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.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


1 person likes this
Posted by looking forward
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Sounds like it has a lot of potential. I'm looking forward to visiting when it opens to the public. Cooley Landing is easily accessible via the bike path behind the Palo Alto athletic center and golf course.

1 person likes this
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2011 at 4:37 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Plus, finally we get back a harbor.

1 person likes this
Posted by Frank
a resident of another community
on Dec 6, 2011 at 4:49 am

As youngsters, growing up in the late 1950s, we would make rafts out of wood found in that area and attempt to propel them out into the bay. We'd make it all of about five feet from shore and sink in a foot of muddy water. Going home and explaining to Mom why my clothes were covered in caked-on stinky mud was another story. I would always bring a tadpole home as a gift to her. That didn't help very much. The conversation always ended with "Wait until your Father gets home!"

1 person likes this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2011 at 12:27 pm

It is very exciting to see local representatives breaking ground on this. Too often, we've seen them at press conferences having to comment on tragic events. It's a joy to NOT see the police chief, the sheriff or any cops, but involved people outdoors working toward something wonderful.

I also will be ever grateful to YUCA & their amazing work to shut YUCA down. Does anyone else recall one of Romic's hazardous situations where residents had to be decontaminated?

Thank you to everyone in the community who has volunteered their time on this marvelous project.

1 person likes this
Posted by I love Palo Alto
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 7, 2011 at 11:01 am

Remind me, which Palo Alto park near the bay is worth visiting. Mountain View has Shoreline Park, EPA is working on it. Is it called the Recycling Center? Most of Palo Alto bay is full of mosquitoes and a solid stink.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 6 comments | 4,753 views

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 33 comments | 1,973 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,295 views

Lentil Brownies
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 420 views

Finding Balance
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 245 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.