Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Opens This Fall in Alameda

Some 20 years in the making, it’s the city’s largest park.


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Some compare the new Jean Sweeney Open Space Park to Golden Gate Park or Central Park.

Photo courtesy of Joe Woodard

Many Alamedans have long anticipated the opening of Jean Sweeney Open Space Park, so when Recreation and Parks Director Amy Wooldridge opened the 27-acre construction site for public tours on Aug. 4 and 9, hundreds attended.

Wooldridge was pleased but not surprised by the community’s high turnout on both days. Prior to the tours, over 1,200 people submitted online surveys voicing their input on what the park should include, and ongoing planning meetings welcoming public input had been full.

“Jean Sweeney Open Space Park holds a special place in this community. I get a lot of questions about how it’s going or when it’s going to open. It was wonderful to step back from the team’s daily work effort in construction to hear positive feedback and see people’s reactions,” Wooldridge said.

When the tours occurred, construction of the Cross Alameda Trail, a biking and walking path that runs the length of what will be a 23-acre park, from Sherman Street on the east to Constitution Way on the west, had been completed, along with the beginnings of a picnic pavilion, interior footpaths, sectioned-off gardens, and one of two natural playgrounds. Visitors could stand on the highest point of the park, an 18-foot hill where a 10-foot lookout will be built to observe the surrounding area and the San Francisco skyline.

Even at this early stage, the park brought strangers and friends together in a relaxing and peaceful environment. Residents introduced themselves and held conversation, kids ran together in groups, dog owners led happy pooches, and bicyclists rode the paved path. Others stood quietly on the observation hill, watching the sky turn pink.

As Woodridge led the weekday tour, pointing out what will be the park’s upcoming highlights, from the mud puddle with sand in the natural playground to the community garden to be placed near a free library seed bank and tool-lending library, the kids responded with “how cool is that?” while adults sought to be placed on the list for a garden plot.

Wooldridge said that due to high demand, plots will probably be assigned by lottery once construction of the west side, where the community garden will be, is underway. In addition to the various gardens, the park will consist of five categories voted on by the public: biking/walking trails, picnic areas, natural-based playgrounds, open lawn areas, and natural open space.

Dorothy Freeman, board member and treasurer of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Fund, a nonprofit that provides the public with information about the park and has been instrumental with volunteer and fundraising assistance for the park to the Alameda Recreation and Parks Department, said the categories were the same ones that dedicated Alameda resident, mother, and elementary school teacher Jean Sweeney herself had wanted.

Jim Sweeney, who was Jean’s husband, corroborated his late wife’s vision. “Jean’s dream was for this to be a park for families. After a hard week on California freeways, it’s a place you can go to relax and meditate and take your children to hike in the trails.”

As one walked out into the center of the park, which is not visible from the street, the sound of traffic faded away, replaced by the chirping of birds — an unexpected quiet in the middle of an urban area and a rare commodity open-space advocates worked hard to preserve.

The park’s storied history spans two decades, beginning in 1998 when Jean Sweeney found inspiration in the middle of the empty railroad yard. According to Jim Sweeney, as soon as she learned about the land, she immediately wanted to go out and look at it in person. Once there, she knew it had to be a park.

Jim Sweeney said, “She asked the railroad to donate the park — which is typically Jean. She was very easy to get along with. They laughed.”

Already active in numerous Alameda clubs and committees, Jean Sweeney rallied voter support to rezone the land as open space. While some felt doing so would be costly for the city, the Initiative to Rezone Belt Line Railroad Yard to Open Space passed by a clear majority in 2002.

Photo courtesy Joe Woodard

The public tours of the new park in August were a big hit with Alamedans.

After years of researching legal ownership of the land, in 2003, Jean Sweeney unearthed the original 1924 contract that granted the city of Alameda the option to repurchase the Alameda Belt Line from the railway company at the original price. She gathered boxes of legal documents for the city in what Jim describes as a six-year David versus Goliath litigation process against the railroad, which planned to sell the land to developers. Even after the city was able to repurchase the land in 2009, those who were allied with Jean Sweeney, such as Freeman and Jim Sweeney, continued working tirelessly behind the scenes to keep funding from falling through and prevent ballparks and a swim center from being built on the park.

“An open space park is different from active parks,” Doug DeHaan, board member and co-chairman of the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park Fund, said. “That’s what voters voted on.”

So rather than having activities spread throughout the park, final designs for the park will keep the picnic ground, playgrounds, gardens, an outdoor classroom, and an original Alameda Belt Line railroad building refurbished by volunteers on the east and west ends of the park, while the center will remain open. 

Overall, Alamedans have been on the same page when it comes to supporting the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park’s fruition. According to DeHaan, the community stepped forward to advocate for the park every step of the way, so that from a political standpoint, the only choice was to move forward.

“We’re very proud of the work we do. We’ve gone through all these phases, and yet we’ve been on track. The mission was always the same. [Alameda residents] want the park to succeed in every way. It’s a win-win situation,” DeHaan said.

According to the city’s website, $6.5 million has been raised for the park thus far, enabling the current phase of construction to be completed.

Freeman said she anticipated that the benefits of what she described as the Central Park and Golden Gate Park of Alameda will extend far beyond Alameda itself. “This won’t just be an Alameda park,” she said. “It will be a Bay Area park, with something for everyone to come spend a weekend.”

Wooldridge added that Alameda’s park system, the third largest in the state behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco, is unique in that it consists of several small neighborhood parks. “Every Alamedan is approximately a 10-minute walk to a park. Adding Jean Sweeney park, which is bigger with different amenities, really augments and enhances our park system,” Wooldridge said.

Jean Sweeney Open Space Park is expected to open in October or November, when visitors can enjoy the Cross Alameda Trail and the eastern amenities, including parking, restrooms, a picnic pavilion funded by the Rotary of Alameda, which Jean Sweeney was once a part of, and a playground funded by the Alameda Kiwanis and Alameda Community Fund. All the benches will be in place, sponsored by members of the community to raise money for the park. The rest will be undeveloped open space until the city secured the $12 to $14 million of funding needed to complete construction.

Jean Sweeney passed away in 2011 at the age of 72. While she never got a chance to see the park at this stage, she will be there in spirit. “Jim helped Amy work on a sign to honor Jean,” DeHaan said. “Of all the parks in Alameda, this is by far the largest, and it carries an individiual’s name that is very significant.”

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