ALAMEDA -- It may take up to five years before people can begin enjoying "The Jean Sweeney Open Space Preserve," the former railroad property that will become a city park, city officials said.

What will determine when the ribbon cutting will take place will be the city's success at securing grants and other money, said Amy Wooldridge, director of the Alameda Recreation and Park District.

"This is completely unfunded," Wooldridge said about the effort to transform the 22 acres of the former Alameda Beltline. "Therefore, it will be a long-term, multi-phase process that will take awhile."

On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to endorse a "preferred conceptual plan" that calls for the site bordered by Constitution Way, Atlantic Avenue and Sherman Street to remain as open space with picnic spots, walking and biking trails and possibly a community garden.

"This is a lovely, natural habitat," Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said. "And any use made of it should preserve these qualities and be appropriate for the setting, rather than trying to convert it into something else."

The future park is named after Jean Sweeney, a longtime Alameda resident who died in November 2011. Sweeney campaigned to preserve the former railroad property as a park when many dismissed the idea as too expensive and facing too many legal hurdles.

Sweeney unearthed the 1924 contract between the city of Alameda and the railroad company -- a contract that contained a clause that allowed the city to buy back the property for the original $30,000 price, plus the cost of any investments or improvement that the railroad made over the decades.

The contract cleared the way for the city to eventually purchase the property for just less than $1 million in a deal that was wrapped up in October. Its current market value is about $20 million

Wooldridge called the property "a skinny, narrow stretch of land" that is roughly 22 times larger than Longfellow Park, one of the city's 19 public parks.

Preserving it as open space will make the property cheaper to maintain than with other possible uses, such as a swim center or sports fields, Wooldridge said. But Councilman Stewart Chen said the Alameda Beltline's size could still make maintenance costs "staggering."

Alameda resident Mali McGee, who raises goats and sheep, asked the council Tuesday to consider setting aside five acres for a community farm. The animals could be privately owned, McGee said, helping offset some of the city's costs.

Others also urged the council to consider having a farm, saying it could help the environment and educate the public about food and where it comes from.

Ashcraft said she supports maintaining open space to help protect wildlife on the property. "But the goats, the cows, I'm just not sure that this is quite the place for them," she said. "I might be persuaded, but I would need more information."

Councilmembers Lena Tam and Tony Daysog also said they would like more details before endorsing a possible community farm.

"I think it's worth taking a look at," Daysog said.

City officials will now use the conceptual plan to draft a possible design for the future park, as well as to review what environmental work may need to be done and to look for grants and private funding.

Two community meetings hosted by the park department and an online and print survey found that most people favored "passive recreational uses" for the former Alameda Beltline, such as a community garden and walking and bike trails.

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

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