As sun set Tuesday night, about 30 people formed a circle around a picnic table in Ocean View Park and prepared for a walk through south Albany that meandered past community gardens and creeks, through University Village and around a construction site that will eventually be tranformed into a shady, willow-bordered, gently curving section of Codornices Creek.
The city of Albany along with Susan Schwartz, of Friends of Five Creeks, hosted the dusk walk as part of a program to educate people about both the construction project and plans in the works to develop better walking and biking paths around the city. There will be a public meeting Sept. 14 to discuss plans and collect ideas.
(There will also be two other walks in the next week in different parts of the city to help raise awareness about both efforts.)
The goal of the city's multi-million dollar creek restoration project is two-fold: to broaden the flood plain and protect the surrounding homes from heavy rains, and to create a more natural habitat for the creek's fish, which include steelhead trout that grow up to two feet in length. The long-term plan, which began in the 1990s, is to create a naturalized channel for the creek from the railroad tracks to San Pablo Avenue, providing flood control and steelhead habitat, with an adjacent trail for walkers and, in parts, cyclists.
Tuesday's walk began beneath redwoods in Ocean View's picnic area. Schwartz asked participants to raise their hands if they'd been in the park, and most had not. After a quick look at the park's community garden, the group crossed into University Village via a locked gate on the park's southern border.
After hearing some history about the Gill Tract on Jackson Street, and Village Creek, a tiny seasonal waterway that runs along the path of the historical Marin Creek, the group ended up at 8th Street south of Red Oak Avenue.
On the east side of the street, the visitors could see a block-long stretch of Codornices Creek that volunteers worked to daylight in the 1990s. The water curves beneath thick foliage, past blackberry bushes, a narrow path with some rustic benches and dirt banks just south of one of the Village's ball fields.
On the west side, which is fenced off, participants peered into the broad dirt trench that will become the new creek bed.
"Before this was a city, there was a big salt marsh to the west with a tidal slough. It was mosquito-ridden; we did have malaria here," said Schwartz, who shared a wealth of local knowledge throughout the walk. "There used to be slaughterhouses and tanneries. It was a dumping ground for scrap metal. Sometimes the creek ran red and sometimes the creek ran green. Kids from that time don't remember ever seeing trout."
Before European settlement, Codornices Creek petered out in grassland that would have filtered to a large salt marsh near a creek that began at what is now Virginia Street, Schwartz said. Codornices likely was ditched in the 1800s when the railroad tracks came through the area.
The wetlands and marsh were filled in during the early 1900s, and Berkeley zoned the area for "noxious industry," such as those mentioned above. During World War II, when a railroad was built, across what is now University Village, to carry workers from Berkeley and Oakland to the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, the creek was buried in a pipe between 8th and 9th streets.
Creek restoration efforts began in 1995, Schwartz said, and is now in its third phase. Block by block, workers have attempted to reshape the creek, putting back in natural meanders that were removed when the creek was straightened by the university in the 1960s. The creek had long been enclosed in a pipe, in a process called "culverting," but environmental groups have been working to return the area to a more natural state.
Voters passed Measure R in 1998 to raise money for creek restoration, ballfields and acquisition of open space on Albany Hill. Measure R has provided money for local match grants and planning to make restorations possible, Schwartz said recently.
Before the most recent round of construction, workers rounded up the creek's fish, about 120 of them, and moved them downstream before re-directing Codornices into a pipe along the southern edge of the construction site. Species in the water included steelhead, stickleback and crawfish. Pumps at 8th Street push the water through the pipe while work is done to restore the area. The channel construction is due to be complete by Oct. 15.
Lisa Wenzel of Albany said she joined Tuesday night's walk at the invitation of a neighbor.
"I'm floored because, that whole section of the creek, I had no clue it was there and it didn't seem like most people here tonight did either," she said. "Anything the people can do to help sustain and protect the environment is a good thing."
Shrly Villadsen said she saw a notice at the library about Tuesday's walk. Villadsen has lived in Albany since 1969.
"I've lived here for 41 years, and I feel more and more like it's my town. I have more of an interest in what's going on," she said. "It's so ridiculous not to know this place. I've never been here before. It's just absurd."
Several times throughout the night, as participants considered the walk through the framework of the city's bicycle and pedestrian master plan, a theme emerged: "You can't get there from here." Locked gates and fences throughout the area posed a challenge in terms of accessing existing paths and natural areas.
Susan Moffat, who is part of Albany Strollers & Rollers, a group that works to improve access around town for bikers and walkers, said it's unfortunate that some of the best parts of the city are hard to reach.
"Albany is so pedestrian friendly and such a model in other places, but with the waterfront and the creeks, and on Albany Hill, that's where there aren't many good connections," she said.
Several weeks ago, creek restoration project manager Ana Bernardes explained how the area's fish will benefit from Phase 3.
"It's all about the fish," she said. "We're building fish baffles to provide resting areas for them. We'll have root wads to create habitat. There will be grade control and rocks in the creek, which will help them swim upstream. There will also be step-pools, lower areas in the creek bed, where they can rest when the water is low."
Judy Lieberman, assistant to the city manager, said in August that the project will include an outside classroom on 8th Street to make a place for students to learn about the waterway.
She described the project, which has been going on for more than a decade, as "an exercise in patience."
Tuesday night, Five Creeks organizer Susan Schwartz said that, for Albany residents, the creek can provide an escape to nature, particularly as the city gets more dense over time.
"It will be wonderful to have steelhead in a city, and have a place to walk with a path and trees," she said.
But she pointed out that the restoration isn't exactly returning the creek to its natural state.
"Naturally this would be a big wet grassland all through the area. But, for obvious reasons, that wouldn't work in University Village. We're not restoring nature with this project," she said. "You're creating a kind of nature, if you will."
Learn about the two upcoming walks here. The public meeting about the city's bicycle and pedestrian plan will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 14 in the Community Center's main hall. For more information about the plan, call Aleida Andrino-Chavez at 528-5759, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.