By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Oakland has always had a decidedly mixed relationship to its waterways. The city retains one of the largest working shipping ports in the nation but elsewhere along its extended waterfront, the East Bay’s gateway city has largely neglected its shoreline. That longtime neglect is more than made up by Oakland’s care for its most popular attraction, Lake Merritt. Created at the same time as the city itself, the lake was carved out of a fetid, marshy tidal pool. Today it is the home of a string of pleasant lawns, walking and jogging tracks, and the nation’s oldest wild bird habitat, the place where Oakland residents go to relax, and where they bring out-of-towners to show off. The lakeshore could be a prime spot for high-rise residential development butting up to the edge of the water. But over the years, the city and its public and politicians have fiercely protected both the view from the lake and public access to its environs, refusing to give in to the box-in builders. It is one of Oakland’s greatest success stories.
Six years ago, Oakland residents decided to extend that preservation success all the way out to the bayshore waterfront. But the initial aftermath of that effort showed that even where communities take affirmative steps to set aside open space parkland and waterways, the attempts to subvert that set-aside to private, commercial use can be both enormous and insidious.
Lake Merritt empties into the San Francisco Bay waters through the 3,000 foot long Lake Merritt Channel, a lovely but poorly-named little creek, much-loved by ducks and other waterfowl, bordered along some of its stretches by grassy banks and shadetrees. But many decades ago the channel was cut off from the lake by a high-speed throughway, so that only a spelunking adventure through an underground passage of uncertain safety makes it possible to walk from the lake to the channel.
Public Money from a Public Vote Expands Park Access
In 2002, in a $198 million municipal bond measure called DD, Oakland residents decided to correct that problem, voting to spend $80 million of the bond money in large part to dismantle the throughway, connect the lake to the channel through a series of bridges and pedestrian walkways, and landscape the channel banks into a more parklike atmosphere.