City Moving on Sweeney Park Eminent Domain

City Moving on Sweeney Park Eminent Domain

Rumors have recently surfaced, suggesting nefarious dealings outside the public eye, to reduce the size of Jean Sweeney Open Space Park (JSOSP). What’s going on? Short answer: Nothing nefarious. City staff is carrying out City Council’s September 2018 direction to acquire additional land bordering JSOSP, by initiating eminent domain proceedings against the land owner, Union Pacific Railroad (UP).

On Sept. 4, 2018, Councilmembers Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, Frank Matarrese, Malia Vella, Jim Oddie and I voted to pursue an eminent domain action that, if successful, would allow the city to purchase 2.8 of 4.52 acres UP owns along JSOSP’s southern border.

The remaining 1.72 acres weren’t included in the eminent domain action because they were zoned residential, making the purchase price cost prohibitive. Staff report available in the document archive at www.alamedaca.gov.

The eminent domain litigation against UP is ongoing. I can’t take you inside closed sessions where discussions are confidential, or speculate regarding potential outcomes of the litigation. I can tell you how we got to this point.

In December 2018, the first phase of the 25-acre JSOSP, extending from Sherman Street to Constitution Way, opened to the public. Nearly one-third of the park was complete, including the eastern side, the Cross Alameda Trail running through the park, a playground, picnic pavilion, gazebo, open grass area, parking, and lighting. But before it was ever a park, JSOSP was the railroad yard of the Alameda Belt Line railroad (ABL).

In 1918, 100 years before JSOSP opened, the city constructed a 1.2 mile municipal belt line railroad that ran along Clement Avenue, from Pearl Street to Grand Street, to serve the newly developing industrial zone on Alameda’s north shore, along the Oakland Estuary. Later, this line was extended to Sherman Street to serve the Del Monte warehouse and the Alaska Packers Association.

In 1924, the city sold its railroad to Western Pacific Railroad (WP) and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF). In 1925, the two railroad companies incorporated the ABL to take over the Clement Avenue track.
In 1926, ABL acquired the entire belt line property and, by the end of 1928, had built it out with 5.6 more miles of track, and the railroad yard that eventually became JSOSP.

Subsequent mergers followed ABL’s acquisition by WP and ATSF, but ultimately, ABL was jointly owned by BNSF Railway and UP and continued to serve Alameda’s north shore for 70 years, until closing in 1998.

JSOSP might never have become a park were it not for the dedication and persistence of Alameda resident Jean Sweeney who, in 1998, discovered the original 1924 contract between the City and ABL: the contract gave the City the right to purchase the belt line railroad and any extensions back from ABL at the original purchase price, a fraction of its 1998 value.

Sweeney’s discovery, combined with skillful legal work by then-City Attorney Carol Korade and outside counsel, resulted in a 2009 appellate court victory that required ABL to sell the property back to the City for the 1924 purchase price (plus improvements) for a total of $966,207. It is important to note that the appellate court’s ruling did not include the land UP currently owns along the park’s southern border, including the 2.8 acres of property that are the subject of the City’s current eminent domain litigation against UP.

The City Council voted to name the park after Sweeney who passed away in 2011. In 2013 and 2014, more than 2,000 residents participated in the JSOSP community design and master plan process. The master plan design was created, pro-bono, by architect and former Planning Board member Kristoffer Koster. City staff applied for grant funding and sought donations, ultimately securing $4.2 million of non-City dollars which funded 60% of the total park development cost.

This year, city staff applied for funding from California’s Department of Parks and Recreation to fund the western portion of the park, the Urban Agricultural phase that will include a community garden, demonstration gardens, outdoor classroom, seed and tool lending library, pedestrian trails, restroom and parking.

The final, middle phase of the park will feature a predominantly oak grassland with pedestrian trails, small picnic areas and a bicycle skills loop around the perimeter.

To summarize, the City Council and city staff are doing what the council voted to do in September 2018 — seeking to expand JSOSP by acquiring more land from UP. We’ve learned during the pandemic how important our parks and open spaces are for our physical and mental wellbeing; JSOSP promises to be another jewel in Alameda’s extensive park system.

Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft is the mayor of Alameda.