Bay Area Cities Rediscover the Creeks Under Their Streets

ramblasperspect.jpgOne of the proposed designs for Center Street in Berkeley, by Ecocity Builders

(Editor's note: This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on the Bay Area watershed)

The proposal to convert Center Street in Berkeley from an asphalt thoroughfare to a park-like promenade -- revealing a long-hidden underground creek -- is the latest twist in the interesting and often-controversial story of the Bay Area's heavily-modified waterways.

The Center Street project is a striking reversal of a century-old trend towards burying Berkeley's creeks below ground. It's also an example of the relatively new practice of "daylighting" forgotten waterways, a trend said to have been unintentionally sparked forty years ago in nearby Napa.

In the 1970s, as part of the redevelopment of its downtown, the City of Napa stumbled upon a new way of thinking about the urban watershed: Instead of leaving the Napa River buried, engineers removed its cover, exposing it to daylight.

"In the 70s, there was the redevelopment," Barry Martin, Napa's Public Information Officer explained to Streetsblog. "and a number of buildings were taken down. The creek ran underneath some structures, so as they were designing this urban renewal project, [daylighting] was part of that."

"I don't think there was any environmental thinking going on at that time," he added.

Some urban planners debate whether Napa's construction in the 70s constitutes the country's first daylighting project. In 2003, Steve Donnelly, then co-director of the Urban Creeks Council, dismissed the project as the nation's first, saying, "all they did was take the top off a concrete channel."

Uncovering the waterway didn't fix Napa's watershed problems, either.

Forty years after its restoration began, Napa still struggles with the health of the Napa River: Frequent flooding plagued the city during the past decades, and engineers are only now getting the water flow under control, in part thanks to tactics similar to those employed by the settlers of 200 years ago.

In the 1800s, residents recognized that the east side of the river's oxbow was too wet to use in winter, and set aside the land as a summer fairground. An amphitheater now sits on the land, but there's more to the park than meets the eye: It serves as a buffer during floods, redirecting overflow away from more vulnerable areas.

"You might go 4 years and never see a drop of water," Martin explained, "but when it's needed, it'll provide the capacity and move the water downstream into the wetland areas."

He added, "The Army Corps of Engineers uses us as an example of a new way of thinking about flood control."

And whether or not Napa's example meets the definitions currently used for daylighting, the re-engineering of the Napa River changed the way people thought about urban waterways in the Bay Area. 

Berkeley's History of Daylighting

Historically, Berkeley's land has been comprised largely of sediment pushed up along the Hayward Fault. Gradually, as many as a dozen streams carved their way from the Berkeley Hills into marshes along the bay.

In the late 1800s, after years of dumping sewage into those streams, Berkeley had a sanitation problem: Not only did the streams stink, they bred disease. And beyond the difficulties of sanitation, the water posed an obstacle to development, since developers couldn't build on a marsh.

So Berkeley built underground passages for the water, carrying it from its tributaries in the hills to outlets near the waterfront. During this time, many of Berkeley's streams -- a million years in the making -- were hidden from public view. Placed out of sight in the early 1900s, they were largely out of mind.

But just a hundred years later, Berkeley's creeks have experienced a new wave of construction. Although many remain in underground pipes, a few have been restored to the surface, complete with landscaping to mimic the original creek habitat. (Click here for a lovely photo tour of the creeks' current state.)

Advocates like Steve Donnelly like to point to Strawberry Creek as one of Berkeley's earliest daylighting experiments. Completed in 1984 at a cost of about $50,000, a 200-foot section of the creek was removed from a culvert beneath an empty lot and transformed into the centerpiece of the park. (The park cost an additional $530,000 on top of the creek construction.)

The impact of that transformation has been significant. According to a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, nearly 30 years after the daylighting, property values in the area around Strawberry Creek Park have increased, crime has decreased, and an empty warehouse has been converted to offices and a bakery.

Strawberry's success was followed in 1993 with the daylighting of Codornices Creek. This time, the city daylighted 400 feet of the creek between 8th and 9th Streets on the border of Berkeley and Albany, at a cost of $33,000. Nearly four hundred volunteers helped to restore the original meander of the water -- an important factor in regulating speed and controlling floods -- and the area saw a gradual increase in the population of species like crayfish, damselflies, garter snakes, mallards, egrets, and gophers.

But there remains a downside: There was an increase in feral cats, which stalk and kill the animals attracted to the park.

"A 'sink' is where more animals die than are produced," explained Susan Schwartz, President of Friends of the Five Creeks, which protects and restores East Bay watersheds. Daylighting projects aren't necessarily sinks, she explained, but the possibility exists that a project undertaken for ecological reasons might wind up taking an unexpected toll on the environment.

Center Street Daylighting Could Be Berkeley's Crown Jewel

One of the champions of the Codornices Creek daylighting in 1993 was Bay Area urban planner Richard Register. He's also one of the primary supporters of the most recent push to transform Berkeley's Center Street.

The plan, which was recently endorsed by the Berkeley City Council, would create one of the most visible daylighting projects in the country on what is now a rather plain two-way street. Starting at the Berkeley BART station and stretching up to the UC Berkeley campus, Center Street would be transformed from its present-day asphalt into a pedestrian destination. And it would continue the work that began in the 80s: the body of water beneath Center Street is none other than Strawberry Creek, a section just upstream from the city's first major daylighting project.

"I think it's absolutely fantastic that Richard Register has fought for this," Susan Schwartz told Streetsblog, though she added that because the Center Street proposal is such a tiny, pedestrian-focused section of the creek, "it's not going to make any significant difference to the watershed." As such, Friends of the Five Creeks has not taken a position on the project.

Kristen Quay, Restoration Coordinator at the Urban Creeks Council, agreed that the Center Street proposal is more of a human amenity than a comprehensive daylighting. "The constraints are pretty extreme," she told Streetsblog. "The vehicular access and the location of the site make it not as, well, creek-like."

Creek daylighting can be controversial, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. For example, in areas near the bay that were formerly industrial, additional groundwater could potentially stir up toxic pollutants.

But when done carefully, daylighting can bring multiple ecological benefits to a neighborhood. Historically, straight, deep culverts are particularly prone to flooding during storms; they're prone to earthquake damage and in combined sewage systems like San Francisco's, they place additional strain on water treatment plants.

In contrast, daylighting can increase habitat for wildlife, ease monitoring and treatment of water quality, and contribute to human recreation, education, and opportunities for sustainable development.

"Stream restoration is neighborhood restoration," explains Ann Riley of the Waterways Restoration Institute in "Urban Stream Restoration."

Significant portions of <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mystandardbreakfromlife/4327497120/">Strawberry Creek</a> remain enclosed within culverts.Significant portions of Strawberry Creek remain enclosed within culverts.
Now that the daylighting bug has been caught, could Strawberry Creek someday be daylighted all the way from the hills to the bay?

Probably not.

In the hundred or so years that the creek has been hidden below ground, there's been a lot of development up on the surface. Many private homes sit atop the underground culvert. Obtaining that land would be a nearly impossible.

Sometimes, a daylighting project will be fortunate enough to come along at just the right time and in just the right place. In 1992, Thousand Oaks Elementary School began to seriously consider daylighting Blackberry Creek. At the time, Blackberry ran directly underneath the school property and was prone to frequent floods. Once the plan to daylight was approved, it cost $144,000 to remove a dilapidated playground and restore 200 feet of creek to the surface. Now fifteen years later, it's a treasured feature of the school.

The Blackberry Creek project required years of work, fund-raising, and political campaigning. A similar project along Schoolhouse Creek was a massive undertaking. Future projects will be even more challenging.

The Future of Daylighting in the Bay Area and Beyond

Property acquisition aside, there are numerous other obstacles to daylighting. Determining the historic meander of the stream may be impossible; fully-restored creeks require significant space along their banks for sloping and vegetation; water can attract less-desirable animals such as wild rats and mosquitoes; and there are inevitable conflicts over public access to the water.

But for all of those challenges, a little bit of daylighting can go a long way. "The thing about riparian corridors," the Urban Creek Council's Kristen Quay said, "is they provide an inordinate amount of benefits to wildlife. Providing any habitat at all is worth a lot, it's certainly worth the average cost of these projects. Our more mobile species like birds and insects -- especially bees -- can reach these projects very easily and take advantage of their benefits."

Although each project is radically different, dozens of cities all around the world have managed to successfully rethink their treatment of creeks, streams, and lakes.

In future installments in this series, we'll be taking a closer look at those cities' plans. They include replacing the widest bridge in the U.S. with a river of floating bonfires, the creation of a kayaking facility in the middle of downtown Reno, and the possibility of unearthing buried streams in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, enthusiasm for daylighting creeks around the Bay Area remains high. One long-time dream is restoring Derby Creek, which flows underneath People's Park in Berkeley. It would be a powerful symbol: Historically, People's Park has been an epicenter of controversy, the site of Vietnam-era battles between the city, the college, the National Guard, and Governor Ronald Regan. If planners, ecologists, community leaders, legislators, and property owners could actually find common ground on renovating the creek beneath the park, it would be a major miracle, and a momentous vote of confidence in the practice of daylighting.

Let's hope that doesn't take another million years.