AE3026 California, San Francisco Bay, Sylvia McLaughlin, founder of Save the Bay

Bay Nature story details historic battle to preserve East Bay Shoreline

2 mins read

It’s easy to take for granted the Emeryville Shoreline and the beauty it brings to our city. We also take for granted the personal sacrifices and determination of those that fought to save this valuable land during an era of runaway development. This battle was led by a small, scrappy group of pioneering female environmentalists who founded “Save the Bay” over fifty years ago. Sylvia McLaughlin, Catherine Kerr and Esther Gulick are considered not just pioneers in conservation, but modern feminism and activism.

McLaughlin, whom McLaughlin Eastshore State Park is named after, was the housewife-turned-environmental crusader that helped launch a 60’s campaign to turn the damaged East Bay shoreline into the 8.5 mile, 2,000-acre wildlife sanctuary that stretches all the way to Richmond. McLaughlin passed away just last year at the age of 99. “If there were a ‘Mount Rushmore’ of Bay Area environmentalists,” noted former Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates “Sylvia should be there.”

Emeryville’s ambitious 1966 plan outlines a 20 year plan that would have filled our shoreline and wetlands.

The historical section of the City of Emeryville website details the developer’s ambitious plans and the resistance to it led by “The Watergate Revolution”. The 70’s development nearly doubled our resident population and saw a massive political shift in our city with 4/5 of our Councilmembers living in the new “West” Emeryville. Local efforts to preserve the Bay are what brought former councilmember Nora Davis into politics according to our 2015 interview with her (Ironically, the Watergate area is now without city council representation for the first time in 30 years with Davis’ 2016 retirement).

Today, we honor the efforts of these eco-trailblazers every time we walk or ride the Bay Trail, take our pooch to Point Isabel or attend the annual Kite Festival at the Berkeley Marina. Every time we admire or capture the beauty of our region, we recognize their efforts that preserved our shoreline for generations to come.

Bay Nature Magazine details the small movement that grew into a larger coalition and “the determined individuals who refused to take no for an answer.” Bay Nature Institute, which publishes the printed magazine and accompanying website, is based in Berkeley and notes its mission as “educating the people of the San Francisco Bay Area about, and celebrating the beauty of, the surrounding natural world.”

Feature Image of Sylvia McLaughlin:
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A sailboat leaves the Berkeley marina. (Photo by Kathy Barnhart).

How the East Bay Shoreline Became A Park for the People

by Lisa Krieger

A walk through the Berkeley Meadow along the San Francisco Bay is a walk among the healing ruins of the fiercest and most protracted battle for a state park in California history. You wouldn’t know that underfoot lies a layer of construction refuse—old asphalt, concrete, and building materials—12 feet thick, covered now by a lush landscape of willows, coyote brush, and native grasses. Meadow voles have moved in. Raptors circle overhead, as if doing victory laps.

The 72 acres of re-created coastal prairie and scrub lie at the heart of McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, today a necklace of open public spaces along the bayshore north of the Bay Bridge. But for a long time it was a polluted and legal quagmire that not even California State Parks really wanted. The land—an 8.5-mile waterfront stretch from Emeryville to Richmond—worth millions, seemed destined to be paved over. One development proposal wanted twin 18-story hotels, and another a “stilt city” of high-rises, at the Emeryville Crescent. There were visions of office buildings, restaurants, and shops in Berkeley, as well as shopping centers in Berkeley and Albany. Yet another set of development plans embraced by many civic leaders in the 1980s called for ten million square feet of construction, roughly equivalent to 14 buildings the size of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. The Santa Fe Railroad Company and its allies would have benefitted handsomely.

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The origins of Save the Bay are detailed in a series of KQED YouTube clips.

Further Reading:

The East Bay Shore: A History of Art and Politics
Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of Save the Bay, dies at 99
Remembering Sylvia McLaughlin
Emeryville History: The Expanding City – 1960s to 1980s
In 1959, the vision for the Bay Area was a place of filled marshes, flattened hills and houses galore

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.

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