My first thought when I heard the splash and saw something slimy part the water was, “Dear God, the fabled Lake Merritt Monster has returned!”
It was sunset and I was walking my dog Penny in one of the few secluded spots near the Lake we have left. My dog is afraid of strangers and lucky for us, the only signs of human activity we regularly encounter along the channel that connects Lake Merritt with the Oakland Estuary are the gobs of trash that drift into the Bay.
Usually, our company is limited to marshland birds. Double-crested cormorants spread their wings and stand like statues on old wood pier stumps. Egrets jerk their skinny legs along the muddy banks. Ducks and geese waddle their chicks back and forth. Black phoebes swoop past us or perch on the sad remains of park benches.
My heart raced as I looked past the birds and toward the water. I thought nothing could top the excitement we experienced here last fall when I scaled the floodgate to help a trapped egret. But this warm spring night was special.
The brackish water in the narrow channel between the Laney College parking lot and the Peralta Community College District office was so calm that it created a mirror image of the pastel yellow sky. That is, until something arched out of the water, spraying bursts of foam and sending tiny ripples our way.
This was my first marine mammal sighting in the East Bay. I emitted a mixture of whispers, gasps, and squeals. With one hand free, I frantically recorded some shaky video footage with my phone. I kept my other hand firmly gripped on my dog’s leash since it was her first time around an Oakland marine mammal, too. We watched the creature circle the channel a few times before it swam back out toward the estuary.
Watch video of the sea lion swimming toward Oakland’s Lake Merritt on YouTube and Vimeo.
Sea Lions aka the Dogs of the Sea
In the days that followed, I contacted three separate organizations to help me identify the creature in my videos. A consensus formed among the marine life experts. It was not the mythical Lake Merritt Monster but a sea lion that swam inland from the Oakland Estuary, passing under the Amtrak bridge and the Interstate 880 freeway overpass.
“It’s difficult given the video quality but based on size, shape, and swimming pattern, it appears to be a male, sub-adult or adult California sea lion.” explained Adam Ratner, Guest Experience Manager at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.
Ratner explained that unlike a pup or juvenile sea lion, a male sub-adult sea lion develops a crest in his skull at around three to four years of age, and it becomes more pronounced with age.
Nicknamed dogs of the sea, Ratner explained the similarities, “like dogs, sea lions bark, maneuver with long front limbs, and are very social.”
Since the rainy winter runoff may be making the Bay Area’s leopard sharks sick, I asked Ratner if the sea lion spotting was cause for concern.
“We can’t say for sure, but there are no alarming signs in the video that it may be hurt or injured. At that age, it is pretty normal for sea lions to venture out and explore. The fact that it realized it couldn’t continue and turned around to swim back out toward the Bay is a good sign that it is not disoriented,” he said.
Sea Life in Cities by the Bay
“Whether we live in the North, South or East Bay, we are so incredibly lucky that we’ve got so much sea life in our backyards as well as in the bay and the ocean. To be able to see and appreciate something like a sea lion living and swimming freely like that so close to a major city is a gift for Bay Area residents,” Ratner said.
He added, “The best thing anyone can do is when they see a marine mammal that may appear unusual, as if it could be sick or injured, is to report it to our hotline at (415) 298-SEAL. Our dedicated, highly-skilled team can assess its condition and, if necessary, safely transport it back to our hospital where we can nurse it back to health before returning it to the wild to give it a second chance at life.”
Ratner offered an important reminder for humans not to approach or feed marine mammals in the wild. If someone feels compelled to help an animal in need, “there are plenty of hungry seal and sea lion pups in the care of the Marine Mammal Center. If anyone wants to support rescue efforts, they should visit our website to donate money to buy fish for our hospital residents.”
Restoring Oakland’s Food Chain
It can be hard to fathom that before Spanish and American colonizers arrived in the Bay Area, Oakland’s watershed was once brimming with wildlife.
In Oakland’s infancy, the large tidal slough and estuary became the local sewer and waste collector. By the 1860s, then-mayor Samuel Merritt proposed redirecting sewage and damming the slough for recreation to create Lake Merritt. He also proposed designating the area a bird refuge to stop the noisy gunfire of duck hunters. Although the water of Lake Merritt remained polluted, city life and civic landmarks thrived in the area.
Fast forward to nearly 150 years after the slough was dammed, when 80 percent of Oakland voters passed the $198 million city park bond Measure DD in 2002. The grassroots effort was seeded by residents who fought the City’s attempt to sell the Lake’s southern parklands to the Catholic Church for development and submitted a counter proposal. Measure DD helps fund the community-driven Lake Merritt Master Plan which was designed to preserve the park for Oaklanders and restore the Lake’s connection to the Bay.
The projects funded by Measure DD include new trails, pedestrian bridges, and wildlife habitat restoration. At the heart of the measure was removing the 12th Street dam to return natural tidal flows and expand the public parkland into an amphitheater, which is now home to events like the annual Eastlake Music Festival and the epic Golden State Warriors 2015 NBA Championship celebration.
Thanks to Measure DD improvements, in addition to a rare river otter spotting, leopard sharks, bat rays, rainbow trout and small schools of smelt have all returned to the Lake in recent years.
What if the 7th Street/East 8th Street floodgate wasn’t in place? Would the sea lion I spotted continue its exploration all the way into Lake Merritt? Thanks to Measure DD, we may soon someday find out. Future phases of Measure DD include redesigning the 7th Street/East 8th Street bridge where I spotted the sea lion. The goal is to open up the channel wide enough to allow boats and wildlife to easily pass into and out of the lake.
College Students, Sea Lions, and Splash Hits?
As Oakland’s Measure DD projects carry on, soon Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics will be the last sports franchise left standing in East Oakland. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders will both be settled into flashier digs by 2020, leaving the entire Coliseum complex open for re-investment and re-design.
Despite the Coliseum’s ample parking and convenient proximity to BART, the owners of the Oakland Athletics and some of their fans have been scouting alternative locations closer to downtown.
It’s easy to envision kayakers paddling out to catch baseballs hit out of a new Oakland A’s ballpark, similar to the “splash hits” famous at the San Francisco Giants ballpark across the Bay.
A site near Oakland’s port, that has long ceased operations, called Howard Terminal, has been considered a strong possibility for a new A’s stadium. Located only a mile northwest of Jack London Square and downtown Oakland, Howard Terminal is walking distance from 12th Street BART and the Jack London Amtrak stations.
But more recently, an idea for a new A’s ballpark near Lake Merritt and Laney College has been bandied about. The team owners hired a research firm to conduct telephone polls about the site. (Full disclosure: this author received the telephone survey).
Even though the telephone survey referred to this second site as “Lake Merritt,” the proposal actually entails building a new stadium on land owned by the Peralta Community College District, along the narrow Lake Merritt tidal channel that connects the Lake to the Oakland Estuary.
There were two versions of the “Peralta Parcel” proposal originally circulating the local grapevine. The first involved building the stadium where relatively new Laney College Athletic facilities stand today at East 8th Street and 5th Avenue, which would force the student facilities to be rebuilt, across the street, closer to the Interstate 880 freeway where the administrative offices stand.
More recently, the site plan proposes leaving the student facilities as-is and erecting the stadium in space where the Peralta Community College District administrative offices are located, closer to the freeway overpass. This location is the exact stretch of shoreline where I stood and recorded a sea lion swimming at sunset on May 6, 2017.
Rooted in Oakland Regardless
While Mark Davis, heir to the Raiders empire, may be the most hated figure in Oakland major league sports right now, in contrast, Dave Kaval, the new Oakland A’s president is melting hearts all over town.
Since being appointed the new president, Kaval has made it clear that the team will reinvest in Oakland and its fanbase.
Kaval’s leadership feels long overdue. For most of the last decade, Oakland A’s fans have stayed true, despite neglectful team owners who behaved a lot like a stereotypical Oakland slumlord. Over the years, while team owners were courting the wealthier San Jose market for a new stadium, loyal fans were mostly ignored as the Oakland Coliseum languished in neglect and experienced mystery plumbing backups during games, sometimes even flooding the home team’s dugout.
But in classic Oakland underdog spirit, the A’s fan community embraced the Coliseum’s failing infrastructure with pride. Some fans brought toilet plungers, painted in the team’s green and yellow colors, to hoist in the air at games. One mystery fan even adopted the persona of the stadium’s plumbing and attends games dressed as Coliseum Sewage (you can follow him on Twitter @ColiseumSewage).
But since the arrival of Kaval, A’s fans have a lot to celebrate. Kaval has taken steps, big and small, to show the fans he is here for them. He even hosts weekly office hours to meet with fans and hear their suggestions.
Thanks to Kaval, the Coliseum now offers new amenities like food trucks and Wi-Fi. Kaval kicked off the 2017 season with the slogan “Rooted in Oakland” and a special ceremony dedicating the field to fan favorite Ricky Henderson. He has also announced that the A’s will choose their new Oakland ballpark location this year.
Kaval knows a lot about sports stadiums, too. Not only did he oversee the construction of the new Avaya Stadium for Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes, Kaval and a friend toured thirty Major League Baseball parks across the country in the 1990s for fun.
As if Oaklanders needed more proof that Kaval was accessible to fans, he also found the time to call me on a Sunday morning, a few hours before the last home game in the recent A’s vs. Red Sox series.
We kicked off our call by comparing notes on some of our favorite ballparks, including the old Tiger Stadium. Kaval made convincing arguments for the best and worst ballparks. “Probably my favorite of the newer stadiums is the Pittsburgh Pirates PNC Park. It’s perfectly situated along the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers, with a spectacular view of the downtown skyline, and the Roberto Clemente bridge painted in the team’s yellow.”
“My least favorite baseball stadiums are the ones built too tall and steep. Just like the consensus here that Mount Davis ruined the best part of the Oakland Coliseum,” Kaval said.
Mount Davis is a towering 20,000 seat section built onto the original Coliseum in 1995 in order to woo then Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis back to Oakland. The construction entailed ripping out the landscaping behind the popular outfield bleachers, removing the heart of the bleacher section, and blocking the iconic view of the East Bay hills.
“Mount Davis destroyed the ambiance and the Coliseum is an example of a park that got renovated it out of its prime. We looked into it and removing Mount Davis to restore the old Coliseum would cost $60million. Regardless of where we end up, we plan to reunite the bleacher creatures,” Kaval said.
Speaking of creatures, I explained to Kaval that my interview request was prompted by spotting a sea lion at the Peralta Parcel. Like me, Kaval was surprised to learn a sea lion could wander its way so close to Lake Merritt.
Given the two potential new ballpark sites are near the waterfront, I asked Kaval how the A’s might choose to navigate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the legal statute that requires state and local agencies to identify environmental impacts of big development projects.
“We’d probably take a similar approach to the Sacramento Kings and their arena process,” he said. ” We would work with State Assemblymen and an appeals panel to help us fast track the CEQA process.”
In 2014, in an effort to keep the NBA’s Kings from moving to Seattle, Sacramento city leaders partnered with team owners to build a new sports complex. Part of the process entailed lawmakers approving legal modifications to CEQA so construction timelines were compressed and the new arena could be built and open within two years.
This controversial fast-tracking approach can stymie environmental advocates because it limits the amount of time to review the impacts of a project and negotiate with developers for community benefits to offset any negative impacts.
Governor Jerry Brown developed first-hand frustration with the sluggish pace of CEQA reviews when he was the condo-building Mayor of Oakland and Brown has eagerly sought legal workarounds ever since. It’s highly likely that State legislators will happily fast-track any new A’s ballpark construction project.
MLB’s Calculus Points Away from the Coliseum
MLB teams across the country have been building new “retro classic” ballparks for about 20 years and Kaval cites troves of data to help gauge what makes a new stadium successful.
“We can look back at the data and know that parks adjacent to downtown centers, where a lot of people work and live, have proven to be successful models. And a more successful ball club means more jobs.”
But Kaval insists they haven’t made a decision yet because there are many pros and cons of the Coliseum site to analyze, too. It doesn’t fit the new MLB model because it is six miles south of downtown. But it is located next to the main transit corridors and near the airport. Plus, the Raiders leaving opens up even more potential real estate for development.
“In some ways, the Coliseum site is the easiest, least complex location, but it would only work if we could build a village around it,” Kaval said.
In contrast, both the Howard Terminal and the Peralta Parcel sites are near Oakland’s downtown and more in-step with the MLB’s new ballpark model.
“Howard Terminal is very sexy for its waterfront location,” Kaval said. But the site is wedged between the waterfront and Oakland’s active railroad lines and about a mile from the closest BART station. “The challenge is how to safely get people to and from the site. So we’ve been exploring the possibilities of a BART in-fill station or an AC Transit bus bridge.”
Kaval continued, “Each new ballpark site is being analyzed for ideal view corridors. The waterfront ballparks won’t be positioned to look at the San Francisco skyline because we can’t have the sun setting into hitter’s eyes. Both locations, the Howard Terminal and the Peralta Parcel, would have great views of downtown Oakland.”
When I asked if the “easier” Coliseum site might be cheaper to develop and would therefore equate to cheaper tickets for fans, Kaval didn’t hesitate to share the club’s intentions. “No matter where we go, we need to be affordable. We don’t want to lose our connection to the fans. The Oakland A’s have some of the most passionate, knowledgeable and excited fans in the league. We know we have to keep it affordable for them. And wherever we go, we have community projects planned.”
The New Oakland vs. East Oakland
As the City of Oakland continues to gain in popularity with newcomers and old Bay Area neighbors alike, it can be easy for longtime residents in East Oakland to feel forgotten and confused about what some have dubbed “The New Oakland.”
When researching this article, my East Oakland neighbors peppered me with questions and concerns. Anecdotally, it seems most East Oaklanders want the A’s to stay at the Coliseum on this side of town.
For all of the city’s rebranding efforts and recent growth, my neighbors wonder, what about sharing some of the New Oakland economic prosperity with residents who live east of the Lake?
So what if every other city builds new baseball stadiums near downtown? Isn’t Oakland loved for not being like everywhere else?
And why would the city leadership consider a stadium on the Lake Merritt channel when Oakland taxpayers have invested millions in deconstructing the over-development of the area and restoring the park wetlands?
Won’t the redesigned Coliseum village provide East Oakland with new jobs, dining, and entertainment opportunities, without creating downtown traffic snarls or disrupting a popular community college campus?
Most of all, my neighbors worry about the housing implications of a ballpark built in a new location. Who will get pushed out of the denser neighborhoods near Howard Terminal and Laney College? The majority of Oakland residents are renters, especially in West Oakland and Chinatown. Mounting fears of evictions and displacement are justified. Some believe if the A’s stay at the Coliseum, there would be an opportunity to build new, desperately needed housing, without displacing current Oakland residents, whether they live on land or in the water.
Plus, if Oakland A’s superfan Krazy George invented ‘The Wave’ in the concrete bowl of the Coliseum, what new lasting sports craze could the next generation of fans create here in East Oakland?
Don’t forget to watch the Oakland Voices video of the sea lion swimming toward Oakland’s Lake Merritt by Kat Ferreira on YouTube and Vimeo.
Lake Merritt is my favorite spot in Oakland.. I live in Michigan and come here to visit every year..
Love this piece! Awesome storyline!