Gaye LeBaron: Long the ‘land in limbo,’ Southeast Greenway may have a future

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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.)

1980s: By now the idea of a bridge across this park — this wonderful new reason to be outdoors, to enjoy the quiet, the deer in the fields, the otters in the lake, to breathe deeply — was, shall we say, “not popular.” Protectors emerged. The standard-bearer in the Stop the Bridge movement was a feisty woman named June Moes who lived with husband Howard and their family near the park’s edge.

June wrote letters to the editor listing every reason why a bridge was a bad idea. When a man named Anderson mailed a $5 bill to my PD office to “help stop the bridge,” I passed it on to June and her “Save Spring Lake” movement was born. By 1988, June and company had 200 petitions circulating, calling on the city council to forget about a bridge.

1988-89: These were red-letter or black-bordered years in the proposed freeway’s history, depending on your persuasion. There were desperate efforts — a whole stack of re-routes and alternatives — to keep the freeway alive when a transportation tax election brought the issue front and center. Planning commission and council meetings were held in filled chambers with green T-shirts reading “Preserve Spring Lake.” Enlarged, mounted copies of the 200 petitions ringed the room. Nothing was definite. The PD archives from those years are fat with clippings.

1990s: The only portion of the “dream” freeway to the Sonoma Valley that was ever completed was opened in 1990. An $11 million viaduct between the County Fairgrounds and the Santa Rosa Veterans Building, it ended abruptly — and still does — at Farmers Lane where traffic is routed along five blocks of Farmers, with three stoplights, to reach a widened Sonoma Highway.

The estimated cost of the planned extension, including a bridge, had risen to $72 million. And Caltrans was turning its attention widening a crowded 101.

1998: A new “memorial” bench turned up in Spring Lake Park, not far from the swimming lagoon. It was a carefully selected spot, right where the freeway bridge would have passed above. Its brass dedicatory plaque reads):

“Preserve this park forever.

“Committee to Save Spring Lake.”

It was paid for with the money left from June Moes’ campaign — with maybe a little of her own funds tossed in. It is, hopefully, still there.

2019: Moes, at 90, is triumphant. Or, as she puts it, ”Still no bridge and I’m still alive!” She calls the anti-bridge campaign, “The funnest thing I ever did!” and obviously has lost none of her feistiness, suggesting that “We should go down to the corner saloon” to raise a celebratory toast to the Greenway. She won’t. But she’s right. She should.

End of timeline, back to the present. And another wait, but with a clear and certain vision of the goal.

Which is?

Why, a stroll down a Greenway path to the park, of course.

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