Berkeley’s next park: City gets $5M to turn rail corridor into gardens, playground

The former trackbed of a Santa Fe railroad line that once cut through West Berkeley could become a multi-block city park.

This vacant portion of the former Santa Fe rail corridor, seen from the 1400 block of Carleton Street, could be transformed into a city park thanks to a $5 million state grant Berkeley was awarded this week. Credit: Nico Savidge

More than 40 years after voters approved a plan to buy the corridor of Santa Fe railroad tracks that sliced through West Berkeley, pieces of the right of way have been transformed into bike paths, community gardens, senior housing and two beloved parks.

But in Southwest Berkeley, a quarter-mile stretch of the corridor between Blake and Ward streets remains forlorn, overgrown and mostly vacant — despite years of advocacy from neighborhood residents who longed to see it reborn as a public space.

Now they are finally getting their wish.

State officials this week announced Berkeley has been awarded a $5 million grant to turn the undeveloped segment of the corridor just west of Sacramento Street into the new Santa Fe Railroad Trackbed Park, a multi-block public space boasting a playground, outdoor classroom, cycle track for young children, dog park and community gardens, among other amenities.

“Parts of our city have benefited from repurposing those tracks and creating open space — but Southwest Berkeley hasn’t,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an interview. “This is the last piece of a vision that started in the 70s.”

A city rendering shows the proposed amenities at the planned new Santa Fe Railroad Trackbed Park. Credit: City of Berkeley

The new park is one of 112 projects throughout California receiving a combined $548 million worth of grants that were announced Wednesday as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Outdoor Access for All Initiative. Funding for the grants comes from Proposition 68, a parks and water bond California voters approved in 2018.

The Santa Fe tracks once carried passenger and freight service along their West Berkeley corridor, one piece of which ran down the middle of Sacramento Street. But the tracks were dormant in 1977, when Berkeley voters passed a bond that allowed the city to purchase more than 3 miles of the right of way.

Arreguín said the site of the planned new park is the last undeveloped portion of the corridor, other pieces of which became the West Street Pathway, Cedar-Rose Park and Strawberry Creek Park.

Advocates for creating a new park on the Southwest Berkeley blocks were long stymied by a lack of funding for the extensive remediation work that will be needed to clean up arsenic contamination in the site’s soil. Parks director Scott Ferris estimated that work could eat up $1 million to $2 million of the state grant.

Construction of the park itself is likely still two to three years away, Ferris said. City officials developed a conceptual plan for the park after several community meetings, but still need to finalize their plans.

Councilmember Terry Taplin, who represents the area, said he hopes it provides the kind of community gathering space he benefited from while growing up near Strawberry Creek Park.

“We need more green space and trees down here in West Berkeley,” Taplin said. “The more we can do to invest in our neighborhood spaces (and) our green spaces to foster a sense of belonging and vibrancy, the better.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.