Lake Merritt has always been Oakland's jewel.

It is our version of New York's Central Park, a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. People from all over come to the lake to walk, skate and cycle the 3.1-mile path, or simply to read and gaze out at the ducks. They visit attractions such as Children's Fairyland and the Rotary Nature Center.

But for years, I've always had the sense that Lake Merritt -- like Oakland itself -- had not lived up to its great potential. There were areas of great beauty. But also there were stretches of the lake that were unsightly, unpleasant and downright dangerous.

Susan Parrish and her canine friend Trudie check out the improvements at Lake Merritt. (Tammerlin Drummond/Staff)
Susan Parrish and her canine friend Trudie check out the improvements at Lake Merritt. (Tammerlin Drummond/Staff)

There was the mini-expressway with no traffic lights or crosswalks that made it impossible for pedestrians and cyclists to cross over to the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center without taking their lives in their hands.

There were scary pedestrian tunnels that always stank of urine and where you never knew who might be lurking.

There were areas where you had to walk or run through mud.

That's all history now thanks to Measure DD, the $198 million public parks and recreation bond passed by Oakland voters in 2002. Measure DD, also known as the Oakland Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks allocated $47 million for various improvements at Lake Merritt.

In just a few years, the lake has gone from borderline seedy to stunning. For regular Lake Merritt visitors who have been coming long enough to remember what the place used to look like, the transformation has been remarkable.

There are spiffy wide sidewalks and beautiful new lawns. The walking paths are closer to the lake itself and farther from the traffic. The 12-lane deathtrap is gone, replaced by a narrower six-lane road. There are no concrete barriers to hurdle in order to get across the street.

On numerous occasions when I saw idle cranes and mounds of dirt piled up in front of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, I wondered whether any progress was being made. But little by little, things began to take shape.

On Friday, Oakland officials celebrated a major milestone in the project to reconnect the Lake Merritt channel to the estuary and the bay. Construction crews recently removed a dam and culverts at 12th Street that had blocked the lake from the bay for nearly 150 years.

Now that the barriers are gone, tidal flushes will hopefully make the lake's water healthier for the fish and birds as well as cut down on the stench in summer.

On Sunday, the glorious weather drew residents from all over Oakland to the lake.

What do Oaklanders think about the new and improved Lake Merritt?

"They did a great job" said Delmar Johnson, who lounged with his wife on a bench in an area that used to be a mud marsh.

"Everybody can enjoy this, unlike when they put all that money into stadiums, and a lot of people can't even afford to get in."

Tony Ralls calls the improvements "beautiful and classy."

He has been walking his dog around the lake for years because it wasn't safe in his former neighborhood near 19th and Foothill Boulevard. A month ago, he moved to Montclair.

"I just wish the rest of Oakland looked like this," Ralls said.

On Sunday, the lake scene was a reflection of Oakland at its best.

There were people of all races, old, young, in strollers, in wheelchairs, enjoying this free public resource.

"It's probably the best use of public funds I've seen in a while," said Carl Emura, walking with his 13-year-old son, Mason, and their Yorkie.

There are, however, a few problem spots.

Taggers have already started leaving their marks.

Then there are the geese.

"I'm an animal lover, but something has to be done," Dana Franklin said. "They are eating up all of our expensive new grass and pooping all over it."

Geese-chasing dogs anyone?

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin.