North Richmond’s Diamond in the Rough

The beauty of Breuner Marsh is well concealed. To get to this tranquil stretch of shoreline along the San Francisco Bay, near Richmond, California, you take a heavily trafficked thoroughfare through a landscape of industrial plants and refineries. A hill in the distance is dotted with fuel tanks at the Chevron facility and an acrid odor hangs in the air.

The East Bay Regional Park District plans to make the former Breuner property a protected wetland and a link in its network of trails. Photo: Jack Rafferty.

Once you have arrived, though, you forget the dross-filled landscape and the “No Trespassing” sign on the gate, and are overwhelmed by the wind coming off the bay, the water trickling between the reeds, and the crash of the surf.

This plot of land is still governed by nature. And after a history of uncertainty and work by multiple generations of local activists, a California Supreme Court ruling earlier this year ensured it will stay that way.

According to Whitney Dotson, a Richmond resident and activist, the Marsh has been earmarked for public use since the earliest development along the shoreline. Dotson grew up in Parchester Village, a community named after Fred Parr, who financed the housing development in the late 1940s. Parr worked with ministers in the African-American community, including Whitney’s father, the late Rev. Richard Daniel Dotson, to create a neighborhood for the newly-arrived shipyard workers in the Richmond area. This retreat from the urban bustle came as a relief for the black workers, who previously were almost all living in government housing projects.

“The African-American community at the time, coming out of the rural south, was very interested in a place that gave them some isolation,” Dotson said. One of the conditions the ministers insisted on was that Breuner Marsh remain undeveloped. “They wanted something that offered some service to the community, and of course [at that time] they were not using the term open space, but that’s what they had in mind for the major part of the property,” said Dotson.

But that verbal agreement was never formalized and, over the next several decades, the fate of the area was contested. In the 1970s, property owners dumped earth fill and small amounts concrete, asphalt and waste in the marsh, filling in tide pools and damaging the wetland habitat. That stopped in 1973 when the Sierra Club and Save the Bay convinced the city of Richmond to zone much of the shoreline for preservation. In 1985, the North Richmond Shoreline Specific Plan rezoned part of the property for light industrial or commercial use, and over the next 20 years the owners of the property brought forward several development proposals for the marsh. Each attempt met with resistance from the public and the shoreline remained open.

In 2000, the property changed hands and the new owners proposed a technology park for the plot. Dotson recognized the possible consequences of the development and saw an opportunity to preserve the marsh permanently. “I knew that it was an important issue for the community to get involved in,” he said.

So Dotson sought support. Over the course of his campaign he worked with local churches, neighborhood councils throughout the city, and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, among others. He was familiar with some of these groups because he had collaborated with them in the past, planning for a local health center. In those discussions, they had identified open spaces and the protection of the shoreline as vital community health issues.

In the face of organized opposition, the Technology Park proposal was withdrawn. When a housing development, which would have occupied a more significant portion of the site, was proposed in 2006, the East Bay Regional Park District stepped in to acquire the property. Its master plan called for restoring some of the wetlands on the Breuner property and connecting its extensive network of trails along the bay. After it was unable to agree on a purchase price with the owners, it declared eminent domain and bought the land for $6.85 million. After a lengthy appeals process, the California Supreme Court finally ruled in the Park District’s favor in January.

Now, the Park District is creating a plan that will preserve the ecological vitality of the area and maintain the access that Parchester residents enjoyed 60 years ago. The plan calls for protecting and restoring the wetlands and, depending on available funds, creating public amenities like restrooms and picnic tables, connecting the San Francisco Bay Trail from the north to the south of the site, and constructing 30 new acres of salt marsh.

Brad Olson, Environmental Programs Manager with the Park District says that the development will allow for the marshes to expand with projected sea level changes due to climate change over the next several decades. While the plan will limit pedestrian traffic to sensitive areas, Olson said public access is a big priority.

“We will be designing our trails so that they have improved visual access to the bay and to the restored habitat by constructing an overlook, and some sections of the trail will be elevated. We are also looking at using vegetative barriers instead of fences, so that it can keep people on the trails, but they don’t feel like they are hemmed in and feel like they are more integrated with the natural environment,” Olson said.

The total development is estimated to cost $8 million. Several million dollars have already been secured in the form of various grants. Despite the current state and federal budget deficits, Olson is confident that the Park District will raise the necessary funds.

Through the design and construction process, Olson said that the Park District is focused on involving the local population. They have sponsored a community stewardship program, a local nursery is collecting and relocating plants for the project, and Questa (the engineering firm on the project) has hired two part-time entry-level employees from Richmond.

One significant area of concern mentioned by residents in a public meeting on the proposals was access.  Parchester Village is still separated from Breuner Marsh by Union Pacific Railroad lines. There are plans for a pedestrian bridge over the tracks, but it’s outside the Park District’s property, so the fate of that improvement is uncertain.

The design documents for park are still a work in progress, and permits and funding depend on the results of an environmental impact study, but the open space originally negotiated by Parchester Village’s first community leaders has finally been secured, and Olson said that is an important development. “This is very different from a lot of other projects built out in farm land miles and miles away from cities,” Olson said, “This one is literally in the backyard of hundreds of people.”

Connor Donevan, Andrew Leicht and Jack Rafferty, students in Simran Sethi’s journalism class at the University of Kansas are learning to communicate complex issues via social networking. This is part of a series of posts from a class exploring the intersection of social media and social justice and using water and design as its primary lenses of inquiry.

Follow the conversation on twitter, #metropolisH2O.

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