At Oakland’s Temescal park, citizens’ complaints heeded
By Lou Fancher
It’s not every day that two guys strike up a casual friendship in a regional East Bay park and later join forces to engage in powerful, ultimately successful civic activism to protect nature. That’s exactly what happened, though, when Oakland resident Tom Nemeth and Berkeley’s Sam Singer were appalled by three train car-sized storage units dropped into Temescal Regional Recreation Area.
Oakland’s popular urban oasis near the junction of Highways 24 and 13 offers hiking, cycling, swimming, fishing, sunbathing, picnicking and its Beach House, available for corporate and special occasion rentals.
The storage containers’ placement meant that a large oak tree was removed, a grassy area that once held three picnic tables was torn up and a large gravel parking lot laid down. Views of the lake when approached from the south were obscured by the unsightly commercial units and various pieces of equipment including two pickup trucks and a boat.
Nemeth and Singer first and foremost praise the support they received from citizens who use the park and the swift actions of Dee Rosario, the Ward 2 member on the East Bay Regional Park District’s board of directors, in responding to what became a community-backed protest.
“I got the ball rolling on this project by starting a thread on NextDoor which I called ‘Travesty at Temescal,’ ” Nemeth said. “I posted that on January 15, soon after I first noticed the ugly containers. In part they were removed because Dee Rosario actually came to visit the site after Sam and I reached out to him. He agreed that the placement of the containers was unacceptable and brought the topic up at a parks meeting soon thereafter.”
Singer says the 80 comments from community members that surfaced on the social media platform NextDoor.com within two days of Nemeth’s post were heartening.
“It was great to see a civil conversation about a bonehead decision made without people resorting to a lot of vitriol. Everyone understood it was an error in judgment and a regrettable decision. The NextDoor ‘pit of hell’ can have a lot of conspiracy theories, but this group wanted to encourage the park people to do the right thing, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Although not instantaneous, the rapid resolution regarding the containers came in no small part because Rosario visited the site in-person and brought with him Sabrina Landreth, the park district’s general manager. In a recent email sent to Singer, Rosario wrote that he met Landreth at the area “so she could get an on-the-ground perspective, and she got it! As of the board of directors meeting this afternoon, Steve Castile, chief of operations, promised to remove the containers from the site. The 40-foot container is to be relocated at (Alameda’s) Crown Beach, and the two smaller ones will be placed on the east side of the north parking lot temporarily until we re-evaluate the options.”
Asked about letters written and Singer and Nemeth’s Zoom appearance in a park district board meeting to present community concerns about the containers, Singer says, “It was kind of the board to give us three minutes to say our piece. They saw people who weren’t angry but were deeply concerned about the park. They felt a wrong had been done to nature. They listened carefully, and our pitch to them was successful. I had no idea which direction it would go. It was a really bad idea, and we’re pleased there was quick action. Rosario was out to Temescal within a week and within about two weeks, the containers were moved. It’s reflective of how thoughtful the leadership is at the park district.”
Importantly, Singer says, the letters composed by the two men were directed to the right people and were expressive, but not angry in tone. Singer advises that, when presenting a complaint, to do the research to find out who’s in charge and instead of accusations, write to cause decision makers to rethink the effectiveness of their actions.
“Help them to think about whether or not they’ve made an error and ought to undo it. The tone and tenor is important. Rather than condemn the people who made the decision, leave the situation open for some compromise. Provide opportunity to make change over the course of time. Expressing that the solution is in the best interest of everyone makes it simpler to go to the people in power and say, ‘Hey, this wasn’t a good idea, and here’s why we are asking you to reconsider.’ ”
Nemeth says his civic activism is “self-taught” and “this is not the first time I’ve banged the pan to make noise about something I didn’t like.”
Now that the most egregious problem is resolved, he says his mind has moved on.
“I’m wondering if we could cajole them into other improvements. For one, I don’t think they have plans to do anything with the ugly parking lot they created … .”
He’s also interested in swimming that has not been allowed for several years, the toxic algae that remains in the lake, piled up sand nearby and when a schedule for the beach area to be reopened might be announced.
In the meantime, Singer says, “My experience in this instance with the government bureaucracy of East Bay parks is good. They wanted to listen, they went to look themselves and they acted swiftly. It makes me proud of the district.”
Nemeth, while biding his time before broaching other matters, says he wants Rosario and the board to “know we and the entire park community are happy they removed the containers.”
Impressed that Rosario took time to visit a “tiny park with a $400,000 annual budget,” Nemeth hopes an invitation from the board to discuss other concerns will materialize or that maybe even a citizen’s advisory board will be formed.