On Deadline: Cooley Landing at last is about to become a jewel of a park | April 1, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 1, 2011

On Deadline: Cooley Landing at last is about to become a jewel of a park

by Jay Thorwaldson

By summer 2012 a new bayfront park will begin to emerge in the Midpeninsula: Cooley Landing, the bulb-shaped end of an historic, man-made peninsula that stretches east from the end of Bay Road in East Palo Alto.

Phase 1 includes nearly a mile of trails, picnicking and wildlife viewing areas on nine acres, and a parking lot and benches.

Future phases will come over the next six years, depending on funding. Those include converting the former boatworks building into a nature center. There will be an outdoor classroom, permanent restrooms, interpretive displays and road improvements.

The longtime dream took a tangible step toward becoming real Saturday, March 19, when officials, citizens and young persons gathered at the East Palo Alto Charter School to prepare seedlings of trees to be planted next year as part of a renewed landscape on the bulb-shaped projection into the bay.

The site has been the subject of dreams and disappointments for almost as long as its modern history, starting with a vision of creating "another San Francisco" in the mid-1800s, and major losses of investors' money. A richly detailed history commissioned by East Palo Alto was published in August 2007 (see www.paloaltoonline.com/media/reports).

Its history includes some ship-building and being a shipment point for about 40 million bricks sent north to build the big cities of the Bay Area.

But current plans will create a shining addition not just to East Palo Alto but to neighboring communities that value the baylands experience. For years it was a regional shipping port for wheat, sheep, lumber and other goods from the South Bay. More recently it was a dump and the site of a first-class boatworks.

One community dream was to turn Cooley Landing into a marina, but that was not to be for various reasons.

Today's emerging reality is due to an unlikely coalition of agencies and organizations. Those include the City of East Palo Alto, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), the Nature Restoration Trust (a collaboration between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which in recent years has contributed $1 million to similar efforts in the bay region).

In February, the San Francisco Bay Trail Project awarded a $244,649 grant for the project. The Fish and Wildlife Foundation just announced a $40,000 grant.

On March 19, Community leader Elizabeth Jackson recalled early efforts to create something good at Cooley Landing: "For a long time, we had nothing — no money — to start this project.

"A nature park is a beautiful product. Something is finally happening. These funds will go a long way during the clean-up process."

A key in the progress is Lily Lee, who is working with the City of East Palo Alto on loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which since 1996 has been supporting the cleanup and restoration effort with loaned staff, grants and soil testing.

"It's exciting to be so close to starting construction!" Lee declared at the March 19 event.

The nonprofit Collective Roots is also engaged.

The MROSD owns the sides of the bulb and nearby former salt pond.

I have a personal interest in the landing, dating from 1980-1981, just after I left the Palo Alto Times in 1979. Having written numerous stories over a dozen years about community dreams for a marina there I decided to see if I could help move that dream forward. The idea was to create a nonprofit entity and add levees to protect the boats.

I consulted a former biology teacher of mine, the late Tom Harvey of San Jose State University, about marsh restoration, and began discussions with two agencies that owned land surrounding the landing: Utah Mining Company based in Salt Lake City, and Leslie Salt Company, which owned an adjacent 145-acre former salt pond.

Harvey and I explored an interesting concept: to create a self-flushing marina. A tide gate would let silt-laden bay water into a restored marsh, then close when the tide turned. Another gate at the back of the marina would open and let the cleansed water flow back to the bay through the marina. Sounded great, in theory.

I also talked with Carl Schoof, who operated the boat works, about a six-acre strip he owned down the middle and out to a channel. He and his wife, Shirley, lived aboard the old dredge at the end of the landing. But the deal stalled over price, and I offered the Utah Mining and Leslie Salt options to the MROSD, which completed the acquisitions. Schoof later sold his land to become part of the present public-ownership package. A follow-up city marina effort fell flat.

The concept of a regional park and museum replaced the marina dream in the 1990s, and with the arrival of Lee three years ago began to move quickly.

There are some remaining historical questions.

One is its reported early name of Martin's Landing, after an Irishman who lost his money on a flawed Spanish land grant. Another is whether the huge dredge was once used to dredge the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor. The story is that a family lived aboard and the operator would row his children ashore to catch a school bus.

Today a new generation (of adults and children) is getting jazzed about the site's future, and many people are an active part of that future.

"It takes a village," Leigh Ann Gessner, MROSD communications specialist, said March 19. "It's great to see the youth out here rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty to make their village a better place."

East Palo Alto Councilman Ruben Abrica also got his hands into planting soil: "A Cooley Landing nature park has been in the hearts and minds of East Palo Altans for a long time, and the strong partnerships are making this a reality," he said.

Claire Thorp, assistant director of the Western Partnership Office of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, said PG&E funding "is making all the difference" to progress.

She said the project "meets all the program criteria," including community-support; benefits for threatened species such as the California clapper rail; partner contributions; and "well-thought-out plans for involving the community and underserved youth as stewards of the project site."

"If we don't get the next generation involved, protection of our wonderful natural resources is not going to be possible."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com. He also posts online blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below the Town Square forum).


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