Opinion: Berkeley Marina plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park

There are real needs for maintenance and improvement in the park but the city’s plan in its current iteration will not solve those financial problems.

In a recent email, Mayor Jesse Arreguin noted that the Berkeley Marina comprises over 100 acres. Ninety of those acres make up Cesar Chavez Park.  The ongoing Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP) appears, at first sight, to pivot on the issue of a commercial ferry terminal at the municipal pier site on the marina’s south side. But a closer look shows that BMASP also envisions profound changes in Cesar Chavez Park on Marina’s north side.  These changes would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.

Two proposals, in particular, stand out. No. 1, BMASP wants to create a big oval “Large Event Area” with an “Events Pavilion” in the southern half of the park. No. 2, BMASP wants to turn the Native Plant Area into a “Large Adventure Park II.”  Let’s take them in turn.

The proposed Large Events Area is outlined in the map above from Slide 47 of the BMASP presentation dated March 16. The key is the addition of an “Events Pavilion.” This would be a large permanent building with a roof and a stage. For example, BMASP gives the “LOVEBOX” installation in the photo below from Slide 40. BMASP also would add undefined other “PARK PAVILIONS.”

Part of the BMASP process was an online “Public Input” questionnaire that closed on April 22.  The “Events Space” question illustrates the covert bias of this instrument. “Events and regional gatherings are a key source of revenue generation for the Marina Fund,” says the questionnaire. You’re then asked to indicate your degree of approval for an “Events Space.” The loud hint is that if you disapprove of the Events Space plan, you are throwing money away. The way this question is put rests on a lie. Events, whether regional or otherwise, have never generated revenue for the Marina Fund. The lineup of Marina Fund revenue sources given on Slide 8 makes no mention of event revenues because there haven’t been any. Even the biggest event, the Kite Fest, which I personally have loved, costs the city major sums of money to put on. 

Once or twice a year, a big charity may hold a fundraiser that draws a few hundred people, but the city’s expenses in groundskeeping, sanitation, and staffing always eat up more than the rental fees. Even the disturbing Cannabis Festival that some in the city government want to put on would not cover the cost of fencing, groundskeeping, staff time, police and fire overtime, DUI cases, and the enormous cleanup necessary after marijuana festivals. 

The BMASP slide show estimates that the maximum revenue from the largest events would come to $170,000 a year. That’s already in a different universe than what past event revenues have been historically, namely zero or negative. BMASP also quotes a much higher “city staff” estimate of almost $1 million per year, but BMASP clearly doesn’t lend it credence. Nor should we. These numbers are pure speculation, resting on untested assumptions.   

Several local nonprofits have successfully held events such as religious observances, drum circles, foot races and the like in the park. They don’t make a heavy impact on the park, and the existing spaces adequately serve them. The proposed big dedicated Events Space and Events Pavilion don’t serve local needs. They’re bait for big commercial operations out for a profit. These operators know how to sweet-talk gullible city staffers (and money-hungry candidates) with promises of big revenue while actually draining the local coffers for externalities like police and fire overtime and cleanup. These kinds of events not only lose money, but they also hijack the environment, poison the habitat, and degrade nature.

Each of the large events projected for the Events Space and the Events Pavilion would bring major noise pollution to the park, heavy traffic and parking congestion, not to mention tobacco and alcohol use, littering, and violence. Forget taking a quiet walk in the park. Forget nature — anything with wings or legs or a belly to crawl on runs away or hides when a Big Event happens and for quite a while afterward. For some species, a single such disturbance during nesting season is enough to guarantee that they never come back.

The second main impact of the BMASP is even worse. BMASP proposes a so-called “Large Adventure Park II” (shown in the drawing above from Slide 63). What BMASP means by an Adventure Park isn’t spelled out, but it’s a different creature entirely from the beloved Adventure Playground on the south side of the marina that has entertained and instructed generations of kids, including mine. That facility disappears from the BMASP scheme. What BMASP wants instead is a sporting place for grownups involving “ziplines, ropes courses.” For example, BMASP shows the “Ropes Course, Orange County” (Slide 44). The price for a day is $350 for a group. It’s geared to paying adults. 

The most outrageous part of the BMASP “Large Adventure Park” proposal is the planned location: smack on top of the Native Plant Area in the southwest corner of the park. The whole 3.5-acre grove where dozens of varieties of California native trees, shrubs, and grasses grow will be turned into a commercial playground with ziplines, ropes courses, and other entertainment for grownups who enjoy thrills and can afford the ticket. Forget the California Coastal Conservancy that paid for establishing the Native Plant Area 40 years ago. Forget the progressive Berkeley City Council of 40 years ago that paid for the other half of it. Forget the hardworking, nature-savvy trio of Charli Danielsen, David Amme, and Dave Kaplow and their associates who worked from sunup to sundown to establish native plants in this challenging site, a historical project. Forget the dozens of volunteers and concerned supporters and the city staff who have weeded and trimmed the Native Plant Area in recent years. Forget the Native Pollinator Garden project just funded by Alameda County. It will all go under the bulldozer to make way for a commercial zipline and rope course operation, supposedly earning the city $120,000 a year, if you believe that.

It might be a different matter if there were a groundswell of popular demand for rock concerts and ziplines on the marina. But BMASP’s own public opinion polling shows just the opposite. No less than 87% of the respondents go to the marina for its walking/biking pathways. Similarly, 79% go there to enjoy the parks (Slide 22.) These are by far the most popular reasons why people go there. Nothing else is even close. People go to the marina overwhelmingly to enjoy being in nature. Nature is the city dweller’s lifeline, now more than ever. The BMASP recommendations are tone-deaf to our environmentally conscious time.  They run absolutely counter to what people want and need to see in the park. If BMASP succeeds, the park will be wrecked beyond restoration.

Other signs of BMASP’s distance from park visitors’ concerns abound. BMASP completely ignores the Cesar Chavez/Dolores Huerta Homage Solar Calendar, a park landmark that could use upgrades and better access. Apart from a proposed “Enhancement” consisting of a “Dog Agility Course,” BMASP has nothing to say about the highly irregular unfenced dog problem area in the belly of the park. BMASP envisions only one real bathroom in the 90-acre park to be built years from now. BMASP also floats ideas of an “Interpretive Center” or “Museum” that no local person wants. The international consulting firm running BMASP, Hargreaves Jones, prides itself on “rigorous investigation,” but we’ve not yet seen a single HJ employee in the park asking park visitors’ opinions. The plan, including the alleged public input portion, is being engineered from above.

There are, to be sure, real money problems affecting the marina and the marina fund. There are real needs for maintenance and improvement in Cesar Chavez Park. However, the BMASP in its current iteration will not solve those financial problems, and it will not serve the public that uses the park.  

Martin Nicolaus is CEO of Chavez Park Conservancy and webmaster of chavezpark.org.