In February, the city of Alameda will host planning meetings for the former Beltline property, known to a growing number of Alamedans as "Jean Sweeney Open Space." It is a good time to take stock of some lessons learned and apply them to Alameda's future parks.
Lesson one: Houses will not be crammed onto the Beltline because of the diligent efforts of Jean Sweeney, not just in researching the historic contracts that allowed the city the right to buy the land back from the railroad for the price it paid in the beginning of the last century (plus improvements), but in galvanizing support for open space and giving voters the opportunity to decide on a new park for the West End. When Election Day came, the voters approved Measure D, designating the Beltline as open space in a part of Alameda much in need of park land. Jean, in her efforts, demonstrated the epitome of public participation in significant land-use plans for the city's future.
Lesson two: How city government set the stage for acquiring the Beltline property. With the passage of Measures D and E (Measure E, placed by the city on the same ballot delayed the redesignation of the property until the city had the means to purchase the land), the City Council had the foresight and political backbone to invest the city's legal resources in defending the original contract against one of California's historic landowning heavyweights, the railroad industry. Great fortunes had been made in California when land rights and railroading were mixed, and the dust settled on the epic legal battle of Alameda Beltline v. City of Alameda, the city prevailed and acquired this gem for just less than $1 million, an amount the City Council had prudently dedicated from the sale of surplus land a few years before the final decision. The City Council's forward-thinking budgeting and superb legal work by the city attorney and counsel paid off in fulfilling the will of the voters and preserving this unique open space.
Now planning efforts are under way to determine what the Beltline open space will look like as a park (I personally would like to see walking and bike paths through a native-grassland dotted with coast live oak as a tribute to the original landscape, with the old remaining railroad buildings restored as a visitor center). The city is hosting public hearings, the first from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 9 at the Albert H. DeWitt Officers Club, 641 W. Red Line Ave., and the second meeting held from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 13 in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 2263 Santa Clara Ave. Both are great opportunities to play a critical civic role in planning this open space.
This city planning process will result in a park design with all the work that comes with it; and that costs money. Count on a gloomy recitation of the state of the economy and city finance (which may be accurate) for every enthusiastic opinion on what should be in the park. Such a discussion leads to one more critically important lesson: great parks were planned and built during harsh economic times, not only in cities, but in the state and across the nation. These bold steps were taken because people and their government believed in leaving something for the future, even if it meant financial sacrifice. We can do the same today and to take the old Beltline rail yard into its new life as Alameda's premier open space park.
Frank Matarrese is a former Alameda City Council member.