Life on the Waterfront
And an Estuary Runs Through It
There is something about the waters of the Oakland estuary. While thousands each day sail on it or drive under or over it, few give the waterway a second thought in the course of their busy lives. But for those lucky enough to live or work near its shores, the brackish waterway often holds an entirely different and decidedly personal meaning. Its very presence offers a respite from the noise and stress that often comes from living in the densely-populated urban East Bay.
Built initially by nature as a shallow tidal marshland, the estuary one sees today is largely a controlled and man-made thing created to foster industry and commerce. The aesthetics that resulted from the presence of the waterway were purely coincidental.
Over the course of its roughly 160-year history, the waterway that separated Oakland and Alameda was mainly used as a convenient industrial and residential dumping ground — as was the greater San Francisco Bay. And like the greater bay to which it is linked, the estuary is only now beginning to recover environmentally from its early history.
For longtime Alamedan Ron Briggs, whose Marina Drive home features a dock on the estuary where he keeps his sailboat, the waterway has deeply impacted his life.
“I think living on the water forces you to look at life differently,” Briggs says. “Early on we had instilled in us a sense that while we were lucky to live so near the water, we were also responsible for it and that we needed to be good stewards of this resource.”
A retired naval architect with Matson Navigation Co. Inc. in Oakland, Briggs says his parents first bought the spacious house shortly after it was built in 1939. He recalls the house, the dock and the neighborhood as being a happy place to grow up and to learn the ropes of sailing, water skiing and other water-borne sports and activities.
“I remember that there were lots of young families with kids on the street. It was a terrific place to grow up. The neighborhood had a real sense of cohesion back then — still does today,” says Briggs, who after moving out earlier in his life eventually moved back into the family home with his wife, Susan, in 1970.
But while the homes along Alameda’s Marina and East Shore drives and Fernside Boulevard — some of which date back to the early 1920s — may be the best known examples of higher-end residential life on the estuary, others too have found ways to incorporate the water into their personal or professional worlds.
“I love coming to work — how could I not?” says Grady Dillenburg, the veteran manager of the historic Quinn’s Lighthouse restaurant in Oakland’s Embarcadero Cove. “I know it may be a bit of a cliché, but our customers and crew are family. We have a giant core of regulars who have been coming here for years. They come for the food, the atmosphere and yes, because we’re right on the estuary.”
Tammy Borichevsky, who co-owns California Canoe & Kayak at Jack London Square, agrees that the estuary seems to have a unique pull
“I think there is a separate culture here,” she says. “The people that live and work here just seem to be more free, more relaxed. The place is made up of many small, diverse communities, and they all seem to get along. The thing we all have in common is our love of the water,” Borichevsky says.
But the estuary, which now is dotted on both sides of its banks with a variety of restaurant, recreation, marina, residential and entertainment venues, was once more of a swampy tidal marsh than the waterway it is today.
The first inhabitants of the estuary, naturally, were the local Native American tribes — some of whom can trace their ancestry in the area back for thousands of years, historians say.
The waterway’s so-called “modern era” is generally recognized as having started in 1859 when officials cut the first narrow and shallow channel through the estuary’s northern sandbar mouth. This allowed for the first shipments of cargo to leave the East Bay and for the first ferry service to begin runs to San Francisco.
In 1901 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cut a narrow channel through the land connecting Oakland directly with Alameda, thus making Alameda an island for the first time. By 1913 that channel had been widened and deepened into more or less the size of the tidal basin canal that runs south today into the mouth of San Leandro Bay. The bay fill collected from these cutting and dredging operations was collected and made into what is now called Coast Guard Island off Oakland’s Embarcadero Cove.
Over the years serving the needs of industry on both sides trumped all other activities on the estuary, although the city of Alameda was clearly quickly turning into more of a residential enclave. To be sure, the industrialization of the estuary — which included steel foundries, petroleum refineries, pesticide storage and coal distillation plants — left many toxic scars on the waterfront that in some cases are just today being remediated and remade into less-intensive, people-friendly uses.
And, during World War II, the estuary — like much of the rest of San Francisco Bay — transformed the then-sleepy Port of Oakland into a major military cargo and shipbuilding center. When the war ended in August 1945, Oakland officials went quickly about converting the military port into the sprawling civilian shipping center that you see today.
The fruits of their labor paid off as the facility is now the fourth busiest port in the nation. Officials say that more than 1,900 port calls
are made each year by some 30 container
vessel shipping lines. This activity, in turn, injects an estimated $1.7 billion into the local economy annually.
Now, as those industrial and wartime scars are healed, many of the old warehouses on the Oakland side are being converted into hip, new waterfront living spaces for the young upwardly mobile, hipsters of all ages, artists and musicians. The farmers market at Jack London Square — a showcase of some of the freshest fruits and vegetables available anywhere in the East Bay — draws thousands to the estuary
every Sunday to shop, munch on samples and enjoy live music. The heralded and developing Jack London Market Building — with daily markets, food vendors, shops, casual cafés and upscale restaurants — promises to be an engaging Jack London Square centerpiece.
Jack London Square has been the focus of an aggressive redevelopment effort over the years. While a nearby mainline railroad still reminds people of the square’s industrial waterfront roots, the area has added upscale eateries, clubs, hotels and shops and features
a cineplex and historic Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon, the relocated Klondike cabin of the square’s namesake author. An Amtrak station and ferry dock can be found at the square as can the studios of KTVU-TV, Channel 2, the Bay Area’s Fox network affiliate.
And, redevelopment efforts on the waterway aren’t nearly done, officials say.
One ambitious and controversial effort — the so-called Oak to Ninth project — would, if developed, see an estimated 3,100 condos and apartments built on 64 acres of waterfront property. The project also calls for the creation of 32 acres of public open space, the construction of two marinas and an area set aside for wetlands restoration.
But south of the port, where the channel is only wide and deep enough for shallow-draft vessels and pleasure craft to navigate is where
one of the estuary’s most vibrant communities can be found.
Inside Alameda’s small Barnhill Marina, not far the from Webster and Posey tubes, is a cluster of 42 houseboats of various colors, architectural styles and sizes. If the place looks like it’s where a lot of artists, free spirits and iconoclasts would live, it is.
Residents of the floating homes say they moved to Barnhill for the rare chance to actually live on the water, but they stay because of the great sense of community they find there.
“It is such a nice place to come home to,” says Angela McIntyre, 19-year-resident at Barnhill. “Even though we’re just feet away from dry land, it’s a different world. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to live.”
But houseboat communities like Barnhill — and its larger, more well-known cousin in Sausalito — are likely the last of their kind on the estuary or anywhere else on the greater San Francisco Bay due to ever-tightening marine environmental laws and the ever-escalating cost of shoreline property.
Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, created by the passage of the McAteer-Petris Act in 1965, legally considers the ornate and colorful floating homes to be “fill,” and the commission’s main goal — as buttressed by the act — is to stop or eliminate the filling in of the bay by human development. The commission did act to “grandfather” or exempt the existing houseboat communities, but officials say it is highly unlikely that any new such proposals would ever be approved by the powerful land and
bay water management agency.
“Living on the estuary in a houseboat may not be for everyone, but we do love it. We all look after one another, and we really enjoy spending time together as neighbors,” says Diane White, who with her husband, Bill, has lived at Barnhill since 2004. “You don’t always see that elsewhere.”
She added that for those who choose to live on the water, interacting with all the animals that also call the estuary home is a part of the deal. White says that they commonly encounter a wide variety of blue herons, pelicans and other sea birds with which they peacefully coexist — sometimes even sharing space on their airy patios. Harbor seals and bat rays are also common sights at the marina.
White says one night not too long after moving in, her husband got up from bed to investigate some noises coming from outside their lower master bedroom, which sits mostly below the waterline except for a large porthole–styled window.
“Bill looked out the window and staring back at him was a very curious harbor seal who wanted to know who was inside this house,” White says, laughing. “I think they kind of startled each other.”
Because it is so well protected from the much rougher wind and waves of San Francisco Bay proper, the estuary became a natural for the development of small-craft marinas. Indeed, counting Barnhill, there are a total of seven marinas on both sides offering space for thousands of sailboats and powerboats of all shapes and sizes.
The estuary these days is also home to San Francisco Bay’s last operating naval base, Coast Guard Island.
Formerly known as Government Island, the Coast Guard took over the 67-acre spit of dredged fill in 1926. Over the years, the place has served as the service’s West Coast boot camp, and it remains the homeport for some of its largest warships operating in the Pacific. Currently, the facility is homeport to three well-armed 378-foot Hamilton-class high endurance cutters and the newest cutter in the fleet — the 418-foot USCGC Bertholf, which is considered the service’s flagship.
In contrast to the mightiest vessels afloat on the blue waters of the Oakland estuary you can also find some of the smallest. Most every day the men’s and women’s rowing teams from the University of California, Berkeley, can be seen practicing on the estuary’s calm waters. The teams — some of which have gone on to Olympic glory — are based out of the spacious boathouse that sits on the waterway’s
Oakland side between the Park Street and Fruitvale bridges.
But for some, it takes a vessel even smaller than the sleek rowing canoes that the Cal teams use to really come to understand the estuary’s natural world. Borichevsky, the co-owner of the canoe and kayak company at Jack London Square, says the only way to come to truly understand the place is to get out on a kayak and explore the waterway at your own pace.
“The estuary is this big unique open space sandwiched between two cities. When you first get out there, you see the water and the shore and the birds and all the other animals from an up close and personal perspective. That’s a pretty special thing in my book,” she says.