Blair Park comes before the city council November 15th and December 6th. I received this email and Michael agreed to my request to repost it for PNN readers. I think captures a lot of the depth of the issue surrounding Blair Park and wanted to share it with you.
As an environmental scientist who teaches classes on natural resources management, sustainable cities, sustainable development, and other such topics, let me take off my soccer coach’s hat and put on my objective, academic hat and weigh in on this issue with a few points.
A sustainable community is one that balances the economic, social and environmental aspects of its citizens’ lives, not only within the confines of its boundaries but with respect to the surrounding communities and the broader environment.
Moraga Canyon/Blair Field is indeed one of the few open spaces in Piedmont as has been pointed out in email exchanges. However, in my professional opinion, it has limited environmental value. Because of the development of the upper part of the valley with houses and the presence of Highway 13, it does not likely function much as an ecological corridor. Although it has a few mature oak trees and some surrounding Chaparral on the south slope, it is not really large enough to be a refuge for wildlife passing through on their way to somewhere else. While it is adjunct to a larger area of open-space namely the Cemetery District, it is largely disconnected from that by the busy road, by coaches field, and the corporation lot. It does not house a stream or any other watercourse and offers little benefit, because of the modified drainage caused by city streets and culverts, as an absorption area for urban runoff. While the existing vegetation does offer a carbon sink, most of the trees are already mature and are fixing little in the way of carbon (if new trees were planted in and around the newly built sports facility, these would actually provide a more active sink for carbon as they grow to maturity). Assuming the trees cut down would be put to good use as firewood, they would offset the use of fossil fuels and could be mitigated by Piedmont financing the planting of additional trees elsewhere in the community or in some other local (a carbon offset) as part of the project. All other removed vegetation could be composted so as to keep that carbon as much as possible in its terrestrial form. Note that the current vegetation is not a pristine ecosystem. It is full of non-native species (Algerian ivy, broom, acacia, grasses, etc.), mixed with native ones. It is routinely cut back by city staff and is ringed by gardens and fences and other ecological barriers on all sides. Based on the above considerations (and one would of course go into much more detail on this as part of an full environmental impact assessment), this site probably cannot be assigned much environmental value in a consideration of community sustainability. Its environmental value, whatever a full analysis turns out to show in terms of habitat for native species, could be relatively easily mitigated by Piedmont residents using our considerable human resources and some of our financial resources to protect and enhance more obviously valuable ecological assets elsewhere within our surroundings – for example, in the nearby East Bay Regional Parks – or even further afield.
What the current Moraga Canyon/Blair Field site does have is amenity value – it is undoubtedly a community asset in its current form. It is most obviously a visual asset – I and many other’s enjoy its natural appearance as we drive up and down the valley. It is also dog-walk area for a few of Piedmont’s families and residents from Montclair and other parts of Oakland who drive their dogs there for exercise (I see little foot traffic because of the lack of sidewalk access to and from surrounding areas and the busy traffic). Thus, the number of individuals using this amenity seems limited and within the immediate surrounds there are existing alternatives that could be enhanced or could be argued already meet these needs. Similarly, the visual asset aspect of this location is something that too can be mitigated with appropriate landscaping that would preserve the current wooded feel of the valley and it must also not be forgotten that the sight of a well-designed recreational complex replete with happy and active children playing their favorite sports will also bring pleasure to many in a form that might be equal, though different, to that currently enjoyed by the canyon in its current form.
The biggest issue, it seems to me, is that in its current form, its main value is not so much its current value to the community of Piedmont as a whole, but to the specific portion of our community living immediately adjacent to it or above or below it on the transportation corridor it contains. The valley is an attractive buffer for the residents who live on the ridge above – a low-noise area and also a radiant cooling space between their properties and the busy road, the residences of the Maxwelton neighborhood, and Coaches Field. Very few properties have an active view of the canyon, but the few that do undoubtedly value the tranquility and the absence of glare that its unlit space provides. I know I would. The absence of all but the occasional dog-walker on the current open-space also acts to limit traffic flow to the ambient through-flow that Moraga supports from Montclair and Highway 13 down into Piedmont and the Piedmont Avenue areas (and on to other locations) and to the relatively limited evening and weekend traffic that accompanies visitors to Coaches Field for sports and skate-boarding. Clearly, as quantifiable by a thorough environmental impact review, the situation described would change for local residents due to the increase in use of the valley for sports and recreation, increasing the number of vehicles accessing this area, and adding noise and light that are currently at relatively low levels. Travel time through the valley at certain times might be increased due to the presence of traffic lights and the in-and-out of visitor’s vehicles. However, this might also be offset by greater road safety for drivers, bikers, and joggers due to the slowing effect that road modifications would have on through traffic forced to stop for lights.
In deciding what to do with the valley, as it is with many of the issues faced by a community when it comes to development of sites within them from one land-use type to another, our community needs to take the big picture. How many of our members will be disadvantaged by the change being proposed? Can the potential negative effects or loss of utility be mitigated or compensated by appropriate design or the provision of suitable alternatives at other nearby sites? What are the trade-offs in terms of enhanced amenity value afforded to the community as a whole? Do the enhanced community-wide values outweigh the more localized net-negative impacts affecting adjacent property owners (because it must be remembered that they too share in the positive effects of any change)? Ultimately, in a community planning process, these kinds of issues are usually put to a vote – either a plebiscite such as a ballot measure, or as a proxy system by way of elected officials empowered by our community to act in our best interests, as communicated to them through the public consultation process. As a soccer coach and an environmental scientist and academic engaged in sustainable development teaching and research I will be happy to provide continued input to this discussion and will be attending the meeting on Monday November 15 and December 6th.
Professor (Sustainability, Water, Development), Cal State East Bay
PYSC Volunteer Coaching Coordinator, Board Member, and E License Coach