Oakland's Parks in Peril

This baby's been in the ol' hopper for a long time. In fact, years ago I debated launching a blog called the Oakland Parks Project that would focus on one park in every post, with the ultimate goal of visiting (and assessing) each and every one. Then I realized that would take a lot of damn time and I just wouldn't be able to do it on an unpaid blog if I wanted to also, you know, earn some money. So I scrapped the idea and created Human-Powered Explorer instead. But last month's East Bay Express cover story "Parks in Peril" pretty well encapsulated what I wanted to do, with the added bonus of addressing Oakland's budget woes and the funding mechanisms behind the (flagging) maintenance of Oakland's city parks. I'm happy with how it turned out. Maybe some day I will visit and document all of Oakland's approximately 100 parks -- but for now, this is my Oakland parks opus. Enjoy. (As a side note, my reporting drew some attention to immediate needs at two parks, Linden and Ira Jinkins, and resulted in Public Works jumping on them shortly after publication.)

"Parks in Peril"

Recent budget cuts have left Oakland's parks struggling for survival. Without a funding fix on the horizon, do they stand a chance?

By Nate Seltenrich

Despite the best efforts of neighborhood volunteers, North Oakland's Linden Park is not a pretty sight. Nor is it entirely safe for the elementary school students from North Oakland Community Charter School who use it every day. The flat, half-acre park situated in a working-class neighborhood on the Emeryville border was once a haven for loitering and drug use; years ago, concerned parents would scan the park for needles after dropping off their children. Today, the needles are mostly gone — but in their place are new dangers: a rapidly decaying and heavily pocked playground surface, a playing field of hard-packed dirt and concrete-block pavers, and persistent litter.

But that's only half of it. Linden Park has received almost no attention from the city since July 2009, when it and 211 other Oakland parks, medians, and plazas were placed on a "no-routine-maintenance" list stemming from an $83 million citywide budget deficit. Instead of closing parks, the city opted to reduce services — in some cases dramatically.

Between the 2009 cuts and an earlier round in November 2008, the Public Works Agency lost the equivalent of nearly 23 full-time park maintenance employees and $2.5 million in funding — a roughly 25 percent hit absorbed over eight months. Tree services, budgeted separately, lost 42 percent of its staffing, while litter enforcement lost 50 percent. These figures are even more alarming in the context of historical trends: Park maintenance staffing has been gradually cut in half since 1968, from 176 to today's 88, even as hundreds of new acres of parkland have been added.

A 2009 report by the nationwide nonprofit organization Trust for Public Land identified Oakland as the number-one US city in parkland per 1,000 residents among high-density cities. Yet the parks' condition is another matter, and the ongoing decline in maintenance contributes to a problem that reaches well beyond their borders. According to the Trust for Public Land, parks, greenways, and natural lands can boost property values and attract and support businesses. But if neglected, they can be a magnet for blight, crime, and vandalism, while lowering the value of adjacent properties.

Today, Linden Park's only ground-level greenery — a smattering of native and drought-tolerant plants along two edges of the park and a trampled strip of grass in one corner of the playing "field" — was planted by volunteers. The city supplies irrigation to the grass patch, but since 2009 many of the other plantings have only received water thanks to a hose running from a neighbor's yard. The rest of the park is bone dry. Weeds run rampant. The lone water fountain leaks. And the park gets no trash service. Instead, volunteers spend hours each week collecting litter in city-supplied bags, then leave them on the curb and contact public works to let them know they're there. City employees usually pick them up within a couple days. But not always.

The situation at Linden Park is bad, but it's merely a symptom of a much larger problem. Expansive maintenance cuts have impacted every neighborhood park, mini park, linear park, parking lot, plaza, street median, and streetscape in the city — a total of more than 150 acres. The only parkland and green spaces kept on routine maintenance schedules were grounds at city buildings, larger "community parks," recently completed capital improvement projects, and athletic fields and parks with recreation centers, which can be rented out and are a potential revenue source.

But small neighborhood parks like Linden, where Oakland residents take their kids to play or just enjoy green space in the middle of an urban environment, are maintained on a complaint-driven system. This means, with few exceptions, that public works crews won't show up to trim trees, pull weeds, edge lawns, or clean up large debris unless someone calls and complains.

For now, efficient allocation of city resources and staff time, plus concerted efforts from residents to maintain and even improve their local parks, has staved off severe deterioration problems. But many of the most serious issues associated with this approach are only beginning to be realized. If funding continues at its current low level — or is perhaps cut even further as the city grapples with a new $40 million deficit — safety and liability issues may eventually force Oakland to close some of its vaunted parks after all.

The task of assessing the condition of Oakland's neighborhood parks following a year and a half of deferred maintenance is not as straightforward as it seems. Park use and litter levels vary from day to day, and maintenance standards among urban pocket parks and ten-plus-acre community parks vary widely. But every year, the Oakland Parks Coalition, an organization whose prime directive is to promote citizen stewardship over Oakland's parks, dispatches dozens of volunteers to all corners of the city to assess their overall condition.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the 2010 survey, which covered 119 parks, plazas, and medians, showed a decline over 2009 in nearly every area. It also turned up some of the worst scores since 2006 in greenery, outdoor children's areas, and overall condition.

Oakland Parks Coalition chairperson Susan Montauk stresses that the report is far from scientific, but said that it does offer some insight into how the parks are faring. For one, it gives credence to public works' theory that removing trash bins from most no-scheduled-maintenance parks actually results in less litter — ratings this year, on average, improved over both 2008 and 2009. The survey's findings also identified degraded and overgrown greenery as the most conspicuous maintenance issue. Time and again, surveyors encountered un-edged lawns, bald spots in lawns and fields, un-watered and un-weeded flower beds, and shrubs in need of weeding and pruning.

Montauk presented her findings to the Oakland City Council's Public Works Committee at an early-morning meeting on January 11. Councilmembers Nancy Nadel, Rebecca Kaplan, Libby Schaaf, and Larry Reid were present, but none expressed much shock at Montauk's message: Oakland's parks are approaching dire straits, and need help now.

They did, however, respond to two of Montauk's recommendations: first, establish a new position within public works for a volunteer parks coordinator, who would oversee various efforts to maintain Oakland's parks on borrowed labor (the position has been officially approved, but not yet filled); and second, permit business districts to navigate around union concerns and provide paid maintenance services to medians and plazas. Yet Montauk deemed her third recommendation the most critical: avoid imposing any future budget cuts on park maintenance, and when the economy improves, restore funding to satisfactory levels. It was met with silence.

While the park coalition's annual survey is the most comprehensive of its kind in Oakland, an informal assessment of a selection of parks turned up many of the same results. Ira Jinkins Park, located along Highway 880 south of the Oakland Coliseum at the future site of the East Oakland Sports Center, didn't offer much for visitors to enjoy: A swing-set frame sat empty, its four swings missing; and one of the fourteen-acre park's few benches was covered with gang graffiti and unsafe for use, the wood of one of its seats shattered and splintered. The park's large field area was overgrown and uneven.

The 88th Avenue Mini Park, also known as Eula Brinson Park — a tiny lot in the middle of a modest Elmhurst neighborhood — was overgrown and in need of mowing, raking, and debris cleanup. However, it was largely litter-free: An impromptu trash bin had been set up at the park's entrance, and volunteers had evidently been filling it. Burckhalter Park, in the Eastmont Hills neighborhood near Highway 580, appeared much the same: fallen and dead limbs, overgrown lawns and shrubs, yet a minimum of litter. Its restroom facilities were in need of cleaning, but not unusable.

West Oakland's South Prescott Park was lush and freshly mowed, but damp clumps of grass trimmings had been left all over its concrete walkways. One of its two entrances was locked, and the young trees along its street-facing fence line were inadequately braced and leaned severely in all directions.

But Elmhurst Plaza Park, also known as Officer Willy Wilkins Park, fared the worst. The two-acre square studded with tall redwoods was heavily littered, despite the presence of two city trash bins. Aluminum foil, food wrappers, plastic bags, and paper debris were scattered throughout the park — as were two empty forty-ounce beer bottles, near a park bench, and a small bottle of gin, discarded in an overgrown lawn near one edge of the park. Not far away, a group of children played on a new play structure.

This picture would surely be worse if not for a fortunate short-term fix: volunteers. Park volunteerism has surged in recent years in direct response to the budget cuts. In fact, the paper notices posted throughout the city last summer that alerted Oaklanders to the no-routine-maintenance status of their parks also called on them to step up and fill in some of the gaps.

City Councilmember Jane Brunner promptly established the North Oakland Parks Volunteer Project in her district, asking residents to assume various levels of responsibility for their parks in exchange for training, tools and materials, networking opportunities, and an annual picnic sponsored by her office. New volunteers continue to register every month, she said, and the current roster of 93 volunteers covers fifteen of her district's seventeen parks and three of its five plazas.

Citywide, the Adopt-a-Park program offers volunteers many of the same opportunities; at last count, 28 parks and 12 medians were spoken for by groups and individuals throughout Oakland. Those numbers are on the rise, said public works special assistant Jocelyn Combs, and they don't include the innumerable unassociated volunteers who do their work quietly, without any formal recognition.

The biggest piece of the pie goes to the Oakland Parks Coalition. Montauk said the group currently counts 112 pledged stewards and dedicated volunteers among its numbers, a figure that has climbed significantly since 2009 and is bound to grow larger in 2011. There's quantifiable evidence that the work they're doing matters. District One, with perhaps the largest number of park volunteers, rated very well in the coalition's 2010 survey. District Seven, with the least amount of registered stewards, rated last. As such, Montauk — who has been caring for a small median in the Temescal neighborhood for fifteen years — said one of her primary goals for 2011 is recruiting more volunteers in underrepresented areas.

Throughout the city, volunteers and official stewards pull more than their fair weight. Ron Wolf, a retired businessman who spends hours each week picking up litter, raking, pulling weeds, and trimming plants at the heavily used Lafayette Square Park in downtown Oakland, is among the more dedicated.

On a cold, misty morning in December, Wolf was there, bundled up, trash-picker in hand, snatching up the seemingly omnipresent litter: food wrappers, single-serving liquor bottles, tattered clothing. Outside the locked restroom doors, toilet paper littered the ground. In one corner of the facility, human feces. Wolf avoided it. "I pick up a few things," he said, "that you wouldn't want to see in a public place."

Staying on top of cleanup is a never-ending task, even given the good relationship he has with the park's designated public works crew. "Since the 1930s, derelicts and drunks have gathered here," said Wolf, who's been caring for the park for over a year. "A few guys pretty close to live here."

The park's reputation as a homeless hang-out is enough to keep away many of the businesspeople in nearby high-rises, but most of the regulars are good people, he said. Sometimes he plays a game of chess with them or tosses horseshoes carried from his condo across the street. He's here two or three days a week, 45 minutes to an hour at a time, and it helps to make friends. "People think of parks as wild, open space," Wolf said as he bent over to pull a large weed from a planter bed. "It can get a little wild, but in a different way."

Other park stewards have set their sights even higher. At Garber Park, a thirteen-acre enclave hidden behind the Claremont Hotel in the Oakland hills, where the trails are poorly maintained and overgrown, a group of neighbors called the Garber Park Stewards raised enough money to have a number of problematic eucalyptus trees removed.

At Maxwell Park in the neighborhood of the same name, a strong coalition has assumed responsibility for wholly revitalizing their local jewel. Tens of thousands of dollars in grant money, applied for by volunteers, have helped residents plan a complete redesign for the park with the aid of a professional architect. They're nearly done with an ambitious project to sheathe the restroom facilities in mosaic artwork. Lighting has been improved, problematic trees have been removed, and graffiti has been cleaned. On top of that, volunteers scour the park six days a week.

What once was plagued by drug dealers and gang graffiti and littered with syringes, condoms, and drug baggies is now safe for young children to play, said Maxwell Park Neighborhood Council organizer Nancy Karigaca. But there's plenty more construction work left to do, some related to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and that takes money — money the city doesn't have. "We have no idea how long the fund-raising's going to take," Karigaca said. "Maybe we'll get it done within five years, but it could take ten years."

Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, an independent nonprofit organization formed in 1981 that collaborates with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, provides fiscal support and management to more than fifty groups like these across Oakland. Over the past two years, demand for the organization's services from volunteer community groups have gone way up, said Executive Director Paula Ramsey, and basic park maintenance has become an increasingly pressing concern.

Yet despite all these positive signs, volunteers can do only so much. Repairs to facilities generally require city staff time and city funds, and the longer they're delayed, the worse they'll get — and the more expensive to address. "What really is the problem is that all of the repairs are on hold," Montauk said. "You can get them out to fix something when it looks like it might be a potential liability." But barring that, worn playing surfaces, broken outdoor furniture, and plugged water fountains go largely ignored. There's little money left for repair or new parts, she said, and at some point many will simply stop functioning.

That's why volunteers will never be anything more than a band-aid. As newly minted volunteers are faced with ongoing hardships, it's conceivable they may just burn out. "You need to nurture volunteerism, but it's not always a permanent fix," Councilwoman Brunner said. "It's hard to keep volunteers committed for years."
Mayor Jean Quan, an outspoken advocate for Oakland's parkland who promoted volunteerism and neighborhood activism in her recent inauguration speech, agreed: "It's gonna be with us for a while. But long-term, we're going to have to do a structural fix for the parks. You can't take care of the parks the way that we did before with the same dollars that we had in 1993."

Despite the addition of 300 acres of new parkland and the planting of approximately 10,000 new trees throughout the city since then, she said, the Landscape and Lighting District tax that funds park and greenery maintenance has not seen a single cost of living increase. Together with the commitment of 72 percent of Oakland's general fund to police and fire, that makes for a financial challenge no amount of goodwill can overcome.
Even if the public works budget remains flat in coming years, its burden will only increase. The city is still adding new parks all the time, Quan said, and they contribute to its maintenance load. As a councilmember, for example, she introduced a dozen pocket parks to her district and saved another sixteen acres in a small canyon from development. Tiny plots throughout the city are continually added to the parkland roster as empty lots are greened and converted to public use. 
Quan suggests that given the current economic climate, however, there may be some wisdom in limiting new parkland. "I think that the city has to make some decisions," she said. "We have to decide whether or not we're going to continue to have as many parks."

Yet voters have repeatedly agreed to tax themselves to pay for new and improved parks. Recent examples include Measure DD to revitalize Lake Merritt and Measure WW to purchase new parkland throughout the East Bay. But that doesn't mean Oakland has the operational funds to back them up. "It boils down to setting priorities and trying to do the best we can with what we have," said public works Building Services Manager Jim Ryugo. "We've been forced to make some tough choices."

Even tougher choices may lie ahead. Ryugo realizes that the 2011-2013 budget cycle is unlikely to bring any good news to Oakland's parks: "It will be a challenge to keep what we currently have. I think there's going to be a lot of anxiety about how things will shape up."

It won't be soon, but perhaps someday, years down the line, all of Oakland's urban parks will be as loved and well-manicured as East Oakland's Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center. On the same day that nearby parks sported litter, overgrown lawns, weeds, and un-pruned trees and bushes, Arroyo Viejo sparkled with life. A teenage couple perched on a concrete wall in view of restored Arroyo Viejo Creek. An older man sat on a bench overlooking a well-trimmed expanse of lawn, nicely mulched flower beds, and weed-free landscaping. Children played joyfully on fully equipped playground equipment as their parents watched. Others rode tricycles and skateboards down the park's concrete pathways. Their ears met the sounds of birds and frogs and wind rustling through trees — and, incredibly, a near absence of city noise.

Parked between two playing fields — including the well-used Ricky Henderson Baseball Field — and adjacent to a basketball court that sported one of the park's only overt flaws, a broken backboard with yellow "Caution" tape wrapped around it, were a pair of white public works trucks. Granted, with its recreation center and lofty status in the community, Arroyo Viejo is a high-priority property that has seen minimal maintenance cuts. But it's also an example of what Oakland's parks can achieve — even in lean times. The solution is simple, as Quan put it: "You've got to learn to do everything with nothing."