Hood Design Studio, Splash Pad Park

Splash Pad Park: A Victim of Circumstance

by Ken Katz

As I’ve mentioned several times previously, I’m planning to retire at the end of the year. So, unless someone steps up to the plate (which would be wonderful!), the December issue of the Splash Pad News will be our last. 

What I haven’t mentioned is that I also plan to give up my title (which I’ve held for the past twenty years) as the official Splash Pad Park Steward. Based on the current status of the park’s infrastructure, you might conclude that I’ve done a pretty lousy job, since the fountain isn’t working and the supports for the wood deck where Anfilo Coffee sets up on Saturdays rotted out many years ago, posing a major tripping hazard. The same can be said for a buckled section of the asphalt roadway that bisects the park. In addition, almost all the spotlights illuminating the freeway pillars on Grand are inoperative. Not as evident, but far more crucial in the long run, is that one of the Names in Lights panels in the plaza is gradually subsiding, as are the adjacent pavers. 

Although I feel personally responsible for some of these issues, the park is actually a victim of circumstance that began circa 2001, when landscape architect Walter Hood was drawing up plans for the new park. The city, recognizing that they had too few gardeners, requested that the plans minimize the necessity of ongoing landscape maintenance. As a compromise, the Splash Pad group was given a lengthy ten-foot-wide bed in which we planted a California native plant garden.

The number of gardeners city-wide has actually increased slightly in the interim but pales in comparison to their numbers fifty to sixty years ago when Lake Merritt alone boasted twenty-seven full-time gardeners. Now there are two, plus some part-timers who max out after 1,000 hours per year. During the same period, the Rose Garden had seven full-time gardeners. Now there’s just Christian Boyle and one assistant, but their responsibilities now also include Mandana Green and Splash Pad Park.

As a result, all three locations depend heavily on volunteers to maintain the landscaping. At Splash Pad, Mary Jo Sutton has been in charge of volunteers for about a decade and, under her supervision, the size of the California native garden has doubled in size. For Earth Day, some thirty volunteers showed up thanks to Beatie Street Preschool and Bowles Place residents, but the average turn-out for the regular 4th Sunday work days is four to six volunteers. 

As for the Rose Garden, it was a total disaster circa 2000—so much so that Mary Ellen Navas, who led a neighborhood beautification group, recommended it as the site for that year’s Earth Day event. When City Gardener Tora Rocha was later put in charge and subsequently promoted to Park Supervisor, the Rose Garden underwent a total transformation. The crowning touch was Tora’s decision to describe the volunteers as “Dedicated Deadheaders” who earned tie-dyed vests. This is a hard-core group of about a dozen active volunteers led by Jane Bicek. They work regularly on Wednesdays from 10-2; second Saturdays 10-2; and Monday evenings in summer 4-7. Royal Krieger, the park’s rosarian, works most afternoon’s until dusk. When asked if there was a potential successor in the wings, Jane replied, “Nobody wants my job!”

As for Lake Merritt, in 2010, Jennie Gerrard (formerly Pat Kernighan’s Chief of Staff) and Joel Peter (who supervised Measure DD construction) formed the Lake Merritt Weed Warriors, which primarily focused on the newly installed landscaping. Currently, they have several hundred volunteers on their email list, but fifteen is a typical turnout for their Saturday work days. Two months ago, Jennie and Joel posted a retirement announcement on their website titled, “Is it Goodbye for the Lake Merritt Weed Warriors?” After what may (or may not) have been their last work day this past Sunday, Jennie emailed us to say that they do have someone interested in assuming leadership but won’t know for sure for a couple of weeks. 

The circumstances at Lakeside Gardens were and are substantially different due to the fact that it’s fully fenced; closed at night and far less prone to the littering, vandalism and proximity to homeless encampments that plague Splash Pad, Lake Merritt as a whole and to a lesser extent the Rose Garden. That made it far more attractive to the various non-profit groups that stepped into the breech created by waning City resources about fifty years ago. A marvelous article by Nancy Swearengen on the Pacific Horticulture website describes the decline of the gardens in the late 2000s. Here’s a brief excerpt:

In the late 1950s, a coalition of garden clubs and plant societies developed and built the Oakland-East Bay Garden Center. Upon completion, the building was donated to the City of Oakland with the understanding that the coalition would be able to use it in perpetuity for meetings and other activities. Later, the various groups took on the task of landscaping the seven-acre site. The gardens flourished for many years under the care of sixteen city gardeners. However, by the late seventies and eighties, membership in many formal garden groups waned and, little by little, the city’s resources were directed elsewhere. Inevitably, many of the garden plots were neglected, and the appearance and appeal of the Gardens declined.

In response, the Lakeside Palmetum was dedicated in 1986, while the Bonsai Garden opened with the magnificent Mas Imazumi Gate as its entrance thirteen years later. Discussions about a Mediterranean garden began in 1999 and came to fruition in 2008. Two years later, as noted previously, Tora Rocha became the Park Supervisor and did something similar to what she started at the Rose Garden but in spades. She created the Autumn Lights Festival that’s raised millions of dollars to fund Lakeside Gardens and co-founded the Pollinator Posse. Rocha was also the inspiration for the Friends of Lake Merritt Gardens and their website, which currently lists thirteen different gardens managed by distinct non-profit entities that rely on members and volunteers with minimal, if any, city involvement. 

Thus far, we’ve been talking primarily about gardening—a natural fit for volunteers. That’s not the case when it comes to other skilled trades in the Public Works Department that fall under Facilities Services—namely electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, and so forth. We spoke briefly with Martin Tovar, a city Construction and Maintenance Supervisor. He said that in order to meet the ongoing demand for their services, they’d need at least a 35% bump in staffing. Currently, there are only two plumbers, two carpenters, and three electricians serving the entire city, which encompasses several hundred buildings and, according to the Trust for Public Land, 163 parks. The one bright spot, according to Tovar, is that the number of painters is about to be upped from four to seven. On the other hand, the most recent chart detailing who works where includes an alarming number of positions that are simply marked “vacant.”

This brings us full circle to our initial summation of some of the ongoing infrastructure issues at Splash Pad Park. The most serious is a 1.5-inch irrigation line running beneath the plaza that was damaged while excavating a large hole for one of two Queen Palms that were moved to the park from the pedestrian plaza at the corner of Lakeshore and Lake Park. The July 2012 photo on the left shows the two new palms, behind which is a large hole filled with two feet of stagnant water and roped off with caution tape. Shortly thereafter, a relatively new irrigation supervisor (no longer with the city) opted to backfill the hole without making repairs, figuring that it was too big a job to tackle.

Three years later, I filed a complaint about a tripping hazard in the plaza—not realizing at the time that the ledgers supporting the decking had rotted out due to water that was regularly gushing up from deep underground. Due to staffing shortages, as well as Covid, it took seven years to make the necessary repairs and that was only thanks to Martin Tovar personally working on a Sunday in pouring rain along with members of his staff, Christian Boyle and community volunteers. As mentioned previously, the nearest Names in Lights panel and adjacent pavers are also gradually subsiding due to erosion downhill from the break. Six months ago, I personally raised about fifteen of the pavers that had sunk to the point that farmers market shoppers were tripping and falling on a regular basis. This is just one example of what I like to call “involuntary servitude”—namely, any situation in which volunteers feel obligated to pitch in even if they’d prefer not to. If the break isn’t fixed, conditions will continue to deteriorate. 

Other Splash Pad issues are far less problematic. The small section of decking where you can sip Ethiopian Coffee on Saturdays could be easily removed and replaced by volunteers if and when a Public Works crew has time to install new ledgers and the cost would be extremely minimal. 

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the blue uplighting at the foot of the freeway pillars on Grand Avenue. All eight were upgraded two years ago thanks to grant funding obtained by Council President Nikki Bas for new lighting in the entire park. Within a year, almost all the lights were intentionally broken. Even if funding and staff were readily available, it makes no sense to repair them until (and if) homeless encampments in the area become a thing of the past. 

In much the same way, the guy who stole two bronze plates from the wall behind the fountain in order to make a few bucks from the sale of scrap metal is the reason it’s no longer operating—much to the disappointment of everyone, but especially the kids who love to splash in it during warm weather. With the lack of adequate staffing, there’s no guarantee it will be up and running anytime soon.  In this instance, repairs make perfect sense since the cost of materials will be minimal and the likelihood of this happening again is highly unlikely since it’s the first time this has happened in twenty years.  Moreover, OPD confronted the culprit and has his ID.

As for the Splash Pad landscaping, as mentioned in last month’s News, someone did significant damage to the California native garden over a two-week period by trampling large areas to the ground, breaking multiple tree limbs, and uprooting at least half a dozen mature shrubs. For Mary Jo Sutton, this garden has been a labor of love for the past decade. Even though she was quick to say, “We can plant new plants and they will grow,” the vandalism had to really hurt. To complicate matters further, due to decreased volunteer turnout during the pandemic, combined with all the rains earlier this year, the weeds are taking over. Five volunteers showed up for the July workday and a tremendous amount of work got done, which made a huge difference. Unfortunately, it’s likely going to take twice that number through autumn to catch up and, as has become obvious, there’s a very big demand for volunteers and only a limited number available. 

Before concluding, we need to mention the “Best of the East Bay” Farmers Market on Saturdays. The market’s presence does impact the park infrastructure to some extent, as evidenced by grease stains in the plaza and bald spots in the turf. During the pandemic and, more recently, due to the transition to a new Market Manager, we’ve more or less turned a blind eye, but it’s time to revive the Farmers Market Advisory Committee that’s been inactive since Jerry Barclay resigned as Chair last year. It’s the ideal means of dealing with issues such as these but also as a way to strengthen ties between the market and the neighboring community—especially Grand Lake businesses.

To summarize our major conclusions:

  • Over multiple decades, city administrators appear to have been systematically reducing the number of hands-on employees in the Public Works Department. We’re not sure whether that’s been as a cost-saving measure or a way to increase staffing elsewhere. Either way, (to cite one example) the Tree Division with ten staff members (about half of what they had previously) now mostly removes dead trees and fallen limbs. If you want to plant a new street tree or have one that needs pruning, you’re pretty much on your own.
  • In much the same time frame, the City has been systematically divesting itself of properties they lack the resources to maintain as was the case with the Gardens at Lake Merritt, but it applies as well to major properties including the Camron Stanford House, the Dunsmuir House, the Oakland Zoo, the Kaiser Convention Center, and lots more. Maybe that’s perfectly OK but we would have hoped that some of the funds that were being saved would have been used to hire more support staff in the Public Works Department. 
  • Locations that aren’t fenced in and secure—such as Splash Pad, Lake Merritt, and, to a lesser extent, the Rose Garden—will be particularly vulnerable if volunteer leaders can’t find replacements and as volunteers who are primarily in their sixties and above age out.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Splash Pad Park: A Victim of Circumstance — Part Two published on September 1 can be accessed via this link.


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6 responses to “Splash Pad Park: A Victim of Circumstance”

  1. Thank you Ken for all you do! Oakland peeps really don’t know how lucky we are having you and all other volunteers to make Oakland beautiful! Thank you! Thank you!

  2. Francesca Austin Avatar
    Francesca Austin

    Thank you Ken Katz for keeping Splashpad Park and the Lakeshore area in our local news for 20 years! It’s a big job and you’ve mustered a lot of energy to do it and do it well. During the timeframes you mention where there has been a decline in city departments whose job it is to maintain gardens and park structures, I can’t help but think how much the cost of living has gone up necessitating many couples and parents to work two or three jobs to stay afloat. This makes it ever more difficult to volunteer. And as we older volunteers falter due to retirement or infirmity, YES we need younger and more energetic community minded residents to jump in. We were talking about this at the National Night Out event this week. So true all over our no longer so fair city as well as in other locales I’m sure. Thank you for your service to the community.

  3. Susan Montauk Avatar
    Susan Montauk

    As past chair of Oakland Parks Coalition I was privileged to work with park steward Ken Katz for many years. His dedication to Splashpad Park, his efforts to keep it maintained properly by Public Works, his work with his volunteers and his thorough survey report each year is what has sustained this park since its inception. It will be hard to fill his shoes but it is crucial that someone step up to the plate. A gem like Splashpad Park must not be neglected by Public Works but it will take a dedicated leader to ensure that that does not happen.

  4. David Cohen Avatar
    David Cohen

    Eventually, someday over the rainbow, the Oakland City Government has to start talking about increasing its revenue.

  5. Joanne Devereaux Avatar
    Joanne Devereaux

    Thank you Ken for your enduring leadership with Splash Pad News and the Lakeshore community.

    We are weary residents. It is hard to rally enthusiastic volunteers when the City of Oakland does not maintain basic services. We run up and down these frustrating topics year after year. The Farmer’s Market has been a positive draw to our community for over twenty years. Currently, it is gut wrenching to witness the homeless encampments shifting from end to end surrounding Splash pad.
    People often step up and volunteer when they feel part of a solution. When Oakland, where many of us pay taxes, does more we may see more involvement by residents. Until then, I’ll be taking care of my own garden and stop trying to solve enormous problems that our elected officials have kicked around for years.

  6. Thanks, Ken, for spotlighting the reliance on volunteers striving to maintain our parks.. Your volunteer leadership at the Splash Pad Park has been invaluable. Your efforts aside, there is so much more OPW must do to restore Splash Pad Park. The same is true at the parkland surrounding Lake Merritt, which doesn’t receive the maintenance equal to its use. As you and I retire from leadership, we can only hope for energetic, committed people to pick up the charge on behalf of these important parks.