Since last night’s Planning Commission Design Review Committee meeting on the new Pleasant Valley Safeway got canceled, I decided to use my suddenly free evening to sit it on the Oakland Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission meeting about the planned dog play area at Lakeview Park that I wrote about the other day.
Oakland’s Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission
This was only the second time I had ever been to a Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission (PRAC) meeting. The first time was about two years ago. I had gotten this idea in my head that I would like to join a City Board or Commission, so for a month or two, I kind of went shopping around, sitting in on random Board meetings trying to see if any of them would be a good fit for me.
The PRAC had been the first Commission I thought I’d enjoy serving on. I didn’t have any particular reason, I guess. I just really like parks. When the weather is nice, I ride the bus all over town on weekends so I can go hang out in all different ones.
I had downloaded the agenda and read all the reports before the meeting, and decided that everything they were being asked to approve sounded just fine to me. There was an approval for improvements to Cesar Chavez park (PDF) (which, BTW, just received a $2.25 million grant (PDF) from Prop 84) and some permits for collecting registration fees (PDF) for charity walks around Lake Merritt. Oh, and a mural at Defremery pool (PDF).
The only people besides me in the audience were the applicants for each of the items. I figured this must be pretty standard for the PRAC, since they seemed confused as all hell by my presence. At one point the Chair just straight up asked me what I was doing there. I was like “I’m here to watch!” and they looked totally befuddled.
Anyway. The Commissioners had all sorts of questions that had never even crossed my mind about all the items on the agenda. When the charity fundraising walk around Lake Merritt came up, there was this whole discussion about how the walk organizers needed to get their registrations online, because the Commission is very concerned about minimizing the exchange of money in the parks.
After that, I decided that just because I like hanging out in parks didn’t mean I was particularly well suited to make decisions about them, and that the PRAC probably wasn’t for me. And since their meetings are at a kind of inconvenient time and location for me, I never ended up going back. Until last night, of course.
Tree removal permit appeal for St. Albert’s Priory
So I actually ended up getting to the Garden Center kind of late, and I figured that they’d be well into the dog park discussion by the time I arrived. Nope. They were still discussing the first item, a tree removal application (PDF) for St. Albert’s Priory in Rockridge.
I know I’ve been saying this a lot recently, but it really is always so funny to me what ends up being interesting at these meetings. I had seen that there was something about tree removal on the agenda before the dog park, but it seemed so uninteresting that I didn’t even bother reading the report.
Anyway. So I waltzed in right in the middle of the discussion, without having read anything about it, which left me to figure it all out as they were talking. If there was much in the way of public comment, it happened before I got there.
In July, the priory applied to the City for a permit to remove ten trees from their property — eight sweet gums, a silver maple, and an oak. Many of the priory’s neighbors objected to the idea of removing the trees, because they’re pretty. (It’s true. Sweet gums are really pretty.) Tree Services received 22 e-mails opposing the tree removal application, and ultimately denied the priory’s application to remove the sweet gums, citing community opposition as the reason. They OKed the removal of the maple and the oak, which were sick.
The priory then decided to appeal the denial of their application, citing “ongoing concern that trees represent personal and property threat to neighbors’ safety” as their reason. The appeal came to the PRAC in October (PDF), but the Commission postponed the item (PDF).
The reason the priory wants to remove the sweet gums is because they can’t afford to maintain them. I am not an arborist or anything, but when I got to the meeting, someone who sounded fairly expert about trees was going on this long explanation about the root systems and how the trees are so close together and how sweet gums are particularly susceptible to limbs breaking off and falling, and how there is a way to decrease that risk, but it involves lots of very expensive pruning, and since you’re pruning the limbs so much, by making them safer, you reduce the aesthetic value of the trees. Here’s how the report (PDF) explains it:
St. Albert’s is concerned with limb failure from the sweet gums. Limbs up to eight inches in diameter have fallen from the trees. Limb failures can be a threat to both Saint Albert’s and the single-family home at 6140 Chabot Road that is adjacent to this row of sweet gums.
I was never able to figure out how this dude was. He kind of seemed like he was from the City, but then what he was saying sounded like an argument in favor of letting them remove the trees. Plus, there was someone else there against the tree removal who was definitely from the City. I asked my friend who I went to the meeting with if he had any idea who they were, but he didn’t have any more of a clue than I did.
So like I said, I don’t really know much about trees. Or at least I don’t know about root systems and different species susceptability to limb breakage. I do know, from experience, all about how obscenely expensive it can get to take care of big old trees and also about how dangerous falling limbs are. So you can imagine my surprise when one of the Commissioners comes right back after that long explanation and goes “Just because a tree is gonna drop a branch is not going to make me vote to remove it.”
That seemed like a pretty cavalier response to me, but like I said, I came in late, so I didn’t have all the details. One of the Commissioners suggested that in the future, staff provide the Commission with photographs of the trees in question, so they would be better positioned to make a decision. That seemed like kind of a no-brainer to me.
So as I’m sitting there thinking that maybe if these neighbors are so attached to the trees, maybe they should step up and help pay for all this expensive pruning. Then someone from the priory explained that some neighbors had offered to help pay for the tree maintenance, but in exchange for their contributions, they wanted to be able to use the priory’s lawn for picnics and entertainment, but that they weren’t willing to open up their property for just anyone to use, which sounded pretty reasonable to me.
In the end, the Commission decided to allow the removal of half of the eight trees in question, which would apparently be better for the root system or something, and make the Priory leave the other trees in place. It seemed like an okay compromise, I guess. But mostly it just made me wish I had gotten there earlier, because I found the whole discussion quite interesting. If any readers have been following this issue, I would love to hear more about it in the comments!
Lakeview Park Dog Play Area
Finally it was time for the dog park.
So last night’s meeting was a very different experience than the last time I attended the PRAC. This time, the room was completely overflowing with people. Seriously. They were spilling out into the hallway.
After pointing out that if everyone who had filled out a speaker card spoke for even one minute, the meeting would last all night, the Commission just asked everyone who supported the dog play area to just raise their hands and only speak if they had something specifically related to the design to say. Pretty much every hand in the room went up.
Three people spoke in opposition to the dog park, and I stopped counting at some point, but somewhere around a dozen or so spoke in favor. Those opposing the dog play area focused mostly on two issues — their concern over the drastic reduction of scarce open space near the Lake and the idea that having dogs so close to a children’s play area would be dangerous. One concluded his comments by informing dog owners that by choosing to live in a city and own a dog, they are signing up for inconvenience. Another wanted to know whether the planned hence could be replaced with some kind of hedge.
Okay. So I really do not get all this paranoia about a dog park. There is no lack of open space near Lake Merritt. What there is a lack of is a place for people to take their dogs to play. You don’t have to like dogs, but no matter what your opinion of them, people need to accept that having dogs is a very normal thing, even in cities.
37% of US households own dogs. It is not some weird thing that only people who live on farms in the country do. I was born in Denver (a bigger city than Oakland, BTW). We lived right in the heart of the city. We had a dog. My sister lives in Denver now, also in the heart of the city. Guess what? She has a dog. A huge one. Denver is extremely accommodating of it. Before I lived in Oakland, I lived in Portland. Also a bigger city than Oakland. Also very dog friendly. And lots of people in Oakland have dogs too. Because that is a normal part of life for a large portion of the population.
It’s true that not everyone will ever use a dog play area. It is also true that not everyone will ever go use some field for a soccer or volleyball game. It is also true that not everyone will ever have a child to take to a tot lot. But when we talk about how we are going to use our open space, we have to make accommodations for the needs of all different sorts of people. And the lack of places to take one’s dog in this part of Oakland is a legitimate quality of life issue for a lot of people, and it is long past time for it to be remedied.
In response to those concerned about the dog play area’s proximity to the tot lot, advocates noted that Hardy Dog Park is also adjacent to a children’s play area, and that there have not been any problems there. They even had a handy illustration.
The Commission had some questions about the fence for the park, which will be four feet tall, black vinyl chain link, with vines planted along every second post. There was a handout illustrating the fencing concept as well.
In response to concerns about the dog play area infringing on the space used in the park now for soccer games and such, supporters of the park explained that this particular design had been changed from one previously approved to leave a better space for non-dog recreation in the remaining park area.
They also had a colorful illustration of the plan.
After a brief discussion, the Commission approved the design for the dog play area. Then next step for the project will be to file an application for the project’s approval. It will likely come before the City Council in the Spring.
I’m sure I’ll write about this again at that point, but if you want to keep up with all the news about the park, and learn how you can help make it a reality, join the ODOGs mailing list.