ALAMEDA -- Although the trails in the future Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve are undeveloped with hard gravel and weeds have overcome much of the land, some Saturday morning walkers who toured the space also known as the Beltline had big ideas for what Alameda's newest and biggest park could be.
"This is our Golden Gate Park; this is our Central Park," Alameda resident Jim Smallman said as he and friend Pat Payne walked together during a tour of the future park organized by the city's Recreation and Parks Department and led by that department's Director Amy Wooldridge.
More than 100 people showed up to take part in the walk and imagine the land's future when the park is developed for public use. Discussions are still under way about what kind of park it will be -- some want pools and recreation centers, while others would like to see passive uses like trails and gardens. All plans are currently unfunded, and it could be several years before the gates surrounding the area come down and the land becomes accessible to the public.
While the future park is now raw and filled with stink wart, exotic blackberry plants, non-native acacia and pampas grass, its serenity in parts is unmistakable. Traffic noises can be heard on the north end of the land near the Alameda Food Bank, but once people are in the middle of the open space, sounds are hushed and birds and butterflies fly by. Tom Schweich, a botanist, said he also thinks the future park will be Alameda's crown jewel once it is developed for public use.
"We have the unique opportunity to build a park that might be reminiscent of Golden Gate Park or Central Park in New York if we have the right stewardship," he said. "As a plant person, I hope we could put in plants native to Alameda. I think it would be nice to recreate what we think Alameda would have looked like before there were a lot of people on the island."
Saturday's tour lasted about an hour with walkers -- and one classic convertible car -- striding up the length of the space and back down it. Participants dodged rusty, downed chain link fences, navigated uneven ground and stared for a while at what looked like an active homeless encampment.
The open space is more than 3,000 feet long and 250 to 350 feet wide. Alameda resident Jean Sweeney, who passed away in 2011, fought hard to get the 22-acre former railroad yard near Nason Street and Constitution Way in the hands of the city. It is guaranteed to be a park, and the Recreation and Park Department's Wooldridge is considering community input from two public meetings last month to draft a report to City Council on what interested residents want the park to be. The land means possibilities to Alameda's Irene Deiter. She said a park like this one will ensure the health of the community.
"I think it's a wonderful step to continue the tradition of our beautiful, passive spaces in Alameda," she said. "With everybody focused on development, it's kind of nice there's a balance and we're focused on preserving land."
Jim Sweeney, park activist Jean Sweeney's widower, said he thinks plans for the park, once they're settled, will attract many city volunteers to do the work to create a beautiful space. He is pleased with the current process of the city getting the community's input on park uses and said the 10 years it took Jean Sweeney to get the land into the city's hands was a battle well fought.
"The argument for the initiative was this was going to be a place to walk and get in touch with yourself, a place where you can recharge your batteries," he said. "There's a vital interest for this type of park in Alameda."
Parks commissioner Bill Delaney said he was impressed by the "exceptional" turnout for the Saturday morning walk.
"For this many people to take this time out of their lives is a testament to how important this project is to people," he added.
For those who couldn't make it to the walk, the Recreation and Parks Department hosts a three-minute video of the Beltline park on the city's website. See it at http://www.cityofalamedaca.gov/Recreation/Alameda-Beltline.