ALAMEDA -- More than 100 Alameda residents showed up to the first community meeting discussing the city's as-of-yet undeveloped former Alameda Belt Line land, known officially as "The Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve."
City officials, including Recreation and Park Department Director Amy Wooldridge, called the Saturday meeting to share the history of how the city acquired the 22-acre former railroad yard near Nason Street and Constitution Way and to get residents' input on what they'd like to see it become. The space, which native Alamedan Jean Sweeney fought legal battles for years for the city to acquire before she died in 2011, is guaranteed to be a park, but its use is still being decided with community input.
"We are now just at the beginning of a long-term project," Wooldridge told the crowd. The Sweeney park will be the city's 20th park and is the size of 20 Longfellow parks. The land is currently fenced and wild with brush and rocks. A historic rail building is located on the far right side, and that building will have to be preserved.
Meeting organizers provided attendants with green and orange sticker dots. Community members then put the dots on posters indicating which uses they definitely wanted to see in the space and which projects they thought would be an acceptable alternative use. The choices were adding a skate park or a BMX/mountain bike course; installing public art or a water feature; building community gardens; installing outdoor fitness features; creating a dog park; a picnic area or a playground; preserving natural open space/habitat; making walking and biking trails; providing open lawn; building soccer, football and lacrosse fields; baseball and softball fields or tennis, basketball, bocce ball or sand volleyball courts; or constructing a teen center or a swimming pool and facilities.
If the placed dots were any indication of what might be the future of the park, the crowd overwhelmingly voted for the least amount of construction. They wanted natural open space and habitat; walking and hiking trails; open lawn; and community gardens. In far second place was a more expensive and construction-heavy alternative, a swimming pool and facilities. Some others indicated they wanted a railroad museum built there.
Dermot Erwin has lived on Ninth Street near the future park for 13 years and has a 6-year-old son that he hunts for lizards with on the land. He said he is strictly opposed to baseball fields, bright lighting and noise-making activities in the park.
"Keep it simple, keep it safe, keep it clean and keep it quiet," he said. "I want the frogs back."
Alameda, as compared to other towns of its size, has an extremely low amount of space available for community gardens, said Janet Beatty, a master gardener and member of the Bay Eagle Community Gardens and Project Leaf.
"We have to really advocate for more opportunities for low-income residents to grow healthy food. This is an opportunity to have some space for them. The need is there, but Alameda isn't giving them the space," she said, adding that there is a three- to four-year waiting list for a spot to grow at Bay Eagle Community Gardens. She placed her dots near the community gardens option.
Wooldridge said she will take the input and include it in a report that will be presented to parks officials and City Council later this year. It will take several years for the park to actually be developed because it first needs to be remediated and cleaned up.
There is also the issue that there is no funding for any projects no matter the use. If the city were to decide to put baseball fields on it, they would have to solicit donations from businesses and private individuals to build them. Projects for more passive uses, such as trails and natural habitat, can be paid for through a variety of grants and city money. The issue of park maintenance would also have to be addressed -- so far there's no apparent funding for park clean up once Sweeney park is developed.
"A piece of land this big would require significant maintenance and this is something we would have to figure out funding for," Wooldridge said.
Wooldridge added that she is seeking volunteers to help in all aspects of park development from weekend helpers pulling weeds to landscape architects donating their time to design the park. Residents have until Feb. 22 to fill out a park survey telling her what they would like to see there and she is accepting emailed suggestions as well.
No matter what use is decided, the land will be a park forever. The city bought it and about 20 other acres for public use for just under $1 million. Although no housing will be built on the land, the city does have to leave a 40-foot swath of land along the park relatively undeveloped for future rail uses.
A community tour of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve will be held at 9 a.m. March 2. Park by the Wind River lot, and meet there.
Park surveys, which can be found at http://www.cityofalamedaca.gov/Recreation/Alameda-Beltline, are due Feb. 22.