Category Archives: Cityscape

No. 49: Laney College

Laney College's small park straddles the estuary that feeds Lake Merritt.

Laney College’s small park straddles the estuary that feeds Lake Merritt.

“It’s beautiful out there, if you just accept the fact that it’s raining,” was how my partner summed up the morning. As the wettest week of the year drew to its close, I sought out a short, paved route: the small park that straddles the estuary feeding Lake Merritt.

Start on 10th Street, between the Laney College tennis courts and the child  care center. The half-mile loop drops below sidewalk level and follows the estuary, snaking past the art center and pool building. Landscaping is casual, but turned bright green by the rain. At Eighth Street, you’ll take a short detour up to street level, cross the estuary, and come down again next to the baseball court.

Several frankly generic pieces of modern sculpture guard the path on this side, and a complex of park benches in a stand of trees would be a shady spot to have lunch or take a break from class. The Lake Merritt trio of seagulls, coots and Canada geese is browsing in the grass; the coots, alarmed by the pedestrian, take off in a group, their stubby wings working frantically.

Once construction on 12th Street is finished, it should be easier to extend this walk along the lake. Future work on the channel will provide a better connection to Estuary Park and the Bay Trail.

Getting there: Laney College is on 10th Street near Oak Street. Bus and BART serve the campus, and street parking is free on Sundays and easily available when class is not in session.

More information: On the Laney College page.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: The Oakland Museum of California is across the street; Chinatown is within easy walking distance.

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No. 48: Claremont, Hillcrest Road, The Uplands, Plaza Drive and Parkside Drive

ginkgo trees, hillcrest road, berkeley

Ginkgo trees provide fall color along Hillcrest Road.

While the intersection of Claremont and College avenues is in Oakland, the neighborhood called Claremont is mostly in Berkeley. Hillcrest Road is about two-thirds of a mile from the Rockridge BART station — a pleasant enough walk in itself, along a commercial stretch of College and the broad, tree-lined and fashionable stretch of Claremont.

Chicken mailbox

Mailbox, The Uplands

For a 1.5-mile walk, start at Hillcrest and Claremont, heading uphill through a massive pair of stone pillars marking the neighborhood boundary. Two young ginkgos are covered in brilliant yellow leaves, and have shed a golden carpet over the sidewalk. As you climb, you pass an eclectic mix of brown shingled houses, Tudors and Mediterranean-style manors. It’s architecturally similar to the Trestle Glen neighborhood, but with a less-formal feel. You’re unlikely to find a rustic mailbox shaped like a chicken in Trestle Glen!

Hillcrest makes a sharp switchback as it climbs the hill. You could take a shortcut using The Steps, one of a half-dozen named pedestrian ways in the neighborhood, or stay on the sidewalk. California’s whimsical idea of “fall” means that, while you’ll pass flaming liquidambars and naked persimmon trees covered with brilliant fruit, you’ll also see roses and bougainvillia in full bloom.

I chose another passage, The Crossways, to cut downhill through a tunnel of trees to The Uplands. This street is popular with joggers and dog-walkers; it’s steep enough to provide a real workout. Turn left on El Camino Real and use The Cutoff, another pedestrian way, to drop down again to Plaza Drive. 

At this point, you have a choice: Turn left and use Plaza to return to Claremont Avenue, or right and use Parkside Drive. There is a mini-park at the corner of Plaza and Parkside, and a trail that threads the narrow median between Parkside and The Uplands. Both routes have their charms; the shingled houses along Plaza are especially lovely, but I also like the relatively modest bungalow on Parkside that has its own tiny polled-sycamore alley .

As you get close to Claremont Avenue and rejoin The Uplands, you will suddenly hear Claremont Creek chuckling beneath your feet. It comes above ground in the yard of a large white Victorian with a grapevine fence, then runs along Claremont Avenue down to Hillcrest. Perhaps drawn by the open water,  wild turkeys have been seen crossing Claremont in this block.

Getting there: Hillcrest Road crosses Claremont Avenue east of College Avenue and west of Ashby Avenue. Rockridge BART is about two-thirds of a mile away, and buses run along Claremont.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: Dark Carnival Bookstore, at Claremont and The Uplands, specializes in science fiction, fantasy and  mystery novels. Its narrow aisles and overstuffed shelves make it a unique shopping experience. The complete geek will want to visit The Escapist comic book store, two doors down. If you want more elevating literature, head uphill a few doors. Turtle Island Book Shop specializes in antiquarian and out-of-print books, and Afikomen carries books with Jewish themes along with other Judaica. Both Star Grocery and the Semifreddi bakery and cafe nearby sell refreshments.

More information/accessibility note: Claremont Avenue and The Uplands are accessible (although strenuous) for reasonably fit people using manual wheelchairs. Plaza and Parkside drives would make a short, nearly level loop. None of the pedestrian ways I saw was accessible; most are too steep and others use steps.

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No. 47: Piedmont Avenue

Piedmont Avenue, Oakland

Piedmont Avenue is lined with one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants.

The weather forecast was rain yesterday, rain today, rain tomorrow. If we were to get a walk in, the prudent thing would be to go somewhere it was possible to duck under cover if the rain became too heavy. Upper Piedmont Avenue, with its shops and cafes, fit the bill.

Piedmont Avenue, Oakland

Sidewalk cafes.

Start at Monte Vista Avenue, near Glen Echo Park. Bella Ceramica, on the corner, features pottery from Tuscany in brilliant, intricately painted patterns. It’s just one example of the one-of-a-kind gift shops and specialty stores along the charming, pedestrian-friendly street.

Are you crafty? A little uphill from Monte Vista is Piedmont Fabric, with its interesting and ever-changing selection of printed cotton and silk. A few blocks farther, at Sew Images, you can buy the machine and take the lessons to learn how to stitch it up. More of a knitter? Piedmont Yarn and Apparel can set you up. If you prefer your crafts ready-made, try Folks’ Art.

If it’s food that tempts you, Bar Cesar has tapas and cocktails. Ninna blends European and Asian flavors. Lo Coco’s has Sicilian style pizza and Messob serves Ethiopian. You can shop for bread at La Farine or wine at Vino. And if it’s dessert you’re after, have a scoop of ice cream at Fenton’s.

Piedmont Avenue is also rich in bookstores (three, plus a comic book store), antique stores and clothing stores. If you plan to observe “Plaid Friday” by shopping at small, independent stores, this would be a  good place to start.

Like the shops, the buildings on upper Piedmont Avenue are an eclectic mix. Deco-era tile fronts stand next to utilitarian mid-century storefronts and Victorians. If you tire of the commercial stretch, many of the side streets are pleasant, lined with neat bungalows. And if you want to sit a while and watch an independent film, the Piedmont Theatre has three screens.

Getting there: Parking is tight on Piedmont Avenue, but the area is served by buses.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: Besides everything listed here, Mountain View Cemetery is at the upper end of Piedmont Avenue.

More information: From the San Francisco Chronicle’s neighborhood pages.

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No. 45: Mandela Parkway

West End Commons, Mandela Parkway

West End Commons on Mandela Parkway, a neighborhood of townhouses built in 2005, won an award for best live-work design.

Built to replace a double-decked freeway that infamously collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, Mandela Parkway is a broad boulevard with a landscaped central strip that features a paved, accessible path. Running about 1.5 miles, from 34th Avenue to the West Oakland BART station on Seventh Street, the parkway passes modern live-work projects, artist studios, working industrial businesses and a few derelict lots.

Starting on the 34th Avenue end, you’ll soon pass the West End Commons, a group of townhomes whose European style and urban feel are typical of new construction in the area. A few blocks later, you pass Brown Sugar Kitchen, an upscale “New Soul” restaurant known for its comfort-food breakfasts. Even at 2 p.m. on a weekend, a dozen people are waiting on the sunny sidewalk for a table.

The Parkway itself is landscaped in ceanothus, toyon and various kinds of young oaks. It’s open and sunny — very sunny, so choose an overcast or brisk day for your walk.

Peralta Junction

Peralta Junction

I got sidetracked at the corner of West Grand Avenue and Mandela, where a group of artists that includes members of the Burning Man Project and the Crucible have set up a post-apocalyptic midway called the Peralta Junction (running Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 15, 2012).  In a triangular lot next to the Peralta Studios (more live-work space), a temporary village of craft stalls, food trucks, and carnival-style attractions surrounds an elaborate stage featuring live music.

Getting there: Mandela Parkway can be accessed from Seventh Street or from Hollis Avenue in Emeryville.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: There are a surprising number of circus-related schools in West Oakland. Trapeze Arts at Ninth and Pine streets has been teaching people to fly for almost 20 years.

More information: About archaeological finds while building the parkway from Sonoma State University.

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No. 44: Mills College

Mills College

Mills College was established by Christian missionaries at the end of the 19th century.

The first women’s college west of the Rockies, Mills has a small but spectacularly beautiful campus. The bell tower, library, student union and administration building were designed by Julia Morgan; the central alley, framed by double rows of enormous sycamores, looks like an idealized vision of campus life.

Fu dog at Mills College museum

Fu dog outside the Mills art museum.

Although the grounds are private, the campus offers several opportunities for the community to visit. The art museum is open daily except Mondays. In conjunction with its exhibit of dance-themed works by Karen Kilimnik, it is sponsoring a “Monday Night Tights” festival of films about ballet through Dec. 3. The music department, which has a tradition of supporting experimental musical forms, offers frequent concerts and lectures. And the aquatics center is open to “Friends of the College” (anyone from the community) during lap and recreational swim times, for a daily fee.

Walking along Richards avenue from the MacArthur Boulevard gate, you pass the chapel, designed in the 1960s by Warren Callister. Its wood-and-concrete exterior blends into the surrounding grove of trees; inside, it is a soaring, 14-sided space that manages to update yet echo the classic California Craftsman style.

On the same side of the street is concert hall, with its tile roof and intricate Spanish Mission details. Continue toward the end of the street and you’ll find the shockingly modern graduate business school, whose environmentally friendly features include a drought-tolerant native fescue lawn.

Turn left on Kapiolani Road to find the art museum, with its courtyard flanked by massive fu dog sculptures. Leona Creek runs through the grove of trees nearby.

Getting there: Mills College is at 5000 MacArthur Boulevard, near Highway 13.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: The Laurel District, along MacArthur Boulevard between High Street and 35th Avenue, has a number of cafes, restaurants, a bookstore, toy shop and hardware store.

More information: A campus map is available on the Mills website.

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No. 42: Uptown and Old Oakland Architecture

Fox Theater, Oakland

The Fox Theater is now home to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe and the Oakland School for the Arts.

This two-mile figure-eight loop takes you past some of the most distinguished commercial architecture in Oakland, as well as some of the hippest dining and nightclubbing neighborhoods. Times being what they are, you are also likely to see a few abandoned storefronts and street people.

If you want the route to yourself, walk early on a weekend morning. If you want to see the area at its liveliest, visit on a First Fridays Art Walk evening, when galleries between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue are open late, the bars are full of music, and the streets are full of people strolling from venue to venue. A daytime route will give you a chance to appreciate the finer architectural details, but the neon comes to life at night.

Starting at West Grand Avenue, walk down Broadway past the pale green Breuner Building, which has a classic Deco facade and a relief of two workers building a chair over the door. Since the furniture company abandoned it in the 1970s, it’s been used as office space for smaller concerns, including the California Genealogical Society.

A block away is the 3000-seat Paramount Theater, a lovingly restored picture palace built in 1931. Originally rescued by the Oakland Symphony in the 1970s, it now shows classic movies and hosts concerts and other special events. Although the outside is impressive — especially lit up at night — it is the inside that is truly astonishing. Almost next door is the I. Magnin building, a jewel box of brilliant green terra cotta and black marble.

Art Deco Clock. The Oaksterdam mural was painted over in December 2012.

Art Deco clock and the Oaksterdam mural, recently painted over.

Keep heading downtown and you pass through Oaksterdam, a neighborhood of medical marijuana dispensaries. Even on a Sunday morning, you might notice a slightly skunky smell. The Art Deco street clock at 16th and Broadway was recently restored, and makes a humorous counterpoint to the brilliantly-colored modernist mural across the street. (Update: The “Oaksterdam” mural was painted over in December 2012.)

Look up frequently, as most of the finest architectural details are above eye level:  glazed terra-cotta tiling, brickwork and elegant reliefs. Some shops have homely window displays and fading awnings beneath brilliant cornices and moldings.

After passing the remarkable Cathedral Building, a Gothic Revival sliver at the narrow vee of Telegraph and Broadway, you can catch a glimpse of Oakland’s Beaux-Arts City Hall through a gap between the Rotunda Building and the Lionel Wilson government office building. All three were built after the 1906 earthquake and had to be heavily renovated after Loma Prieta in 1989.

Continuing down Broadway past DeLauer’s Super News Stand, turn right on 11th Street into Old Oakland. These Victorians were part of the original downtown, when Seventh Street was the terminus of the Central Pacific. The ones on this block have an unusual courtyard below sidewalk level, protected by black iron fences and bridged by walkways to their front doors. The effect is very New York-ish.

Going right on Clay Street, you pass the back side of Swan’s Market, built as a regional shopping destination between World Wars I and II. It now houses several very good restaurants and the Museum of Children’s Art. Clay also takes you past some of Oakland’s newer architectural landmarks, including the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building. When it was finished in 1994, the public could visit the sky bridge between the twin 18-story towers. Security concerns now limit casual visitors to the rotunda.

Oakland City Hall

Oakland City Hall

Turn right again on 14th street, and walk through Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall. The enormous oak tree and lawn are recovering nicely from the effects of the Occupy Oakland protests. Continuing left up Telegraph, you re-enter Uptown and pass the Fox Theater with its lovely, intricate brick facade showing a Moorish influence. Like the Paramount, it is a venue for concerts and special events. It also houses the Oakland School for the Arts, a public magnet school. Across from the Fox is the Flower Mart building, dramatically tiled in midnight blue terra cotta with silver accents. The Uptown Nightclub has matched the facade with a vintage-looking neon sign in the shape of a guitar neck.

The next stretch of Telegraph includes a variety of new, refurbished, and built-new-to-look-old apartment buildings. Jerry Brown’s goal during his mayoralty in the early 2000s was to create living spaces for 10,000 new residents downtown. While there is still debate over how much credit Brown can claim, these new urban living spaces have had an indisputable effect in reviving the area.

It’s worth mentioning — and noticing — the 1911 brick YMCA Building, also known as the Hamilton Hotel, which was renovated into studio apartments in the 1990s.  And finally, at 22nd and Telegraph, the Romanesque First Baptist Church building. Damaged in the 1906 earthquake, it was renovated by Julia Morgan and is now in use by a Burmese congregation.

Getting there: Street parking is available but may be scarce during Art Murmur or other big events; two BART stations and a number of bus stops are on this route.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: Besides everything mentioned above, there are dozens of galleries between Telegraph and Broadway (listed at the Art Murmur site). Chinatown (which starts at 8th and Broadway) and Auto Row (Broadway above 27th) also have some interesting architecture and restaurants.

More information: About guided tours through Oakland Heritage Alliance here. About self-guided tours using a Chamber of Commerce map here.

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No. 40: The Gardens at Lake Merritt

Sensory garden, Lake Merritt

The sensory garden is planted with drought-tolerant Mediterraneans like lavender, rosemary, sage and citrus. The torii gate in the background was given by Oakland’s sister city, Fukuoka, in 1969.

This demonstration garden is worth a separate visit from your tour around the lake. Right now, the bee-and-butterfly garden is in full bloom and the edible and community gardens, just about ready for harvest.  (But please, if you didn’t plant them, don’t eat them!)  Photography students are everywhere, and easily finding  targets for their lenses.

Butterfly attractors

Butterfly attractors.

The garden is divided into sections, including a drought-tolerant sensory garden, Bay-friendly landscape, rhododendron, vireya, and palmetum. In the center, next to a series of cascades and pools, is a striking torii gate donated by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Fukuoka, Japan — Oakland’s sister city. The best picnic spot in the garden is nearby, claimed by two young families.

Behind the torii gate is a shady citrus garden and a splendid crescent of succulents and cacti. Turn a corner, and you are suddenly in a formal Italian-style garden that complements the cherub-covered Easterbrook Fountain. The landscaping is such that the garden seems larger than it actually is, a series of outdoor rooms, each with its own personality.



Unfortunately, the bonsai garden has shorter weekend hours and was still locked up during my morning visit. A number of us pressed our eyes to cracks in the fence to try to get a glimpse anyway.

On Oct. 13, the Autumn Lights Festival fundraiser will fill the garden with fire, light and sound works by local artists. It being the Bay Area, food trucks will provide refreshments.

Getting there: The Gardens at Lake Merritt are at 666 Bellevue Avenue, near Children’s Fairyland and the Lake Merritt Boating Center. The 20th Street BART station is a moderate walk away.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: This is a very family-friendly corner of the lake: Besides Fairyland, the Rotary Nature Center and playground are nearby. Grand Avenue is lined with cafes and restaurants; Los Cantaros restaurant and taqueria and Bacheeso’s are within walking distance and offer views of the park.

More information: About the festival and the gardens from the Gardens at Lake Merritt volunteer organization.

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No. 39: Morcom Amphitheater of Roses

Hybrid tea rose "Gentle Giant"

The hybrid tea rose “Gentle Giant” has saucer-sized blooms.

“Roses are beauty, but I never see/ those blood drops from the burning heart of June/ glowing like thought upon the living tree/ without a pity that they die so soon.” —John Masefield, 1878-1967.

The Bay Area may be cruel to rose lovers in some respects: The same gentle climate that rarely sends the canes into true dormancy can also be kind to diseases like blight and rust. On the other hand, with  modern varieties, rosarians easily extend June’s burning heart through late summer.

And even though the first day of fall was Thursday, the Morcom Amphitheater roses were still glowing like thought today. The formal beds are grouped by kind and color, which can range from the traditional yellows, whites and reds to a pale orchid-pink with bronze-edged buds (“Love Potion”). My favorites are the more showy mixtures — like “Gentle Giant” or “First Kiss.”

Mother of the Year walk

Tree roses and formal beds flank the Mother of the Year Walk.

I made a figure eight through the garden, taking in both the lower beds and those at the head of the cascade. You could extend your walk along Jean Street and Wildwood Avenue, or climb the stairs to the rear of the amphitheater and walk along Monte Vista Avenue.

Getting there: The amphitheater is at 700 Jean Street, about a block from Grand Avenue.

Cool stuff nearby: The Grand Lake Ace Hardware garden center, at Jean and Grand, has a nice selection of native plants. There are also numerous restaurants, cafes and businesses along Grand.

More information: From the Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden.

Accessibility note: The bottom of the Rose Garden bowl is paved and accessible from Jean Street. Access to the upper tiers involves steps or steep grades.

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No. 37: Glen Echo Park to Oak Glen Park, Monte Vista Avenue, Piedmont Avenue and Richmond Boulevard

Glen Echo Park

Glen Echo Park is an inconspicuous pocket of native plants alongside Glen Echo Creek.

When Oakland was under development, most of its creeks were seen as nuisances to be diverted into culverts and buried underground. In the last half of the 20th century, Oaklanders started to realize that preserving the creeks was a way to protect natural diversity as well as enhance our neighborhoods.

Hundreds of residents will turn out for Creek to Bay Day  on the third Saturday of September — Sept. 15 this year — cleaning up trash, pulling invasive weeds and planting natives along the city’s creeks. On the list of work sites are some parks so small, they may have escaped notice of anyone not living in the area.

Glen Echo Park, for example, is less than two blocks long, straddling Monte Vista Avenue just east of Piedmont Avenue. To the north, it’s a well-maintained grove of natives with a few rough-hewn stones that could serve as stools for watching the creek. To the south, the park narrows still further to just a trail under some young redwoods.

glecnechooakglenAnother section of Glen Echo Creek is open just a few blocks away, but to reach it, you’ll have to return to Piedmont Avenue, cross MacArthur Boulevard, and jog left one short block to Richmond Boulevard. Oak Glen Park is a wide median of laurel and oak trees that actually passes under Interstate 580. Unfortunately, there is no way to actually walk through most of the park — the exception being a wood-chip lot under the freeway that serves as an unfenced dog park, and a surprisingly lovely pergola and concrete bridge at Croxton Avenue that allow you to linger over the creek. This park may seem more lush than Glen Echo, but that’s because invasive vines are choking out the natives. One hopes volunteers will be taking care of that in a week.

The walk between Glen Echo and Oak Glen gets a B- for esthetics — the lower end of Piedmont, which passes the Kaiser Hospital garage, is interesting, but not particularly attractive. If you want a prettier walk, follow Monte Vista uphill from Glen Echo, past some lovely, large Victorian and Mediterranean houses and some architecturally undistinguished modern apartment buildings. A block past the crest of the hill, you’ll find the Morcom Rose Garden, which is now in full bloom.

Getting there: Glen Echo Park is at Piedmont and Monte Vista Avenues. Oak Glen Park is on Richmond Boulevard between Warren and Randwick Avenues. Piedmont Avenue is well-served by public transit.

Cool stuff in the neighborhood: Want a hot soak, a sauna or a massage? Piedmont Springs is nearby. You also can get an ice cream cone from Fenton’s Creamery (made famous by the movie “Up”) or dine with the carnivores at Bay Wolf, home of the prix fixe “whole hog” dinner.

More information: About Glen Echo Creek and the parks is available from the Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League.

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No. 36: Jack London Square, Bay Trail to Estuary Park

Jack London Square

Couples find this stretch of the Bay Trail to be a pleasant spot for spending a sunny afternoon.

Starting at the ferry terminal at the end of Clay Street is a well-maintained one-mile stretch of the Bay Trail, using boardwalks, sidewalks and decomposed granite paths to reach Estuary Park and the Jack London Aquatic Center. The sound of boat horns and the occasional rumble of a passenger train pulling into the Amtrak station nearby give this walk an exhilarating feel, as if at any moment you could step off for the Yukon or the South Seas.

Before you head north, take a moment to gawk at the Potomac, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s yacht, which is docked near the ferry berth and the Lightship Relief, another historical vessel. Then continue along the waterfront, following the boardwalk around the Waterfront Hotel, Miss Pearl’s cajun restaurant and Scott’s seafood restaurant. All the restaurants were doing good business on this sunny holiday weekend. In fact, there were so many people in the square, it was hard to understand why so many retail spaces were empty.

Heinolds, Harvest Home

Heinold’s First and Last Chance.

At the north end of the square, the new Harvest Home market building dwarfs Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, the bar where Jack London met the model for his Sea Wolf. The log cabin in front of Heinold’s was reconstructed from half of one that London stayed in while prospecting in the frozen north. (The other half went to build a similar monument in Dawson.) A public viewing platform shaped like a lighthouse gives you an opportunity to get above it all for a moment.

Past the platform, the Bay Trail becomes a decomposed granite path and curves between condos and marinas. There is a pleasant picnic spot at the end of  Alice Street, and fishermen are keeping a cursory watch on their rods. As the trail nears Estuary Park, it becomes rougher and the scenery, a bit grittier. An unmarked abstract sculpture of tectonic steel plates has been turned into an open-air bed.

If you want a slightly different return path, take First Street back from the Aquatic Center to Oak Street, cross the railroad tracks on Oak and follow Second Street back through the Produce District.

Getting There: The Oakland Ferry Terminal is at the west end of Clay Street.

Cool stuff in the area: Besides everything mentioned above, Yoshi’s jazz club and Japanese restaurant is just a few steps away.

More information: On the Estuary Park from Waterfront Action.

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