The Little Park That Couldn't 

Bella Vista should've been a jewel of public-private partnership. Instead, it's a symbol of Oakland's bureaucracy gone awry.

The normal definition of "park" doesn't jibe well with the 1.6-acre slab of cracked asphalt that passes for one on East 28th Street. "Parking lot" is more like it. Set behind Bella Vista Elementary School in Oakland's San Antonio district, the city park of the same name is little more than a vast concrete slab with a rusting chain-link fence and litter-strewn periphery. Apart from one decent play structure and a tennis court, there's not much park-like here: Not a single blade of grass to play or lounge on. Not a flower or shrub or tree to provide shade, and few places to sit.

What the lot does have going for it are neighbors that look upon this eyesore and see potential. Jennifer Lowe, a brown-eyed environmental designer and artist who lives four blocks away, is de facto spokeswoman for Friends of Bella Vista Park. These neighbors have hooked up with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that builds parks for cities in low-income areas and has helped them raise $1.7 million in private and public funds to transform Bella Vista into something special.

Getting the money, it turns out, was the easy part. What should have been a slam-dunk for the city, a shining jewel of public-private partnership and source of bragging rights for local politicians, has become the very symbol of municipal inefficiency.

Even the kids know it. Lowe pulled up to Bella Vista on a recent afternoon, and it wasn't long before the few boys shooting hoop were crowded around, peppering her with questions. She'd brought along a poster board illustrating one version of the park's future, and it looked a hell of lot better than its present. "I'm gonna grow me some tomatoes," fantasized fifteen-year-old Leroy Williams, pointing to the vegetable garden on Lowe's poster. His friend, twelve-year-old Malik Shields, furrowed his brow. "Is this really gonna happen?" he asked Lowe pleadingly. "Because it's been like five years."

Four, actually, but that's still an eternity for a little kid. It was back in 1999 that Friends of Bella Vista started knocking on doors, raising money, and researching possible designs. The Trust for Public Land started fund-raising the same year. Lowe got involved the following January after a neighbor handed her a flyer. "I was afraid to come down here," she says. "I didn't know it was a city park. I just thought it was an abominable playground."

Still is. Bella Vista is like the park Kafka never built. Its makeover has been repeatedly delayed, first by the shuffling of projects between city departments, then by deed hassles, municipal bumbling that cost the project a cool half-million, legal haggles following the city's discovery of a state law and, most recently, saber-rattling by a local union.

Lowe is a polite woman who has trouble holding back her frustration. When she showed up at that first meeting, she had no idea what she was getting into. She was used to the private sector, where things actually get done. Three and a half years later, she's staring at the same old playground. "I have actually cried," she admits.

Lowe made a point of asking Dixi Carrillo, a member of her group who works for Edaw, one of the world's largest landscape architecture firms, to find out how long it would take to ink a contract for a comparable park in the private sector. Carrillo queried her firm's regional director of operations. The director's response: Two days to a week.

That's about how long it takes the city to answer a phone call.

"Every single city employee I've met has had good intentions, but nothing comes through," Lowe laments. "There's no incentive for things to get done. If the city had come up with the idea, did the community outreach, and raised the money, fine. But it was our idea. We brought in TPL, which brought in the money. The minimum we needed was for the city to not obstruct, and to be clear about their rules and regulations."

The problems began just as negotiations were getting underway between TPL and the city: In a move designed to streamline operations, Oakland began moving all of its construction projects, including parks, under the supervision of Public Works. As a result, all park-building contracts in progress with nonprofit groups had to be scrapped and redrawn. The swap also leaves the city without a single parks planner. "We've kind of lost that function," says Jim Ryugo, manager of capital projects for the parks department.

Unlike Public Works, the city's Parks and Recreation Department has long worked with nonprofit partners. TPL itself built Lincoln Square in Chinatown, Nicol Park in Fruitvale, and the playground at Lockwood Elementary School. Jack London Aquatic Center and the first phase of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt -- including Frog Park and Redondo Park -- were also designed and built entirely by nonprofits in cooperation with the city.

These relationships bring big benefits. Because Children's Fairyland is operated by a nonprofit board, for instance, it was recently able to parlay $1.5 million in city funds into $2.2 million for a major makeover. "The key," Ryugo says, "is that nonprofits can leverage funding in a way the city can't. And, because they're nonprofit, they can get lower costs. If the city were to run that project, it would have been tremendously more expensive."

Because the Bella Vista contract was on the table at the time of the shift to Public Works, it has emerged as a guinea pig for the city's future dealings with nonprofits; until the city hammers out its pact with TPL, construction plans for Union Point Park and phase II of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt, and a planned overhaul of the Oakland Museum, are more or less frozen in their tracks.

But the roadblocks have been relentless. When Public Works first adopted the Bella Vista project, the department was understaffed and city project managers, the neighbors say, couldn't seem to get anything accomplished. Those in charge of Bella Vista, according to Lowe, routinely came within a hair's breadth of missing critical funding deadlines. "It was very nail-biting," she says.

In one instance, it was worse than nail-biting. State Senator Don Perata and Assemblywoman Wilma Chan had made arrangements to set aside $500,000 in state Prop. 12 money for Bella Vista. It fell to a city project manager to file the appropriate forms with the state in order to -- in bureaucratic parlance -- "encumber" the funds. But somehow the state never received that paperwork: Half a million bucks -- gone.

More problems arose when it became apparent the city had inadvertently deeded part of the park to the school district in 1993. And then there was an unusual dose of bumbling over contracts. The Trust for Public Land has a long history of building city parks, and knows what it's doing. Yet after a year of contract negotiations, Public Works handed Bella Vista to a new project manager who decided to scrap the working contract and draft a new one. She wasn't a lawyer, however: The land trust's attorneys pretty much laughed at the new proposal as legally unsound.

Another major delay reared its head last August, when Doryanna Moreno, a supervising deputy city attorney, came across a state law that precludes cities from inking deals with unlicensed contractors. The land trust, which subcontracts with licensed union contractors, is not itself licensed -- few nonprofits are.

TPL officials say they've never had this problem with other cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, which the nonprofit says interpret the law differently. "I've had confirmation from other jurisdictions that they interpret the license requirements the same as we do," Moreno counters. "This is not a matter of interpretation."

Nor is it a matter of precedent. That the city has worked with TPL since the 1970s doesn't change matters. "To the extent this was occurring and public employees weren't aware, that's not a violation," Moreno says. "But once we became aware, we have to correct it."

It took months of lawyerly negotiations to work around the law. But even as the parties reached a verbal agreement in March, another problem arose. Local 21, a union representing professional and technical engineers, filed a grievance with the city manager's office threatening to sue if the city signed new deals with any of the nonprofits.

The union is concerned about members' jobs at a time when everything in Oakland is on the chopping block. (Whether layoffs are in store at Public Works will be more apparent on Friday, when the city manager goes public with his budget proposal.)

Among other things, the union claims city engineers are capable of getting these parks projects built without nonprofit help. Moreno concurs. "The city has full funding," the lawyer says. "We could proceed to do the project ourselves, but we're trying to accommodate some role for TPL to stay interested."

In fact, Lowe points out, the project wouldn't have any money without the land trust's involvement. "Both private and government agencies have stated that they wouldn't give this money to the city," she says. "They've been very clear about that, so the city's efforts to build this park themselves are completely misguided."

Until the union grievance is dealt with, Bella Vista will remain in limbo, says Pat Kernighan, chief of staff for Councilman Danny Wan, who was out of town last week. Wan, whose district includes San Antonio, wants the project to go forward with TPL at the helm. "We have never understood there would be any connection between this project and any loss of jobs," Kernighan says.

It's comforting that councilmembers back the project, Lowe says. Trouble is, the politicians quickly get turned off by the cumbersome details.

Lowe herself has experienced about as many of those as she can handle. "I got involved because I look at this park and it says 'fuck you' to the children," she says, gesturing toward the pavement she wishes weren't there. "It says we don't give a damn about you, and that's unacceptable."

"Do you have any kids?" her interviewer queries.

"No," Lowe responds, then thinks for a second, leans forward, and thrusts her arms passionately toward the elementary school.

"Yes!" she cries. "Yes, I do."

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