The Beautification of Albany Beach 

The park district wants to overhaul the waterfront, but its plans hinge on acquiring more land.

Albany Beach is one of the East Bay waterfront's most popular spots, a dog-walkers' haven offering gorgeous views and adjacent open space. But according to the East Bay Regional Park District, which has managed and co-owned the beach since 2002, it's far from reaching its potential. Through a planned $4 million restoration project nearly a decade in the making, the district hopes to overhaul every aspect of the beach and its environs with an eye toward ecology and public access.

Today, the beach is studded with toxic creosote lumber. That will be removed, as will the abundant construction rubble and other inorganic debris lining the nearby shoreline and the neck of the Albany Bulb, the result of years of use as a landfill site. The park district also plans to stabilize the shoreline and enhance it with natural features, and construct an offshore habitat for native oysters. The district then hopes to expand the parking lot, improve the restrooms, and upgrade the access paths. Near the existing stand of eucalyptus, a new picnic facility will go in and the natural wetland will be enhanced and expanded. Perhaps most urgently, new sand will be added to the beach and its dunes to ward against erosion and sea-level rise.

Granted, none of this is likely to happen until one important piece of the puzzle finally falls into place. For nine years, the park district's plans have been stymied by a failure to reach an agreement with the adjacent Golden Gate Fields racetrack over a small parcel of land that would be incorporated into the renovated park, said project manager Brad Olson. However, a recent move by the district's board of directors to approve the use of eminent domain may at long last signal an end to the impasse.

The board's decision in April marked the first step toward authorizing the use of eminent domain to acquire a 2.8-acre parcel adjacent to the existing roughly 2-acre beach as well as a contiguous 4.9-acre easement for the San Francisco Bay Trail, should negotiations stall yet again. Olson said the district recently submitted a new offer to the track's owners, who are based in Canada, but has yet to hear a response.

Olson would not disclose the amount of the offer while the case is pending, but a public document produced by the district values the land at $1.69 million — perhaps less than the track owners hope to see. This would cover both the 2.8 acres at the beach plus the trail easement that would permit the district to construct a new segment of the Bay Trail between Gilman Street in Berkeley and Buchanan Street in Albany.

Given the recent announcement from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that Golden Gate Fields is among six finalists for its second campus, the park district's eminent domain decision comes at an interesting time. Francesco Papalia, chair of the City of Albany's Waterfront Committee, who supports the district's plan for the Albany waterfront, said that the track's owners have urged the district not to pursue eminent domain until the laboratory makes its decision in November. Other critics, he noted, have suggested that the district wait for a developer to take ownership of the site first in order to acquire the parcel and easement for free as mitigation lands.

But the park district has opted to proceed, arguing that too much is still up in the air to warrant further delay. Olson said that even if the lab's second campus were to be built at Golden Gate Fields, development would not have any effect on the district's plans for the beach or the Bay Trail, nor would the improvements impact the lab. Whether through eminent domain or outright purchase, Olson said he expects the park district to take ownership of the parcel within two years.

The $4 million price tag for the beach restoration project would be covered by Measure WW funds and a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy. It's a lot to spend on a 4.8-acre site, but Olson estimates that the park district may ultimately come out on top. "Those kinds of improvements actually reduce our operating costs," he said. "In the long run, it's going to save us a lot of money from a maintenance standpoint."

Public support for the work has been far from unanimous, with some users arguing for a minimal approach or no work at all. The district heard comments at public workshops in December 2010 and February 2011 and is moving forward with a compromise plan that excludes some of its more elaborate ideas.

The Bay Trail project, meanwhile — which park district planners hope can be completed in conjunction with the beach project for an additional $1 million — is a bit more straightforward. Currently, pedestrians and bicyclists are forced through the track's driveways and parking lots to connect with the trail on the opposite end. A trail easement about a mile in length and 25 feet in width would allow for a paved connector between ten and twelve feet wide that would travel as close as twenty feet to the shoreline.

Trails Program Development Manager Jim Townsend considers the span a critical gap in the 310-mile bay trail. "There's a lot of community support for the project there," he said. "The alignment gets a lot of informal use now, but there are safety concerns with the existing conditions." Yet as with Albany Beach, not much will happen until the district finally gets its hands on those coveted 7.7 acres.

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