Park activist Alan La Pointe bent his large frame through the rear hatch of his Volvo station wagon and thumbed through several boxes of documents. They contain 42 years of board resolutions, committee minutes, hydrology reports, aerial maps, resource pamphlets, and nature poems that amount to a loose-leaf history of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.
"In the 1980s and 1990s we had a great deal of success protecting and restoring this canyon but it was always a fight with the park district," La Pointe said as he gestured with a handful of documents up an unused road that winds into a forested hillside. "Now they want to put more parking further in the canyon. It's typical."
The East Bay Regional Park Board approved a revised land use plan last week that will allow for an expansion of parking deeper into Wildcat Canyon. The controversial parking lot plan has pitted the Friends of Wildcat Canyon, the Sierra Club, and the Regional Parks Association against the East Bay Regional Park District, which critics say has shifted its emphasis over the years from protecting open space to development projects inside the parks it stewards. Park advocates say the parking plan also is evidence of a larger, more disturbing problem: The park district is now overly focused on developing "turf, toilets, and parking," said Joe Engbeck, vice president of the Regional Parks Association. "The district has spent a bunch of money on recreation, but little on improving the wilderness experience. It's a sad story that does not reflect regional values."
The board's vote, however, was very popular with East Bay equestrians who have long lobbied for parking spaces large enough to accommodate horse trailers.
East Bay Sierra Club Director Norman La Force said the park's shift away from restoration is most clearly evident in its decision to not daylight Wildcat Creek, which was cited as a goal in the district's 1991 Land Use Plan. In order to reach the new parking area, vehicles have to drive over a large earthen bridge with twin steel culverts, which was identified in the 1991 plan for removal. "Now, after the Sierra Club and others have waited patiently for 21 years for full implementation of the district's 'consensus plan,' it appears that staff has no intention of implementing the rehabilitation plan's important creek restoration ...," La Force wrote in a letter to the park district's board of directors in April. La Force added that if the board rejects daylighting the creek and instead approves the plan for new parking inside the canyon, it would "announce to the world that the park district deems the restoration of anadromous fish runs in Wildcat Creek to be infeasible."
At issue is a proposal to extend a parking lot deeper into Wildcat Canyon. The plan will add 38 parking spaces to the existing seventeen and allow additional space for overflow parking. It would also develop four larger spots for horse trailers, two paved turnarounds, and new restrooms. The proposal, estimated to cost $675,000, has been the subject of several public meetings, and the East Bay Regional Parks Board of Directors is expected to vote on the plan by fall.
"This board has dramatically changed what the community was expecting from the last plan, which the public widely participated in," La Pointe said, referring to the 1991 land use plan. "But they never mention that plan because it conflicts with what they are trying to achieve now, and they want to rewrite history."
District officials say they are simply responding to pressure to provide parking and bathrooms for the increasing number of people who use the picnicking areas in places like Alvarado Park, which serves as the portal to Wildcat Canyon's 2,430 acres of wilderness space and wildlife preserve. Wildcat Canyon stretches from Richmond southward to Tilden Regional Park.
Park officials said Alvarado has become so popular that users are upsetting neighbors by parking haphazardly on a narrow street that runs alongside the park and blocking emergency access to a residential area.
It's the popularity of these sites that's creating the need for more access, said Mike Anderson, park district assistant general manager. "Wildcat Canyon is a huge open space with thousands of acres and the new parking is going in on existing paved area — really it will mean painting some white lines," he said. "This will be a very small impact on the park and the benefits will be there for everybody. One of the problems in this situation is we really don't have any other options."
But open-space advocates disagree. They said that besides the visual blight of a parking lot, the noise of engines, car radios, and boisterous groups would be multiplied by a factor of four because of the canyon's acoustic qualities. La Pointe said the existing parking lot already has a crime problem and that patrolling the area will be more difficult if the district builds along a secluded, winding road as planned.
La Pointe added that there are three other possibilities to create more parking that the district has so far refused to study. The most significant possibility is the purchase of a large triangle-shaped privately-owned parcel directly across the street from the main entrance to Alvarado Park, which would be much more convenient for park users to offload picnic supplies and equipment. In fact, the district's 1991 land use plan, which guides park restoration and development projects, calls for the acquisition of that specific property. La Pointe said purchasing the property and installing a parking lot makes much more sense than putting parking on an uphill grade. "It's beyond awkward, it's just foolhardy," La Pointe said. "People are still going to jam up Park Avenue because it's closer than walking way up into Wildcat Canyon."
Anderson said the property would only yield about thirty parking spaces (advocates estimate a much higher number), which would not be enough to meet the high demand on days when the park is particularly busy. Nonetheless, Anderson said the park district has been looking into purchasing the property even though he is skeptical of claims the property is for sale because there is no official listing. But according to park advocates, the co-owner, Peter Whipperman, said he has signed a statement claiming he is willing to sell the property and that the park district has not contacted him.
If the district abandons critical elements of its 1991 land use plan, La Force called for a new environmental impact report to study the effects of new parking deeper in the canyon and the possible effects of failing to remove the culvert, which in the past has clogged during heavy rains and caused flooding.
Anderson said the district has not shifted its policy away from open space protection or restoration projects and that the culvert cannot be removed unless there is funding available to span the creek gorge with a two-lane bridge. According to the district's proposed plan amendment, such funding has been deemed "economically infeasible."
But Engbeck, a retired California Department of Parks and Recreation employee and author of six books on park history and nature, said the park district has a responsibility to protect open spaces against external pressures. "They know it's their duty and they know they are failing to live up it," he said. "The conversation should be uplifting and inspiring. Instead it's about parking lots."