It Takes a Village To Create a State Park

November 20, 2013

On a sun-drenched late fall afternoon at the Berkeley Marina, parks officials, activists and local and state representatives gathered at the entrance of Eastshore State Park to celebrate Save The Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin and to rename the park in her honor. As gulls glided above the crowd and gentle breezes brushed the grasses in the adjacent Berkeley Meadow, parks activists and public officials lauded McLaughlin’s vision and persistence in saving the Bay from becoming a narrow shipping channel surrounded by landfill. They also took the occasion to honor the many East Bay residents who fought alongside her to make the shoreline park, now officially known as McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, a reality.

“Where we’re standing is Ground Zero of Sylvia’s fight to save the Bay,” said Norman LaForce, chair of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay chapter and a founding member of the Citizens for East Shore Park (CESP), a coalition of Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville environmental groups that fought successfully for the park’s creation after decades of struggle.

“It all started when Sylvia looked out there and saw them filling it in.”

McLaughlin spent the next fifty years organizing, speaking, and lobbying government and developers to make sure that nightmare scenario didn’t happen. To make this a success she teamed up with others, including LaForce himself, who was chief architect of the Sierra Club plan that eventually became the blueprint for today’s McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. The park now includes 8.5 miles of shoreline and upland areas that stretch from Oakland to Richmond. Tidal marshes and mudflats provide essential foraging and nesting areas for multitudes of migrating seabirds and shorebirds, and meadows, hiking trails, and a sports field grace the land between Interstate 80 and the Bay.

East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) General Manager Bob Doyle, the event’s host, said the effort to create the park was a decades-long fight. “As they say, it takes a village to create anything [meaningful], and there’s no better example than this,” he said. “[Together] we’ve created a parkland from Oakland up to Richmond, an urban shoreline unmatched in the nation.”

One of the members of that ‘village’ was event speaker and EBRPD Vice-President Whitney Dotson, a Richmond native who led a successful decades-long fight to preserve his city’s Breuner Marsh on San Pablo Bay and incorporate the urban refuge into the East Bay Regional Park District. Dotson’s father, the Reverend Richard Dotson, had led successful coalitions to prevent a small airport from being built near the marsh, and acquired land from the Bethlehem Steel Company that became Point Pinole Regional Shoreline in 1973. “We’ve created a necklace of parks around the San Francisco Bay at the community level and the district level,” said Dotson.

Doyle applauded park champions for their efforts  —both those present at the ceremony, like CESP’s board and staff; Berkeley mayor Tom Bates and his predecessors (Loni Hancock and Shirley Dean); Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin; Assemblymember Nancy Skinner; Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis; and Regional Water Control Board executive Bruce Wolfe — as well as those individuals who have passed on, including Esther Gulick, Kay Kerr, Mary Jeffords, Bruce Walker, and others.

State Senator Loni Hancock, Mayor Bates, and Assemblymember Skinner spoke about their many legislative battles to create the park, and cheered their colleagues and constituents for their own efforts. “It’s never easy,” said Hancock of the effort to preserve public open space in the face of competing development interests.

During Hancock’s tenure as Berkeley mayor from 1986-1994, the city nixed a plan for a shopping center on the Berkeley marina—a battle which went all the way to the Supreme Court before the developer’s plans were denied. Hancock and the other speakers recalled how citizens had fought hurdles up and down the shoreline to make the park a reality. For example, plans for a hotel and businesses on the site of the Emeryville Crescent wetlands were stopped by a local citizen’s group, the Emeryville Shoreline Committee.

A burrowing owl at Cesar Chavez Park also made an appearance on the day.  Photo: Rick Lewis
A burrowing owl at Cesar Chavez Park also made an appearance on the day.
Photo: Rick Lewis

CESP’s LaForce asked the audience to recall the heroic efforts of the late Dwight Steele, a former labor lawyer turned environmental crusader who fought alongside McLaughlin and a coalition of environmental groups in the 1960s and 70s to save the Bay from development.

Steele, CESP’s first president, is known for taking the lead in convincing state lawmakers to create the San Francisco Conservation and Development Commission, the first coastal protection agency in the United States.

Current CESP President Bob Cheasty, a former mayor of Albany who adapted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for the occasion to honor McLaughlin, recalled that when he and others suggested the park be named after her, she resisted, not wanting to take sole credit for a team effort.

“It took a bit of arm-twisting, but we convinced her that putting her name on the park would represent the efforts of many, and that it was fitting for her as the driving force and the best ‘marathoner’ for the entire effort,” he said.

Clearly touched by the dedication, McLaughlin, 98, slowly rose and approached the podium to speak for a few moments. “It’s wonderful to see so many friends of shoreline parks here, and I hope our parks will continue to have similar friends throughout the years,” she said.

But the work isn’t over quite yet. State Senator Hancock said McLaughlin is anxious to see the Marina brickyard at the southern edge of the Berkeley shoreline converted to park land. “Every time I’ve seen her, Sylvia mentions to me, ‘I don’t want to see that pile of dirt anymore.'”

As LaForce added, echoing the sentiments of many in the Bay Area who are able to appreciate the diverse natural landscape on our doorstep each day: “Thank you, Sylvia, for being in the right place at the right time — and doing the right thing.”

About the Author

Beth Slatkin is Bay Nature's marketing and outreach director.