East Palo Alto planners ask city council to turn vacant Cooley Landing into park

Cooley Landing is currently vacant property, but East Palo Alto city planners want to turn it into a public park. (Photo courtesy of Flickr)

The East Palo Alto Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend to the city council a proposal to develop Cooley Landing, currently vacant and closed to the public, into a community park.

Chairperson Renee Glover Chantler jokingly called the project a “no-brainer,” and several commissioners laughed and nodded in agreement at the Jan. 24 meeting.

Leaders of the Cooley Landing Park Project hope to revitalize the nine-acre peninsula that juts into the San Francisco Bay, providing a place for local students and other EPA residents to hike, bike, hold community events, and learn about the natural environment. The ambitious goal is to open the first phase of the restored park to the public in the middle of next year.

Decades of county waste dumping and industrial activity stretching back to the 1930’s have contaminated Cooley Landing with lead, arsenic and many other hazardous substances.

Lily Lee, the Cooley Landing project manager, gave a presentation describing the cleanup effort needed to make the park safe to the public at the meeting in the East Palo Alto City Hall Council Chambers.

“The cleanup proposed,” Lee said, “is to cap most of the site with an average of two feet of clean soil to cover the contamination and protect the public.”

Despite the already degraded state of Cooley Landing, the proposed redevelopment project must still abide by the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA applies to most physical development projects in the state, and requires the identification of all potential environmental impacts before cleanup or construction can begin.

CEQA typically necessitates the preparation of a lengthy environmental impact report, but Cooley Landing Park Project leaders are seeking to bypass that requirement by making a mitigated negative declaration, meaning that the project’s initial study identifies potentially significant environmental impacts and also includes measures to avoid or mitigate all of these impacts.

The CEQA Initial Study prepared by the City of East Palo Alto identifies several significant impacts of the Cooley Landing Park Project, including modification of the habitat of two endangered species, the salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail.

Lee explained that the initial study “proposes many measures we’re taking in the project design to minimize human activity nearest to their habitat and to improve their habitat in the longer term.”

“During the construction period,” Lee said, “measures to minimize impacts include hiring a biological monitor to look for endangered species, and restricting construction to periods outside of clapper rail nesting season.”

Lee described efforts that would restore Cooley Landing to its natural state, including the removal of concrete debris, cleanup of lead contamination in the surrounding wetlands, and the replanting of native drought-tolerant plants to attract native wildlife back to Cooley Landing.

The next step is for the project’s mitigated negative declaration to be approved by the East Palo Alto City Council, which will meet on Feb. 15 to decide its fate.

Lee emphasized the importance of city council approval to the future of the project. Without the council’s approval of the environmental report, she said, “we can’t get a number of other permits that are needed to make this project happen.”

Lee also emphasized the importance of timely approval and presented a list of local and state grants, with a total value of more than $2 million, which have impending deadlines. The city can’t apply for the grants until the council approves the environmental report.

“We hope to get through CEQA and permitting in the winter, so cleanup and construction can begin in the fall,” Lee said.

If things go according to plan, Lee thinks a restored Cooley Landing Park could be open to the public by summer 2012, “with basic cleanup, vegetation, dirt trails, and a park bench or two.”

However, Lee stressed the difficulties imposed by the interplay of the permitting process, California clapper rail nesting season, and the weather conditions required for native vegetation to survive. “If we have too much delay,” she said, “we may miss this season for planting.”

Her presentation touched on the human side of the project, including planned environmental education programs and trails connecting Cooley Landing to the existing Bay Trail system to promote walking and biking.

“All the people here, as well as community residents, are excited to see the Cooley Landing project happen,” Lee said, “so that we can have the benefits to the community and the benefits to the environment.”

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