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East Palo Alto builds new bayfront park; still lags behind neighbors in parks per capita

By Josh Chan | 3 Apr 2011

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This abandoned boathouse in East Palo Alto's Cooley Landing will one day sit on the city's first bayfront park. (Photo: Joshua Adam Hicks)

A boarded-up and graffitied building at the end of Bay Road has been a silent witness to over half a century of East Palo Alto history. The wood-framed former boat repair shop stands on Cooley Landing, a nine-acre peninsula on the western shore of San Francisco Bay that was home to Palo Alto Boat Works from 1960 to 1998.

Cooley Landing has been closed to the public for more than two decades, but soon could be a place where children play and people jog and walk their dogs. A devoted group of East Palo Alto city staff and community activists are working to transform the peninsula into a community park that would provide local residents access to the Bay for the first time.

The development of a $9-million Bayfront park would be notable anywhere, but the particular location of the future Cooley Landing park sets it apart. For one, the park is being built on a man-made landmass.

Cooley Landing may seem to be a natural part of the landscape, but the peninsula itself was actually formed by the accumulation of incinerated garbage when it served as the county dump from 1932 to 1960. The dump, and subsequent boat repair activity, left toxins in the water and soil that will likely complicate the restoration process.

“The cleanup proposed,” Cooley Landing Project Manager Lily Lee said, “is to cap most of the site with an average of two feet of clean soil to cover the contamination and protect the public.”

Even more noteworthy, the park is not being developed in an affluent Bay Area city, but in a community economically depressed by most measures. And parks are difficult to find in the city of 33,000 people.

The 1975 California Quimby Act recommends 3-5 acres of parkland per thousand residents. East Palo Alto has a total of 16 acres of parkland from four local parks — less than half an acre per thousand residents. To give some regional context, San Francisco has 7.2 acres per thousand residents, San Jose has 17.4, and Sacramento has 11.3.

Collective Roots, a local nonprofit, states on its website that East Palo Alto’s park acreage is over reported, and Peninsula Press research supports this claim. Collective Roots also claims that East Palo Alto’s parkland deficit may be even more severe due to overcrowded and underreported housing conditions not reflected in the 2010 Census.

“In San Mateo County, the city of East Palo has the lowest ratio of municipal parks per capita for a city of equivalent density,” wrote Lee in the February 2010 publication of East Palo Alto Today.

Today, East Palo Alto has only 16 acres of parkland. The Cooley Landing park will add nine more, but the city will still fall below the recommended number of parks per 1,000 people. (Photo: Flickr)

East Palo Alto would need to add 83 acres of parkland to meet the minimum standard of the Quimby Act. The nine acres that Cooley Landing would add still leave the city far short of that goal, but would be a substantial addition to the city’s current 16 acres. Furthermore, it would be the first park in the city to provide waterfront access.

This parkland deficit is even more dramatic by national standards. “This ratio provided by the city of East Palo Alto,” the Neighborhood Parks Council of San Francisco wrote, “is woefully short of national open space adequacy standards that range from 6.25 to 10.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.”

“The number of parks in East Palo Alto compared to surrounding wealthier communities is dramatic,” said Eron Sandler, program director at Collective Roots. “I’m speaking personally when I say I think it’s an example of environmental injustice.”

Many community residents agree that this current state of affairs is unjust, and they’re lending a hand in support of the Cooley Landing project.

Oleg Lobykin, a master stone carver and sculptor, has worked on jobs as grand as Stanford University’s main quad and New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the United States. Lobykin has lived in East Palo Alto for the past nine years, and he hopes to contribute his artistic skills and knowledge to “help make this place more lovable to live in and to be here.”

“Cooley Landing is an unusual space,” Lobykin said, “and probably could be transformed into some kind of magical space, something that’s missing especially in this area.”

Dalila Adofo, a high school senior and youth activist who grew up in East Palo Alto, said “We’re a small community to begin with. [Cooley Landing] is definitely kind of a gateway to letting not only this community, but other communities such as ours, know that there is a certain treasure to open space parks and how those spaces are used.”

It’s difficult to say whether the Cooley Landing project is just a one-time occurrence or part of a larger movement to revitalize urban areas and increase access to nature. But there are signs that similar projects may be on the horizon.

Scott Baxter, a historian and anthropologist at Past Forward, Inc., got involved with the Cooley Landing project in 2006. He mentioned several projects he has worked on recently as “turning former industrial spaces into park space.”

Sandler hesitated to forecast a broader trend but said that she also “sees more happening at sites that maybe in the past people would have just disregarded as too much work to deal with.”

And the boarded-up boat repair shop? Engineers concluded the 4,000-square-foot building could be made structurally sound with strengthening, so project leaders plan to give it a new lease of life.

“The building will be refurbished to become a community gathering place and a nature and history education center,” Lee said.

Regardless of the project’s broader implications, the transformation of Cooley Landing from a contaminated, closed-off lot to a public park excites local residents and city planners alike.

“Wait for a very sunny day. It’s a phenomenal sight,” said Open Space Planner Tina Hugg about Cooley Landing. “You go out there, and you can see it’s in rough shape but has a lot of potential. You get out there on the bay, and it’s almost 360 degrees of water. There are very few places where you can feel like you’re stuck out there on the bay.”

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