Undoing the 1950’s

The Death and Revival of Lake Merritt

Alameda Magazine – August 31st, 2011

On a warm July day in 1949, the shores of Lake Merritt played host to a collision of faith and folly. Down near 12th Street, crowds gathered for a “Freeway Fiesta” to celebrate the opening of the $17 million Frickstad Viaduct. The 12-lane roadway, with its on-and-off ramps, median strips and underground pedestrian tunnels, was a marvel of concrete and asphalt that widened the span over the inconvenient channel connecting Lake Merritt to the ocean. As music played and massive amounts of barbecued ribs were consumed, prairie schooners, horse and buggies, Model Ts and the latest Studebakers and Buicks rolled over the futuristic roadway in a tribute to 
transportation and human ingenuity.

A few feet away from the revelry, though, scores of dead fish lapped up against the new retaining wall. Summer fish kills had become a regular occurrence in Lake Merritt  since 1939, when more than a ton of bass and smelt suddenly died, and the city was forced to hire trawlers and trucks to clear them all away. The lake’s waterfowl were faring no better. Ducks had succumbed by the dozens to the oil and raw sewage that oozed from storm drains into the lake, prompting the Oakland Park Board to warn that Lake Merritt’s famous bird population was threatened. One local woman summed up the situation in a letter to the Oakland Tribune: “The most beautiful and interesting feature of Oakland is in reality a reservoir for filth.” The viaduct, built to unclog traffic congestion at the southern end of the lake, was sadly fitting — Oakland’s “jewel” had become something best viewed from a car window.

What we know as Lake Merritt first entered the historical record as a tidal lagoon named the San Antonio Slough. Fed by three freshwater streams descending from the surrounding redwood-covered hills to the north, it was washed each day by the tides flowing in from its southern side through a wide, marsh-lined channel. The marshes teemed with waterbirds like herons and egrets, and the slough was simply an extension of the bay, a spawning and nesting refuge and a hunting ground so bounteous that the local Ohlone built their camps in the nearby oak groves of Trestle Glen. Later, when white settlers came to the area, the slough became a busy port for the three-masted schooners that sailed back and forth between lake and bay, transporting Oakland’s majestic redwoods to San Francisco to build houses.

From the earliest days of the city, however, Oakland settlers yearned for a way to cross the slough rather than traverse the extra 5 miles around it — often through mud and marsh. Developers were only too eager to make life easier for the throngs of immigrants and fortune-seekers arriving daily to California. Through a dubious business deal, Oakland’s first mayor, the avaricious Horace Carpentier, secured rights to build the first drawbridge across the channel — then charged “people, animals and items of cargo” to cross it. Soon after, plans were made to fill in and build on the channel. A county surveyor’s map from 1883 shows rows of small numbered plots superimposed neatly over the meandering marsh edges on either side of the channel. Over the decades, it slowly clogged with landfill, dams, homes, railroad tracks and streets. Tidal flow was essentially eliminated after a tidal gate was installed in 1926 to reduce the risk of floods. By the 1950s, Lake Merritt had become what its name implied — simply a lake. 

The biological effects of unimpeded development were enormous. In brackish environments like Lake Merritt, the daily flow of seawater brings fresh nutrients and stirs up waters to allow for better circulation of dissolved oxygen. This is vital for the sea life at the oxygen-poor lake bottom, which depends on good water circulation for survival. “Fish can leave the lake or go to shallow waters, but if you are a clam or mussel, you’re going to die,” says Richard Bailey, director of the Lake Merritt Institute, a nonprofit group created in 1992 to help protect water quality in the lake. “Clams and mussels can close for a while, but eventually they have to open up and breathe.” Limiting tidal flow also caused spikes in salinity and temperature. From the 1920s through the 1960s, when restrictions were loosened, Lake Merritt would be nearly freshwater in the winter (when tidal flow was shut down to reduce flooding) and nearly seawater in the summer, when feeder streams dried up and the tide gates were periodically opened. Despite the occasional shot of cool seawater, summer temperatures in Lake Merritt could climb higher than 80 degrees. 

Following a large flood in 1962, when 4.5 inches of rain fell in 24 hours and the lake rose 4 feet, new tidal gates were installed in the channel to fine-tune the tidal flow and allow a greater water exchange between lake and bay. The addition of aeration fountains in the mid-1990s also helped increase oxygen levels, but only within a small surrounding radius. These efforts, along with a burgeoning environmental awareness, helped increase water quality and reduce pollution in the lake. But none addressed the core issue: a channel that was one-twenty-fifth as large as it once was. Trying to get enough fresh ocean water into the lake was, as Bailey puts it, like trying to fill a bathtub with a straw. Thus it was no wonder when, in 1999, Lake Merritt earned the dubious title of “Impaired Body of Water” from the Environmental Protection Agency for its high level of trash and low level of oxygen.

One evening in 2001, a small group huddled around a dining room table in Oakland, studying an aerial photo of Lake Merritt. Members of a citizens’ group organized to protect the lake. They were worried about the city’s latest plan for the 12th Street area, which involved selling a large plot of land there which, aside from being seismically unsound, would further cut off public access to the lake. Wasn’t there a design that could increase public access, they wondered — and maybe even enhance the lake? Architect James Vann, a longtime Oakland resident and community activist, stepped forward. Placing a piece of tissue paper over the photo, he started to sketch. Within a few minutes, the 12-lane Frickstad Viaduct, that ponderous ’50s-era monument to the automobile, had slimmed to a sleek six-lane boulevard that arched gracefully over an open channel twice as wide as before. The new roadway was tree-lined and set far enough back from the water to fulfill the long-held dream of all Lake Merritt walkers, joggers, bikers and stroller-pushers — to have a continuous green trail around the lake. 

Vann and others in the organization he helped create, the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt, or CALM, began a successful two-year campaign to push their vision of a new 12th Street area and a renewed Lake Merritt. Working with the city, CALM came up with a series of projects to be funded by a bond measure. Measure DD is a potpourri of recreational improvement projects for Oakland that includes at its core the 12th Street plan that Vann drew that night. The $198 million measure, which passed by more than 80 percent in November 2002, doubles the lake’s tidal flow and opens the channel to greater travel by humans and marine life again. Kayakers and canoers will be able to paddle from lake to bay, pedestrian pathways will eventually connect to the San Francisco Bay Trail system and a small marsh area will be re-created for nesting birds. A 4-acre waterfront park will be built with land leftover from the viaduct, with an acre of salable land still available for a cash-strapped city.

Despite the measure’s popularity, there have been naysayers. In 2006, a citizen’s group sued the city unsuccessfully, protesting its planned destruction of trees in the viaduct’s median strip and the parking lot of the Kaiser Convention Center. Others have raised concerns about what might find its way into the lake once the channel is widened and opened. Container ships traveling to San Francisco and the Port of Oakland carry not just freight, they say, but invasive species that could potentially disrupt ecological balance. 

But surveys of plant and animal life in Lake Merritt show that the lake — as well as the Bay — has long been home to the occasional migrant and has nevertheless adapted. “It’s the same water flowing in and out,” reasons Joel Peter, manager of Measure DD projects for the city. “There will just be more of it.” 

As for the many changes drivers were confronted with when the new 12th Street bridge opened in August, Peter counsels patience. He admits that the reduction from 12 lanes to six will cause slower traffic, but he says that is one of the project’s goals. “We’re trying to calm traffic around the lake to bring it back to the original vision of a scenic boulevard,” he says. “We like to say we’re undoing the ’50s.”

Despite all the environmental goodwill behind the 12th Street project, Lake Merritt will never return to its earlier identity as a tidal slough, languidly washed by the ebb and flow of tides from the larger ocean to which it is connected by a watery cord. Oakland maps of the future, however, will appear to take a turn backward, leaping over the asphalt-heavy era of mid-20th century America to portray a city that is just that much more connected to the sea. 

For more information on the 12th Street project and other Measure DD work, visit www.waterfrontaction.org/dd


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