Gaye LeBaron: Long the ‘land in limbo,’ Southeast Greenway may have a future
It’s a rare thing for public opinion to stop a freeway once Caltrans sets sights on a route. But that’s what has happened here. And it took just 60 years to get it done.
There was not a lot of public attention focused on the Santa Rosa City Council’s action on July 9. But it was, truth be told, a historic moment.
What council members did was agree to negotiate a purchase from Caltrans of 47 acres - 300 feet wide, 2 miles long, from the south edge of Montgomery High School to Summerfield Road. It is a swath of open land that is (or was) part of the state’s 60-year-old plan to build a freeway from Santa Rosa to Kenwood. It was to be the section that linked Farmers Lane to Melita Road.
The 75 people in the council chambers who cheered last month’s decision were from the Southeast Greenway, a project started by the first residents of Yulupa Co-Housing, a condominium neighbor of the land. The council’s vote was the next-to-last step in a project that has not only persisted but gained momentum over the past 10 years.
Neighbors Thea Hensel and Linda Proulx started the first definitive movement on this issue that has plagued government for decades. Their families were among the first six to inhabit the new Yulupa Co-Housing condominiums when they opened in 2005. Both began to ask questions about the “wasted” open space next door.
By 2009, they had assembled a group interested in finding a good use for this “land in limbo” that had almost but not quite become a freeway.
They organized, first as a neighborhood and then under the nonprofit umbrella of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and Economy. The project attracted the attention of a professor in UC Berkeley’s Urban Design Studio and by 2011 the Southeast Greenway had been defined and named. It could have everything from walking paths and bike lanes to community gardens, maybe a small orchard, perhaps housing, definitely park areas.
For 10 years they worked quietly, making contacts, exploring opportunities, talking with Caltrans and the city. The reward came with the unanimous vote of the council.
It’s not over yet. Caltrans, which has declared the whole swath surplus, still needs to complete appraisals before a sale can be negotiated. And everyone knows that state agencies, like the Wheels of the Gods, grind slowly.
The Greenway project is not without resources. There was an initial $1 million matching grant from the county’s Open Space District which has grown to $2 million with heavyweight stakeholders like the Land Trust, LandPaths, the county’s Regional Parks and Sonoma Water, plus Caltrans itself, which shares a memorandum of understanding with the Greenway for the future of that land.
A TIMELINE is an efficient, albeit risky, way to write history. It is also a journalist’s favorite tool when dealing with complex subjects in a limited space. The back story of what might be called The Ghost of Freeways Past and the inception of the Southeast Greenway is certainly complex enough to warrant a -year-at-a-time review. So here’s a short walk down a long path (NOT a freeway!) to the council’s recent action.
1950s: The State Division of Highways added to its general plan a proposal for a freeway from Highway 101 to a spot known as Lawson’s Corners where Sonoma Highway crosses Melita Road. There would be a bridge across a marsh known as McCrae Springs. And the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District began condemnation proceedings to secure that marsh along the one-time railroad tracks now known as Montgomery Drive for a flood control lake.
1960s: The State Legislature approved $1.9 million in aid, designated for recreation and wildlife preservation. The report prepared for the state would serve as the master plan for a county park in the marshland.
1970s: Civic outrage stymied an East Bay developer’s plan to build a second-home community with 1,500 dwellings in the historic Annadel Farms. The result was the creation of the 5,092-acre Annadel (now Trione-Annadel) State Park.
1976: Spring Lake Park opened, a 100-acre lake surrounded by nearly 400 acres serving multiple uses, including a campground and a swimming lagoon, parking for horse trailers and multiple choices for walkers and runners.
Flanked by the city’s Howarth Park to the west and Trione-Annadel on the southeast, Spring Lake opened a 15-plus mile stretch of public parkland between Santa Rosa and Kenwood.
Coming as it did, smack in the middle of the decade that set, and still holds, the record for growth in Santa Rosa history, Spring Lake Park was a fortuitous addition. The timing was so right. Runners of all sizes shapes and ages were hitting the trails. Mountain bikers had come down from Mt. Tamalpais, where the sport began, and found their own challenges closer to home. The new park link was welcome beyond anyone’s imagination - for all good reasons. In the first six months, County Parks counted 35,000 visitors - and those were only the people who drove their cars through the gates. It didn’t count the park users who came on bikes or walked in from Howarth or parked just outside. (By the turn of the century, the annual attendance count - again, not counting the walk-in/ride-ins - exceeded 750,000.)