A bicycle and pedestrian path the city of Berkeley has envisioned for some 40 years is closer to realization with a construction contract on the way, but the design remains literally bookended by community debate over safety and lighting.
At the Strawberry Creek Park end of the prospective path, citing safety risks, The Berkeley School has threatened to halt the project by revoking an easement agreement it holds with the city. At the Cedar Rose Park end, the Virginia Gardens community isn't worried about safety but rather preserving their homes' mountain views and avoiding light pollution.
Until the design debate is resolved, the partially constructed West Street Pathway won't serve its intended purpose — connecting two Berkeley parks and the Ohlone Greenway, a popular bicycle and pedestrian path that stretches from Berkeley to Richmond.
Presently, the paved pathway only runs for three blocks, from University Avenue to Delaware Street, where it abruptly turns into a dirt trail — OK for walking, but not for bicycling.
"It's particularly important for children, seniors and others just starting to bike," said Aaron Welch, a resident near the pathway and the senior policy advisor of , which has supported the project over the years. "It also connects important parks."
Construction may begin on two central blocks of the West Street Pathway, between Delaware Street and Virginia Street, as soon as September. At least 12 neighbors to that segment of the pathway have , but failed to get the project delayed.
However, finalizing the ends of the pathway — at Strawberry Creek Park and Cedar Rose Park next to the Ohlone Greenway — has been postponed until next summer in reaction to protests at the ends of the planned pathway by residents of the Virginia Gardens cul-de-sac and administrators at .
The city recently obtained a tentative one year extension on an $788,055 grant from Caltrans's Bicycle Transportation Account to push back its April 2012 project deadline. A formal extension cannot be granted until October, according to Farid Javandel, the secretary for the city's transportation commission.
"It certainly gives us more time to refine the design," said Javandel. He said the commission gave The Berkeley School copies of the design "that they can mark up from their perspective with the changes they think would make it work best."
The private school on University Avenue fears that an adjoining pathway to Strawberry Creek Park — which would run over an easement the school granted to the city — could bring more crime to the area, and become detrimental to children's safety and the school's enrollment.
Javandel said the city will have a meeting with the school in mid-September to discuss the designs and safety measures further. The city plans to finalize a design by the end of the year and, if their easement agreement is still in effect, construct the path next to The Berkeley School over summer 2012 to avoid disturbing school activities.
However, for some bicyclists and for the city, delaying construction and jeopardizing the funding for the long-envisioned pathway is taxing.
"The clock is ticking," said Welch. "Finishing the pathway completes an investment that was already started when the city received a grant to do three blocks. Completing the path makes it much more useful."
Despite the sentiment on Virginia Gardens, Welch said he was easily able to get 38 of his neighbors to sign a petition in support of the pathway.
"Ironically, when they put in the previous stretch (of the pathway), neighbors wanted more lighting for nighttime safety," said Welch. "It's interesting how neighbors have different concerns at different times."
Javandel said the first Berkeley bicycle plan that called for a pathway along West Street, then known as the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way, was in the early 1970s.
Finally, in 2002 the city council approved a project to transform West Street into a bike and pedestrian path, and in 2004 received a $822,940 grant from Caltrans that allowed construction to begin, according to the city council's consent calendar. But it took a second grant in 2009 for the city to have enough money to complete the project.
When complete, the West Street Pathway will be half a mile long and span seven blocks.
"Most of the segments of our current bicycle plan are complete," said Javandel, minus West Street and 9th Street. "This is one of two that are left and needed to close the gap."
Stay tuned for more coverage of the West Street Pathway debate from Berkeley Patch.