One Shining Moment
By Joseph H. Engbeck Jr. for the Regional Parks Association on behalf of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and Friends of Wildcat Canyon
For one shining moment in June 1990, broad-based public support was expressed for a rehabilitation and development plan to serve Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Such broad-based support for the park’s land use plan had never been seen before, so Park District approval of the plan sparked an enthusiastic celebration. Earlier plans for Wildcat Canyon, including plans for residential development and improved highway access had sparked anger, frustration, conflict, and controversy—but for one glorious moment in June 1990, the interested parties agreed about what should be done with the area. Park visitors, neighbors, locally elected government officials, the Sierra Club, Friends of Wildcat Canyon and other environmental organizations all registered their support for the park plan. The staff, including the general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, endorsed it. The Park District’s board of directors toured the site, listened to public testimony, and voted to approve the plan.
Because it had widespread support, the plan became known as the “consensus plan.” Many people and points of view were part of that consensus, but one person, Hulet Hornbeck, provided the inspirational leadership that pulled everyone together.
In his former capacity as the Park District’s land acquisition officer, Hulet had acquired most of the land that is in the park today. He was, therefore, intimately familiar with the park and its adjacent residential neighborhoods. In 1988, the Park District persuaded him to come out of retirement and serve temporarily as a planning consultant “to formulate recommendations to the Park District board” regarding the rehabilitation of run-down and vandalized public- use facilities in Alvarado Park and to find a solution to the park’s traffic congestion and parking problems, as well as problems of noise, public drunkeness, drug dealing, and car break-ins that tended to make the park unsafe on busy weekends—especially for families with children. The park’s unique, but long neglected natural landscape also needed restoration.
It took more than two years to develop the plan, but Hulet kept at it until the plan spoke to all of the public’s main concerns. The consensus plan of June 5, 1990 specified the best way to solve the park’s traffic and parking problems. It called for elimination of parking inside Alvarado Park so that turf could be established in the meadow area and surrounded by picnic areas suitable for family groups.
The secret to this plan’s exceptionally broad appeal, however, lay in the fact that it paid attention not only to urban park needs in the vicinity of the 42-acre Alvarado Park area, but also to rehabilitation and restoration of the 2,600- acre park’s most important scenic features, including the creek itself and the unique, steep-sided canyon that the creek had carved down into the underlying bedrock over the last few centuries. In fact, the plan referred to Wildcat Canyon Regional Park as a threshold or “urban portal” to the park and open space lands farther upstream, including Tilden Regional Park, which is contiguous to Wildcat and connected to it by way of the National Skyline Ridge Trail.
A nationally renowned stream restoration specialist, David Rosgen, was brought in to stabilize the creek and its rock walls and to restore its natural appearance using boulders, logs, and other locally available native materials.
On the other hand, the Park District decided that sufficient funding was not then available to remove the twin culverts and the 200-foot-long earth-filled dam that still to this day sprawls across the creek, precluding the possibility of re-establishing the migration of anadromous fish as called for in the consensus plan. The dam and the roadway it supports were part of a city-approved, 1960s- vintage plan to allow private developers to build as many as 3,000 homes in Wildcat Canyon. Those plans have now been scrapped, and the paved, four- lane Wildcat Canyon Parkway is used only by hikers and dog-walkers. But the dam is still in place and the top of it is still being used by the Park District for automobile parking.
Recently, a new amendment to the Park District’s land use plan for the park has been proposed, and conflict and contention have once again become the hallmark of planning for Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. This is true because the proposed amendment appears to turn its back on the Park District’s commitment—clearly spelled out in the consensus plan—to leave the earth-filled dam in place as a strictly temporary measure pending further debate about District-wide equestrian policy. This temporary arrangement has now continued for more than 20 years, and the time has come to fulfill the promise made to the public in the consensus plan of June 5, 1990.
It is time to recall that one shining moment when there was consensus about how Wildcat Canyon Regional Park should be developed. It is time to remember that consensus was achieved by agreeing to make the Alvarado Park area into a first-class urban park while at the same time restoring and preserving Wildcat Creek and making it possible for people to enjoy the silence and serenity and spaciousness of Wildcat Canyon. That experience can best be provided by creating more parking near the park entrance and designing a handsome and attractive hiking trail that would enable people to enjoy the beauty of the cool, deep, tree-filled canyon near the park entrance on their way out into the open lands of the park’s upper watershed with all of its wilderness qualities.