A dozen neighbors to the future West Street Pathway came to the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Monday night to express their concern about the pathway's design and the way the city has handled the project.
The West Street Pathway is a bicycle and pedestrian pathway on the former Santa Fe railroad right-of-way. As currently designed, it will connect Berkeley's Strawberry Creek Park at Addison Street to Cedar Rose Park near Virginia Street and the Ohlone Greenway — a popular bicycle and pedestrian path that stretches from Berkeley to Richmond.
At the meeting, residents who live near the pending pathway said they did not have adequate warning about meetings for the planning of the path, and were unable to comment on the West Street Pathway design until it was finalized.
The commission said it was also only recently notified of the project. Commissioners said they should have had some oversight over the planning because the path will run between parks and includes what the commission would define as open space. "It sounds like the train has already left the station," said Commissioner Michael Boland.
During the public comment, residents called the design a "bicycle freeway" that caters only to cyclists, lacking the appeal of the nearby meandering Ohlone Greenway.
"The so-called West Street Pathway on the abandoned Santa Fe right-of-way has all the charm of an airport runway," said resident Rob Browning, who said he wished the planners included more nature elements in the design.
Several residents were concerned about trees that will be cut down for the present design. "I love the trees," said neighbor Daniel Borgstrom. "My request is, save the cypress, save the pines and the other trees, too."
Eric Anderson, the associate planner for the project, said the trees must be cut down to keep the pathway safe, because they will not be able to avoid cutting into the trees' root systems during construction — which could cause the trees to fall over.
Anderson said the majority of residents near the pathway are in favor of the current design, aside from a few dissenters. "It's true we've gotten very consistent negative feedback from about half a dozen people at meetings," he said.
"I can assure you, it's not just a half dozen of us," said resident Virginia Brown. "But when something is presented as a done deal, some people feel they can't shape the thing — they've given up already."
One resident said she's lived next to the Santa Fe right-of-way for decades, and has waited for years for the city to do something with the land. "And now we're being told last minute," she said.
Anderson said news of the project went out in late March, three weeks before the first meeting about the pathway. He added that the pathway has been part of the city's bicycle plan since 1971. "We sent out hundreds of letters, we fliered every single house," said Anderson. "I feel like we really did follow a best practice public process."
He said the rush to finish the pathway was because a grant the city received, from Caltrans's Bicycle Transportation Account in 2009, was set to expire in early 2012. Since then, the transportation commission has obtained a tentative deadline extension until 2013. Anderson said the city did not have enough staff available to begin the project until this year.
With a deadline extension for the project in the works, the city decided to postpone the Strawberry Creek and Cedar Rose Park segments of the pathway until next summer because of protests by residents of Virginia Gardens and administrators at The Berkeley School. An official extension will not be granted until October. The designs at those locations are still being discussed.
In the meantime, construction is set to begin between Delaware and Virginia streets as soon as September, according to the Transportation Commission, with a construction contract expected to be approved by the city council at its July 19 meeting. But residents at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting still had a bone to pick with the planned pathway.
"I wish they could just leave it alone," said one neighbor about the existing dirt path behind his home where the West Street Pathway will be paved. "It's just a path — leave the path. It's only two blocks, and it's nice and peaceful."
At least one commissioner felt the project should not continue.
"Sometimes you have to give the money back," said Commissioner Carole Schemmerling, referring to the project's time-sensitive grant. "This should just stop because of all the mistakes."
Commissioner Pam Gray asked that all commission members be added to the email list for the West Street Pathway project, and that planners for the project continue to appear at commission meetings to give updates.
Gray also proposed that future bicycle path projects in proximity to parks or affecting open space come before the Parks and Recreation Commission. A draft of the proposal is still pending input from department staff members before it is forwarded to the city council.