On Saturday, Jan. 11, in the Park Plaza neighborhood, nearly 60 volunteers from the nonprofit Groundwork Richmond, the Richmond Rotary Club and the community gathered on land just west of Interstate Highway 80 to plant 450 Pacific willow trees. Their aim wasn’t only to beautify a former toxic brownfield site, but to restore and daylight Baxter Creek and to prevent trash and pollutants from reaching the Bay. Last summer, Groundwork Richmond worked with the city to plant 272 trees designed to prevent highway pollution from reaching neighbors’ homes.

These are just some projects taking place on six acres formerly occupied by Japanese American-owned flower nurseries for about a century. The new trees are part of a broad, community-driven effort to celebrate the property’s history while inviting a healthier future for Park Plaza residents.

Beginning in 1906, Japanese Americans operated nurseries on the property near 47th Street and Florida Avenue, including the Sakai, Oishi, and Endo families. In 2006, the city’s redevelopment agency purchased the site with plans to remediate its soil and develop an environmentally-focused, transit-oriented housing development.

The master project, totaling 14 acres, includes the 1.5-acre, solar-powered Miraflores Senior Apartments, an 80-unit affordable housing project that celebrated a grand opening in December 2018, as well as 190 market rate housing units that are still in the works.

Incorporated in the development are plans to create the so-called Miraflores Greenbelt along I-80 featuring green spaces and restored historic structures that benefit local residents, according to Matt Holmes, executive director of Groundwork Richmond.

Groundwork Richmond has been tapped to lead a community effort to develop the public park. Along with hundreds of trees and the Baxter Creek restoration, the park will feature active open spaces, a children’s playground and new bicycle network to connect the development to the Richmond Greenway, along with improvements connecting to the El Cerrito del Note BART station.

The site’s existing historic structures, including the Sakai and Oishi houses, a water tank, water tower and greenhouse, will be relocated both to locations on the greenbelt and housing development, according to city documents. Groundwork Richmond is partnering with the city to help restore some of the structures set to be reused on the greenbelt for community use, including as historical exhibits and educational school programs. The Oishi house, for example, will be used as an after-school program for students at nearby Kennedy High, Holmes said.

For Holmes, the project won’t just provide a park with health benefits to the neighborhood, but also jobs. Founded in 2010, Groundwork Richmond, known as the city’s of Richmond’s “forester,” restores and operates parks in the city that improve communities in multiple ways. The nonprofit operates a youth skills training program and employs residents as park stewards. Currently, it maintains three Greenway parks near Miraflores.

The nonprofit’s Greencorp Job Training Program will participate in historical restoration on the greenbelt. Its members have been sent on training missions where they restored the historic airmen headquarters in Tuskugee, Ala. They’ll return to Tuskagee this year to work on other historic structures.

“We will use these skills to help restore the Sakai and Oishi structures,” Holmes said.

Holmes envisions developing the greenbelt into an attractive historical landmark affiliated with the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. It is slated to include a new visitor’s center and interpretive displays that tell the site’s rich history.

That particular part of the project came at just the right time for Richmond Rotary, which is celebrating its 100th year in existence in 2020. To honor the milestone, the Rotary decided to sponsor the greenbelt’s historical education exhibit, which will feature a series of about a half-dozen outdoor interpretive displays along the pathway that runs along Baxter Creek.

“They are supposed to resemble a greenhouse, and each marker, several of them, will feature some theme about the history of the place and Richmond,” said Rotarian Joshua Genser, who joined the tree-planting effort on Jan. 11.

The project, called Making a Living / Building a Community, fits in with the Rotary’s mission of sponsoring community projects and also participating in them, Rotary President Jan Brown said.

“What we really enjoy doing locally are projects where we can actually see the results and participate in the results,” said Brown, who hopes the interpretive displays will be set in place by Spring.

Stories preserved on the greenbelt will educate community members on the history of Japanese Americans, who managed to maintain their nurseries despite the internment of their people during WWII. They will also preserve and share the history of a community of immigrants and minorities, Brown said.

Project supporters see the park’s creation as an effort toward social and environmental justice for residents of a city heavily impacted by train tracks, highways and industry.

Holmes says the project will employ Groundwork Richmond staff in park maintenance, providing jobs for Richmond residents. By simply planting trees at the site, he said, the community is coming together to right past wrongs.

“If our freeways were built right, they would all have ample setbacks,” said Holmes. “Trees knock down or absorb particulate matter…flowing off the freeway. All of California’s highways should have robust forests standing in the way of neighborhoods, but they weren’t built that way.”

Holmes believes the Miraflores Greenbelt, which will also get a new name following a community-input process, will show marked improvement in air quality for Park Plaza residents.

“It’s time we got really blunt about what led to inequities in the Bay Area, and make targeted investments like this address it,” Holmes said. “This park really helps us do that.”