Bayfront Property

The Albany bulb, which sticks out into San Francisco Bay like a short thumb next to the long fingers of the Emeryville and Berkeley marinas, might seem an unlikely site for a restoration.
To begin with, you won’t find this land on any turn-of-the-century maps; it’s a former dump, and the giant chunks of concrete and rebar betray a history that’s anything but pristine. Nearby, the Albany Plateau, a grassy mound between the bulb and nearby Golden Gate Fields, has the dubious distinction of being both a former dump and a former parking lot. Neither, you’d think, is an ideal spot for wildlife.
Yet almost everyone seems to have designs on the site, which belongs to the Eastshore State Park, an eight-mile strip of land running alongside I-80. Dog walkers are accustomed to walking their pets here off-leash, and they’ll fight fiercely to protect that privilege. For years, sports fans called this an ideal spot for baseball and soccer fields. Boaters and windsurfers have long complained of inadequate bay access and boat-launch site parking. Most famously, squatters and artists, subjects of the recent documentary Bum’s Paradise, vowed to resist eviction from the more remote parts of the bulb. Finally, there are the naturalists, who want to return critical habitat to shorebirds. It’s hard to imagine what common ground these people might share. Who was the park for, after all? Dogs? Wildlife? Little Leagues? The homeless?
The conservationists had a head start: the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Save the Bay, and the Coastal Conservancy all have formidable resources and organizing skills. And as some of the park’s first advocates, they could make a claim based on history. Yet complicating their proposal was the fact that while the park may look undeveloped, there is little natural about it, particularly along its most contested stretches. “We went to Sacramento to talk about this,” recalls Norman LaForce, who led Sierra Club efforts to bring wildlife back to the park. “The head of Resources said, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a dump!’”
Until the 1920s, there was no Albany Bulb and no Albany Plateau. First there had been a beach, then a railroad track and then, over time, more and more fill. In 1941, Golden Gate Fields, built on fill, celebrated its inaugural race and invited bettors to park their cars on the plateau. In the ’80s, off-track betting eased demand for parking at the racetrack, and strict EPA rules forced the shutdown of shoreline garbage dumps. The racetrack’s old parking lot grew into a thriving coastal prairie habitat. For a while, the plateau and bulb were left  unused—by humans at least—and nature reappeared. “No one realized that there could be wildlife here, because of all the parking. But it came back,” recalls LaForce.
Humans came back too, among them dog owners who let their animals run free on the plateau, where marsh hawks and other birds had recently begun to appear. After years of bargaining, the final Eastshore State Park Plan designated both the bulb and the plateau as conservation lands. With enforcement of existing leash laws, this may become a fruitful area for nesting birds.
Creating habitat often involves expensive reconstructions—or more often deconstructions, of dams, flood channels, and the like. Then there’s simply leaving something alone. “I’m of the school that says with some places, you should just fence it off and stay out,” says LaForce. The dump fill under the bulb hasn’t tested as toxic, but it’s not exactly virgin soil either. Still, jackrabbits, gophers, burrowing owls and songbirds like the California towhee are turning up. Can you restore what wasn’t there? The animals and birds are proof of nature’s inclination to restore a living habitat, not an historical moment.

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