Cooley Landing Park breaks ground

East Palo Alto nature park is becoming a reality after 20 years

The transformation of Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto from a toxic wasteland into a nature park for recreation seekers and endangered species got underway on Monday (Dec. 5), after 20 years of struggle and negotiation.

More than 100 people gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony on the 9-acre spit of land at the end of Bay Road that for decades has been a dumping ground for dangerous pollutants and was once used as a county dump.

A $2 million Phase 1 restoration will remove and cap hazardous soils; add nearly 1 mile of trails, benches and picnic areas; and restore a wetland area. The area could attract endangered species known to inhabit the adjacent wetlands, such as the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse, project manager Shannon Alford said.

When Cooley Landing opens in summer 2012, it will increase East Palo Alto's existing 16 acres of parkland by 72 percent. The park will provide outdoor recreation opportunities to promote a citywide health initiative to combat epidemic chronic illnesses that plague the community, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

"It's people and the birds taking back the baylands from historic industrial uses," said Bruce Wolfe, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has worked with the city for 13 years on the project, including the cleanup of the adjacent -- and now closed -- Romic Environmental Technologies Corporation, which had an explosion in 2006 that spread chemical residue over a wide swath of the baylands.

East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero said toxic dumping is the legacy of many low-income communities and communities of color. The park represents a major stepping-stone away from that legacy. The project "is vital because we'll have a place in our backyards where our kids can connect to nature. ... When completed, Cooley Landing will be the gem at the end of our sustainably envisioned downtown, running along Bay Road and terminating into this reclaimed public-space jewel," he said.

Jane Diamond, the EPA's Superfund Division director for the Pacific Southwest, called the project "a community cornerstone" with the potential stimulate the local economy and protect the health of East Palo Alto residents. The park is near the Ravenswood Business District, a planned redevelopment area between University Avenue and Bay Road where officials envision a hub of housing, offices and businesses.

The landing had been the object of many dreams, including a regional shipping port for wheat, sheep, lumber and other goods from the South Bay, a boat-building facility and plans for a marina. In 1980 and 1981, Jay Thorwaldson, a former Palo Alto Weekly editor, arranged the sale of the outer parts of the landing, which was owned by Leslie Salt and Utah Mining Company, to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

The late Carl Shoof, who owned the boatworks and 6 acres running down the center of the land, could not initially agree on a price for its sale, ending dreams for the marina. But eventually, he sold the land to become part of the present public-ownership package, Thorwaldson said.

Major funding for the first phase comes from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, USEPA/California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Cal Recycle, California Coastal Conservancy and the Forest and Lands Stewardship Council, among others.

Future plans, which have not yet been funded, include an outdoor nature classroom, restrooms, interpretive center in the old boathouse and viewing platforms with expansive views of the San Francisco Bay.

"It brings back memories," said East Palo Alto Councilman David Woods, who as mayor last year went to Washington, D.C., with current Mayor Romero as a vociferous advocate for the toxic cleanup and restoration project.

"In 1978 or '79 as a young boy I used to walk up here with my fishing rod," he said, recalling that Shoof allowed him to fish from the landing, so long as he stayed away from the boathouse. He said he is excited his son will be able to enjoy the place as he had.

Annie Loya, executive director of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), has worked since she was 13 years old on environmental-justice issues in East Palo Alto, she said. Not having access to open space, even when it is in their back yards, means that many young people are not connected to nature, she said.

The park will help youth to learn about and appreciate nature, and that helps give communities a voice in what is done to their surroundings. YUCA, for example, which is largely composed of students, was largely responsible for keeping the pressure on the state Department of Toxic Substances Control that led to Romic's shutdown.

Vice Mayor Laura Martinez, who works in a school, said she looks forward to the prospect of the park as a teaching environment.

"I cannot wait to bring them out here to an outdoor classroom. I'm so excited," she said.

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