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September 10, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, September 10, 2004

Pleasanton Central Park Pleasanton Central Park (September 10, 2004)

'Field of Dreams' on path to becoming a reality

by Jeb Bing

Pleasanton officials have approved an architect's comprehensive design for the Bernal property that could eventually turn the 318-acre publicly owned parcel into a regional park rivaling Golden Gate Park and Ashland, Oregon's famed Lithia Park.

"Because of terrain, climate and the amount of water available, the new Bernal park won't look the same, but its substantial amount of open space and unique design could make it a destination by itself in the future," said Principal Planner Wayne Rasmussen, who has worked on the Bernal project for the last four years.

"Golden Gate and Lithia are parks that are laid out in such a way they enhance their park-like settings," he added. "You always feel like you're in a park as opposed to driving down a city street and passing by one of our typical parks that are in a more urban setting. They all have the same sort of gardens, open space, recreational areas and public and park facilities as we are planning for Bernal, with lots of trails and attractive vistas."

Architect Michael D. Fotheringham agreed. His plan, called "Community Vision," was selected as the winner from among 23 other proposals in the City Council's recent professional design competition for Bernal. Land use experts who served on a jury that considered the proposals and the council, said they liked Fotheringham's overall plan, liked his ideas of "civic engagement," and felt his overall, long-range plans emphasized a park-like setting similar to Golden Gate Park.

"Of course, it might take as long as 50 years before we can finally say we're finished developing Bernal," Fotheringham said. "But eventually it will be heavily wooded like Golden Gate with many of the same amenities. For me, this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to develop a new and special urban park."

He pointed out that what is now San Francisco's 300-acre Golden Gate Park was a sand dune in the 1900s, barren much like the Bernal farmland. Windmills were built at the west end to pump and to irrigate the park to support the foliage and trees that are there now. Buildings, athletics fields, paths and gardens were developed over the next 50-60 years, which is how he expects Pleasanton's new Central Park to evolve.

The 100-acre Lithia Park, with its main entrance across from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in downtown Ashland, was designed by John McLaren, landscape architect of Golden Gate Park. Although its topography is more like the Ridgeland west of Bernal, its meadows, winding paths, children's playground, recreational areas and amphitheater are similar to both what Bernal citizen task forces and public officials want for Bernal.

"I just came back from Lithia Park and, believe me, it's impressive," said Councilwoman Kay Ayala, who is a candidate for mayor. "I walked the entire park and talked to a lot of people. Theirs is a 96-acre park; ours will be on 320 acres. Sure, they have 100-year-old trees that were planted when their park was new, but our great-grandkids will have the same and be able to look back and thank us for the decision we made in 2004. Besides, I think we will have a better park."

So does Fotheringham.

While 40-50 acres will be reserved for athletic and public playing fields, the rest of the acreage will feature paths, trails, gardens and open space for use by all age groups. The main complex will be a civic arts center centrally located between Bernal and I-680. The center will include a "footprint" for a 1,800-seat promenade and performing arts building, with a courtyard, sculptured garden and plantings.

Fotheringham's design plans call for placing the civic arts center between I-680 and Valley Avenue, which will extend through the park from Bernal, under the Union Pacific tracks and on to Sunol Boulevard. He has also suggested working with South Bay Construction, owner of the 37-acre office park site, to build a roadway through the park that would lead directly to the civic arts center. This would keep traffic heading for performances and other activities at the center from using Valley, which will continue to have just two lanes to serve the homes and apartments on the site.

Besides the civic arts center, extensive woods and meadows would be created between the sports fields and the KB Home development to the west. On the west side of the freeway, Fotheringham has designed trails along 680 with a wildlife refuge and education center at Bernal and West Lagoon Road near the Bernal Avenue bridge.

Rasmussen said that the planning vision for the Bernal property evolved during hundreds of hours of public meetings and staff research into the types of public uses that would best serve Pleasanton. From the start, city officials opposed development plans proposed by San Francisco, which bought the acreage in the 1930s. San Francisco first sought to build 3,500 homes on the site, then 2,600 and later 1,900 - all rejected by the City Council.

In 2000, a $50 million bond measure to help the city pay for 430 acres of the Bernal property for public open space was narrowly defeated at the ballot box. At that time, the council sought help from developers, with an investment group headed by Greenbriar Homes stepping to the plate later in 2000 with a $126 million offer for the entire 502 acre parcel, which San Francisco accepted. As part of its purchase agreement, Greenbriar gave 318 acres of the property to the city of Pleasanton free of charge for public use in exchange for permits to build 581 homes and apartments and a 37-acre office park on the rest of the land. Since then, the residential units have been built or are under construction, with the office park postponed because of the current weak commercial office market.

"At town hall meetings and at public hearings before city commissions, committees and the City Council, residents called for Bernal to become a public park that would serve as a focal point, a town gathering place and a family place for all ages," Rasmussen said. "The overall visual image is of an open space/park-like setting with public and quasi-public uses and facilities carefully integrated within it. The unifying landscape character is to be one of substantial open space, agriculture at first, then tending toward more wooded areas and meadows in later years."

In accord with Fotheringham's design plan, any facilities to be incorporated into the plan area are to be high quality and easily accessible, providing flexibility that will meet ever-changing community needs and values. Any buildings, structures and open space areas are to blend together into one visually appealing design. Land uses and activities are to complement the surrounding uses.

In addition to facilities and activities suggested by Fotheringham, city planners have also asked him to plan for a child care center, agricultural club, community vegetable garden, pathways that can accommodate strollers and family groups as well as single, more remote trails, a youth center and space for relocating the ACE train station now situated on the Fairgrounds parking lot.

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