Should Walnut Creek Create Eichler Park?

El Divisadero Park would be renamed after Joe Eichler if a group of neighbors in Rancho San Miguel get their way. Photos by Dave Weinstein

For eight years Ana Barreto has been looking at El Divisadero Park from her Eichler home across the street – with annoyance and wonder. Why is it called 'El Divisadero'?

Well, it’s on El Divisadero Street, where she and her husband, Robert Hall, have lived for eight years. But for Ana, that only make it worse. “I think ‘El Divisadero Park’ shows a lack of creativity. ‘Oh, name it after the street.’ ”

That’s one reason a group of residents from Walnut Creek’s Rancho San Miguel tract will attend a city Park, Recreation and Open Space Commission meeting on December 2 to ask that the park be renamed 'Joseph Eichler Park.'

Other reasons range from honoring Joe Eichler’s legacy of fighting housing discrimination to making better known to outsiders just who Eichler was and why Eichlers are important.

“There is no mention of Eichler in the neighborhood,” Ana says. “There is no Eichler Street, no Eichler Park, nothing here that says Eichler. We need to have something that says: this is an Eichler community.”

Among neighbors supporting the name change are, left to right, Peter Padan, Jim Hart, Grant Reiling, Phil Toy, Kathee Colman, Robert Hall and Quintin Menish

“It will bring a little bit more awareness to his contribution to our community,” says Peter Padan, a longtime resident who raised children here. “If residents are reminded of him, they will understand that Joseph Eichler had a social impact here.”

Jim Hart, another neighbor, cited Eichler’s willingness to sell homes to African-Americans and other minorities, back in the 1950s, when these approximately 375 homes were built. It was an era before laws required open housing, when most tract developers in burgeoning suburbs like Walnut Creek sold only to whites.

Eichler’s example remains relevant, Peter says. “It would be making a statement today about diversity. The neighborhood is very diverse. Versus what is happening [with politics] in Washington.”

“It’s important for people to know about this inclusiveness,” Peter adds. “It’s important to society.”

A plaque could be placed in the park explaining this aspect of the Joe Eichler story.

Ana Barreto and her husband, Robert Hall, can observe the park from the front of their home on El Divisadero Street.

There’s another reason behind the renaming plan too. Naming the park after Eichler might help reclaim, in a friendly way, the sense that this three-acre park is, and should continue to be, an amenity for neighbors, and not just for the youth soccer teams that make most use of it.

“When we moved here eight years ago, El Divisadero was still a neighborhood park. Now it’s a sports field,” Ana says.

The park, which is in the center of the community, is one of two parks in the tract, which also has a swimming center built by Eichler. San Miguel park, at the edge of the tract, has tennis and basketball, a small playground, and a grassy off-leash dog area.

The swimming center is run by a private concern as the Rancho San Miguel Swim Club. It is a well-regarded membership program that is open to the general public, and "plays a major role as a social hub for young families in the neighborhood," Peter says.

El Divisadero Park has been something of a contested space for years. It is adjacent to a Berean Christian High School, which occupies a 1950s mid-century modern campus that was originally the public San Miguel School.

Here's a vintage shot of Berean School circa 1969 when it was still San Miguel Elementary School. Courtesy of Peter Padan

Over the years, says Kathee Colman, a resident since 1990, some people have thought the park was part of the school. At times school leaders seemed to agree.

 For years Berean pushed an expansion that would have included a new gym, a football field, use of El Divisadero for school events, and field lighting for night games. Neighbors fought back – just as Robert and Ana were deciding whether or not to buy an Eichler across from the field. “It almost caused us not to buy here,” Robert says.

Ana wanted to walk. But Robert had already gotten to know some neighbors, including Phil Toy, a neighborhood institution known for his vintage Cadillacs and Airstream trailer.

“I said, let’s stay,” Robert says. “I really like these people.”

“The park was almost swallowed by the school,” Peter says, but the neighbors prevailed. A gym was built, along with a football field behind the park, and neighbors were fine with that. Divisadero Park did not become school fields nor get lights. Peter says relations between neighbors and the school are good.

Phil Toy's Cadillac adds to the period charm as it parks across from what may soon be Joseph Eichler Park.

Still, soccer play has come to dominate use of the park, especially in the past eight years, neighbors say. Neighbors have good relations with the soccer club, which has no relation to the school.

Soccer balls have in the past slammed into Ana and Robert’s home. Today the park is used only by younger kids, whose balls don’t fly so far.

“The soccer club talked to us and negotiated with us in good faith,” says Robert. The club has asked folks to park in the lot and not on the street, for example.

"Many weekends are taken up by team sports. That places heavy traffic on the turf and noise is emitted at high levels from the crowds and whistles," Peter says. As one who lives in proximity to the park, I would like to see that kind of activity reduced or transferred to the school yard. After all, the City shares the park with the school. Why not reciprocate?"

Kathee says, "I believe Walnut Creek is in the planning stages of building 16 new soccer fields, so this could also be a gentle nudge in that direction."

Several years ago neighbors got the city to install a small area with picnic tables, play and exercise equipment – in part to emphasize that El Divisadero is not just about soccer.

“With the soccer team, [the park is] not for this immediate neighborhood. It’s for the wider Walnut Creek area,” says Quintin Menish, who moved into his Eichler last year. “To me, the idea of celebrating that small park as 'Eichler' reminds people to be respectful of this neighborhood.”

Grant Reiling, another neighbor, adds: “The park is in the center of the neighborhood. Maybe this could be our magnet park.”

Peter Padan, who queried neighbors about renaming the park on Next Door, says 80 percent approved of the idea.

“Why not?” Peter asks. “There are so many pros, versus the cons. The only excuse I’ve gotten is the city budget. I’m not buying it. It can get done.”

Peter Padan stands in the small picnic and play-exercise area that was added to the park as neighborhood amenities. The city's website fails to mention these features in its description of El Divisadero Park.

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