Other T1 money will go for better lighting in the park, said Ewell.

Public comment on the Ohlone Park improvements is open until April 9. There will be more opportunities for community feedback — another meeting is tentatively planned for May — and the city has made a concerted effort to raise awareness of the public process around this project, Ferris said.

“The pandemic in some cases has made things easier and made things much more difficult, especially around public process and construction projects,” Ferris said. For example, hosting public meetings over Zoom can be more accessible for some residents who may not be able to travel to an in-person event; on the flip side, “we worry that not everybody has access to computers,” Ferris said. 

That worry has led to longer public comment periods, more community meetings and more direct outreach, he added. Prior to the first public meeting, city staff sent out mailers notifying residents of the event and dropped off flyers at every house within 500 feet of the park. 

“We definitely go out of our way to get comments from people who live in the neighborhood,” Ferris said. “We’ve tried to reach out as many ways as possible to get people interested in the process.”