You said it: Important Lessons: “Beltline” to Jean Sweeney’s Open Space

You said it: Important Lessons: “Beltline” to Jean Sweeney’s Open Space

Frank Matarrese

In February the city will host planning meetings for the former Alameda Belt Line 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 Belt Line because of the diligent efforts of Jean Sweeney, not just in researching the historic contracts which 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 opportunity to decide on a new park for the West End. When Election Day came, the voters approved Measure D designating the Belt Line as open space in a part of Alameda much in need of parkland. 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 Belt Line property. With the passage of both Measures D and E (Measure E, placed by the city on the same ballot, delayed the re-designation 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 land-owning heavyweights, the railroad industry. Great fortunes had been made in California when land rights and railroading were mixed, and when the dust settled on the epic legal battle of Alameda Belt Line vs. City of Alameda, the city prevailed and acquired this gem for just under $1 million, an amount which the City Council had prudently dedicated from the sale of surplus land 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 underway to determine what the Belt Line 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 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 Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Albert H. DeWitt Officers Club, 641 West Redline Ave., and the second meeting from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 2263 Santa Clara Avenue. Both are a 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 lead 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 by taking the old Belt Line rail yard into its new life as Alameda’s premier open space park.