A new Cooley Landing Education Center and Park was dedicated last weekend, located at the bulb end of Bay Road in East Palo Alto.
But the achievement, decades in the making, is not just another building or park. It is a showcase for the power of collaboration to achieve something great and contribute to change, individually, locally, regionally, statewide and nationally.
"This is our vision. This is our jewel," East Palo Alto Mayor Donna Rutherford declared Saturday, April 16, to a crowd of nearly 300 on a warm day with mild breezes, virtually surrounded by the Bay.
"It was once a county dump with the open burning of refuse. It was a contaminated wasteland where people came to drop their trash and hazardous waste without any regard to the impact it would have on the environment, the Bay or the people living in the surrounding communities." No longer.
Rutherford was the lead-off speaker of federal, state and local officials and others involved in a massive effort that led to the site's cleanup and conversion to a community/subregional park site.
The site's history dates to the mid-1800s, with a prehistory as a shoreline where Ohlone Indians fished and hunted. The point protruding into the Bay was created as Martin's Landing to ship redwood lumber and other goods up the Bay. It eventually became Cooley Landing, a dump site and later the resting place for a huge old dredge where Carl Schoof, who operated a high-end wooden-boat repair business for decades, resided. (Read Huge, historic 'Cooley Landing' dredge salvaged)
But it was the future that was celebrated April 16. Rather than a dangerous, debris-filled, privately owned place, the landing is now public and open to adults and kids from throughout the region.
"This behind me is a temple of learning, and it will be so for generations to come, to learn about our environment, to restore it, to preserve it," U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier said of the new 3,000-square-foot building.
The collaboration went far beyond words, involving $5 million in state grants, $1.9 million from the Packard Foundation, $1.2 million from the city of East Palo Alto, plus millions in federal and other funds for toxic cleanup and site preparation. Scores of volunteers have invested clean-up time there.
There's a bigger picture, Speier noted.
"We have allowed for the last 150 years for men and women of this region to make this ... beautiful bay a toxic dump. Now we've learned and we're starting to take steps, but 90 percent of the wetlands of this region have been destroyed over the last 150 years. It's our job to make sure we restore those (remaining) lands."
"It's a celebration of dreamers," U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo added. But, she noted, "It's wonderful to dream, but it's very hard to make dreams come true."
She said when she was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 1982 she met with East Palo Alto leaders who shared their then-dream of becoming a real city -- and of creating a marina/park at Cooley Landing. She was elected to Congress in 1992, and saw the Cooley Landing dream evolve: "Imagine all the hundreds of hearts and minds that have led us to where we are today."
State Sen. Jerry Hill recalled an Army Corps of Engineers' map decades ago that showed the potential result of continued filling of the shallow South Bay, then rampant, leaving just "a river" of the main channel. Filling was stopped by creation of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission in the late 1950s and 1960s. Hill said people now can enjoy both nature and "this renaissance that's going on here in East Palo Alto ... a true testament to the engagement of a community."
State Assemblyman Rich Gordon acknowledged "the incredible collaboration that brought us to this place. ... It's really a labor of love brought together by so many people." He said kids can now ride their bikes out the bumpy road to spend time with nature and learn about history and the environment.
Warren Slocum of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors introduced former Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, who said: "I know Jackie and I are going to speak later about the bumpy road in here. I want (City Manager) Carlos (Martinez) to know, we will work with you to raise the million dollars to get that road fixed."
Gibson recalled being elected to the East Palo Alto City Council in 1992, "one of the worst times" in that city's history. But she shared a dream of Cooley Landing's future. She praised former City Manager Jerry Groomes for his role in negotiations with Schoof.
The acquisition was accomplished by the Packard Foundation and the Peninsula Open Space Trust. The flanks of the landing and a nearby salt pond had been purchased decades earlier by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (represented by Nonette Hanko of the district board).
Cole Wilbur, then heading the Packard Foundation, recounted being approached to help acquire the hold-out final strip of land. He went straight to David Packard, who asked whether the purchase would simply "help" or "create change." When assured, Packard approved a major grant, his last. He died a month later, Wilbur recalled.
Lily Lee of the federal Environmental Protection Agency recounted working with the city and others in a loaned-staff program dating from the mid-1990s.
In 1998 East Palo Alto won a national competition to be "one of the EPA's first-ever brownfields showcase communities in the country," Lee said, using the term for a seriously polluted site. The project demonstrated "that environmental testing and cleanup can revitalize communities." The EPA now awards $60 million to $70 million annually to about 150 diverse communities, she said.
In two decades, the EPA brownfields commitment has generated 105,000 jobs and attracted partners to add $22 billion more in value," and East Palo Alto can claim its share of credit, she said.