One of Sacramento County's first acquisitions in its fledgling park system was 320 acres in the center of the county. With low rolling hills, views of the Sierra Nevada and rare vernal pools, this seemed like an ideal location for a park.
Purchased in the 1960s, this 320- acre site was at one time to be named after Gene Andal, a leader of Sacramento's open space movement who retired as county parks director after 15 years in 1998.
Yet half a century after it was purchased, Gene Andal Park sits undeveloped and mostly unused – a monument to the county's misplaced priorities and legacy of neglect. This legacy includes Gibson Ranch in the north county, now closed to the public. Less known are purchased park sites, scattered around the county that – with some vision and leadership – could now be serving residents with playgrounds, amphitheaters and trails through preserved natural habitat.
It wasn't this way in the 1980s, when local leaders pursued bigger dreams. Tony Ubalde, then a county parks commissioner and leader in the local Filipino community, proposed a California Multicultural Park at the site, and the county approved the concept in 1984.
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A foundation formed with an enthusiastic, active core of members in 1986. Volunteers planted 1,200 trees. As Andal said at the time, "This is a long-term project. It may take two to three decades to build, like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco." By 1989, the park had raised $1.2 million from grants and private donations.
Yet funding constraints and conflicts over how to develop the park ended up dooming a 1993 plan for it. Planners envisioned that about half of the site would be a ceremonial plaza with an open-air pavilion, festival promenade, outdoor amphitheater, playgrounds and a labyrinth created out of plants, picnic areas, a bike trail and ball fields. The rest would be preserved vernal pools and floodplain.
By 1997, county staff told park commissioners and supervisors that the presence of vernal pools "rendered the site unusable for most recreational development."
Instead of embracing a mostly naturalistic landscape for the site, county staff decided to "cease further efforts" to create the park. They recommended turning the 320-acre site (except 40 to 50 acres) into a revenue-generating mitigation bank available to developers "for a fee." But that hasn't occurred either.
Today, 30 acres of the site is leased by the Sacramento Air Modelers for flying radio-controlled aircraft. It's a premier site for this niche group, but the larger public is left out.
Mather Air Force Base is another in these fields of broken dreams. In 1993, the county sought a "public benefit conveyance" and, for no charge, obtained 1,443 acres to create a regional park.
Marilyn Evans, now 79, got on board early and helped form Friends of Mather Park. The vision then, Evans recalls, was to create a rural Golden Gate Park. That San Francisco park, she notes, "was sand dunes with no plants" when it started. "Look at it now."
The Friends group, an active Rotary group and volunteers began by adding amenities at Mather Lake – a fishing pier, children's playground, family and group picnic areas. They planted a grove of trees. They worked with other groups on interpretive signs featuring 800 acres of vernal pools.
But it wasn't long before the county gave up on the vision for Mather Regional Park.
Under funding pressure, the county sought "facilities which provide a solid revenue base." These commercial recreation facilities would be developed "by private investors based on a long-term lease of the land and revenue sharing arrangement."
Yes, there would also be open spaces for picnicking, play areas, ball games, hiking and nature study. But these, of course, would not be big revenue generators.
Most recently, the county has added visions of "mixed use," retail and entertainment, in a large portion of what was to be park land.
Over that issue, the Friends of Mather Park group dissolved. That was 2007. "This is public land," Evans said, "and should be used as it was intended, a significant park for future generations."
It is still not too late to revive visions for Gene Andal Park and Mather Regional Park. Both are essential for long-standing plans to link the American River Parkway with a trail system that would connect other watersheds.
Yet for that to happen, it will take private fundraising and political will that has yet to rise to the occasion. Parks advocates such Gene Andal and Marilyn Evans deserve better than this. Who will step up to walk in their shoes?