East Bay little leaguers could have five new playing fields by 2007, after the State Department of Parks awarded $2 million in grants Tuesday for the Gilman Street Playing Fields in Berkeley.
“This is a huge deal for us,” said Doug Fielding, chairman of the Association of Sports Field Users. “The grant lets us serve about 90,000 more people a year.”
Before the state grants came through, the East Bay Regional Park District, which owns the 16.5-acre plot, had $3 million in grants for the project—enough to build two artificial turf soccer fields by next year.
Fielding said the extra $2 million meant that by spring of 2007 Berkeley could now build out the entire park: the two soccer fields, two grass softball fields and one grass baseball diamond. He added that another million would be needed to build a field house with bathrooms.
But Roger Miller, Berkeley’s manager for the field project, cautioned that rising construction costs might prevent the city from building all the fields right away.
“We have to talk to our architect and see what can be built for $5 million,” he said.
The entire project was originally budgeted at $6 million, but Miller said the estimates have risen as construction costs have surged. “Unfortunately what we’ve seen in the city is that when bids come in they’re way over the estimates,” he said.
The fields are planned for the area just south of Gilman Street, along Frontage Road. East Bay environmentalists have backed developing fields as part of a compromise that kept playing fields out of the newly formed Eastshore State Park.
“This is a win-win situation for everybody,” said Norman La Force of the Sierra Club’s East Bay Public Lands Committee. “We’re getting recreation that we need and better habitat protection as well.”
The Sierra Club is working on a plan with the regional park district to set aside 10 acres further north at the Albany Bulb for owls that burrowed at the Gilman site.
The proposed fields appeared at risk last year when the park district lost out on a $2.5 million state grant for the project. The $2 million it received this year was part of the state’s final allocation of money for public parks from Proposition 40, passed by voters in 2002.
“This was the last big train of money for sports fields that’s passing through California,” Fielding said. “If we hadn’t gotten the grants we’d be stuck with two artificial soccer fields beside a nicely graded weed patch for a number of years.
Fielding expects the five new fields to attract a total of 150,000 users annually. With 21 fields, Berkeley is squeezed for space, said Fielding, whose organization manages the fields. He said new athletic groups must wait at least six months for field space.
“The shortage of field space doesn’t keep kids from playing, but it limits access, it forces too many kids onto one field, and it keeps us from doing outreach,” he said.
The prospect of a baseball field at Gilman won’t stop his organization’s drive to put a regulation-sized diamond at Derby Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, he added.
The Berkeley City Council is scheduled to vote next week on approving an environmental report for Gilman project. As the lead agency, Berkeley is managing construction of the fields and will then seek to turn over management to an outside organization, such as Fielding’s group. To help pool grant money, Berkeley entered into a Joint Powers Agreement with Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito and Richmond. Those cities will also have access to the new fields.