Is City Downsizing Sweeney Park?

Is City Downsizing Sweeney Park?

Paul Foreman

On July 5, 2016, the City Council unanimously approved the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Design Development Plan. That plan included expansion of the park by adding 2.8 acres of Union Pacific Railroad (UP) land that adjoins the southern border of the park. On Sept. 4, 2018, Council adopted a resolution authorizing eminent domain proceedings in the Alameda County Superior Court to obtain the UP land.

The court hearing for determination of just compensation to UP is still pending. However, in the fall of 2019, the court granted possession of the property to the city to allow it to pursue planning, funding, and construction of the expansion project and the city deposited a $1.1 million offer of just compensation with California State Treasurer Fiona Ma’s office.

On March 2, City Council held a closed meeting concerning this litigation, as permitted under the Brown Act. On March 30 Councilmembers Trish Herrera Spencer and Tony Daysog brought a referral before City Council as Item #9-G. The item displayed a series of maps presented by City Staff at a Feb. 25 public Zoom meeting.

These maps showed that the proposed community garden had been moved from a portion of the planned expansion land west of Eighth Street to an existing section of the park previously designed for parking and other public uses. The maps included red dashes carving out significant areas that had been part of the 2.8 acres included in the eminent domain proceeding.

Spencer and Daysog asserted it was inappropriate for any changes to the plan to take place without Council approval after public input, and that It was critical that these public discussions take place immediately to avoid irreparable harm to the community. The three other Mayor Marylin Ezzy Ashcraft, Vice-Mayor Malia Vella and Councilmember John Knox White voted to reject the referral.

Spencer and Daysog were careful to limit their comments on the apparent down-sizing of the Park to the public record, so as not to violate the confidences of the March 2 closed meeting. However, it is obvious to me that, as an attendee at that meeting, Spencer and Dasog were more informed on the issue than they were able to disclose to the public on March 30.

Ashcraft published an article in the Alameda Sun on April 15 (“City Moving on Sweeney Park Eminent Domain”). The article assured us that “nothing nefarious” is going on and that, “City staff is still carrying out City Council’s Sept. 18, 2018 direction to acquire additional land …”, bordering the Park by means of the eminent domain proceedings. However, additional facts have come to light that are inconsistent with that statement.

On March 11, Recreation and Parks Director Amy Wooldridge, displayed the same maps described above the Recreation and Parks Commission meeting. Dorothy Freeman, a Board member of the Jean Sweeney Opens Space Park Fund asked why the community garden had been removed from the UP parcel, thus reducing parking space. Wooldridge stated that the change was because that she had to “design around” land not owned by the city.

A Jan 29 to Feb. 2 email exchange that included Ashcraft, Wooldridge and others indicated that the Housing Authority wants to purchase the portion of the UP land between Wood and St. Charles streets to expand Parrot Village housing development.

On Feb. 23, the City and the UP presented a stipulation to the Superior Court requesting a continuance until November. The request stated that the parties had reached an agreement. The parties told the court that they needed time to put the agreement in writing so the City and the UP board of directors could approve it. Surely, a simple agreement on just compensation could have been finalized in weeks, not months. There may be a likelihood that more than money is involved.

All this leads me to believe, that contrary to Ashcraft’s assurances in the Sun article, the city does not intend to dedicate all 2.8 acres to the park. The city may be making a good portion of it available for housing or other uses. If true, this drastic change to the plan the Council approved in 2016 needs to be presented at a public City Council meeting before any action is taken to abandon the eminent domain proceeding as to any part of the 2.80-acre Park expansion.

This raises an intriguing issue. Article 22-12 of the City Charter provides in part, “the public parks of the city shall not be sold or otherwise alienated except pursuant to the affirmative votes of the majority of the electors voting on such a proposition.” It further defines a public park as, “any and all lands of the City which have been or will be designated by City Council for public park purposes.”

The UP parcels have been designated for public park purposes and the city is in possession of the land. The term “alienate” is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “to convey or transfer (something, such as property or a right) usually by a specific act rather than the due course of law.” Although the eminent domain proceeding is still pending, would the city’s abandoning any portion of the UP property require a ballot measure?

Paul Foreman lives in Alameda.