Greener acres

Comanche Creek parkland project enters final phase

Janet Ellner, volunteer coordinator for Friends of Comanche Creek Greenway, takes pride in the project.

Janet Ellner, volunteer coordinator for Friends of Comanche Creek Greenway, takes pride in the project.

Photo by Howard Hardee

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Janet Ellner’s first love is Bidwell Park, but at least once a week she walks in another, lesser-known green space: the Comanche Creek Greenway. On the southern edge of town, the wooded, riparian habitat along the Comanche Creek is similar to Lower Bidwell Park—except it’s flanked by industrial manufacturing complexes and a business park.

“Comparing it to Bidwell Park is a high compliment,” she said, and then laughed. “Maybe too high.”

So, maybe it’s not quite like Chico’s crown jewel, but it is a hidden gem, and used to be much rougher. In its previous undeveloped state, the 20-acre area west of the Midway was fenced off and became a haven for homeless people’s camps.

However, Ellner and her fellow volunteers with Friends of Comanche Creek Greenway worked for years to develop the area into a safe, usable park. In 2014, the group was awarded about $1 million of funding in the form of a noncompetitive Housing Related Parks Grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Phase I of the so-called Comanche Creek Greenway Improvement Project was completed last summer. It included paved and unpaved biking and hiking trails, picnic areas, lighting, benches and a parking lot.

The big-ticket item, however, was the pedestrian bridge that now spans the creek and connects Ivy Street and Otterson Drive, providing a path from the neighborhoods south of downtown to the Hegan Lane Business Park

The increased foot- and bicycle-traffic over the past year has put more eyes on the creek, creating more of a public space, said Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of public works-engineering.

“The park rangers have told me they’ve seen about half as much transient activity in the greenway,” he said. “My impression is that, by nature, when an area becomes nice and usable, the homeless population goes elsewhere.”

Ellner agrees that encampments have been less common lately. When she does encounter somebody camping along the creek, she lets them know it’s illegal.

“I’ve gotten nothing but polite responses,” she said.

Now, the city is in the process of acquiring land to complete the second and final phase of the Comanche Creek Greenway Improvement Project: a bike path connecting Estes Road to the Chico-Durham bike path along the Midway.

The city plans to purchase a total of 8 acres from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and a private landowner, and use an abandoned railroad crossing both properties to build the right-of-way. Eventually, the city will install a new signal light, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to cross the Midway.

Phase II will significantly improve bicycle access to southwest Chico and connect to the greater network of bike paths. It also aligns with the city’s big-picture goals of promoting healthy, active transportation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Ottoboni said.

His department recently applied for a $1.5 million Urban Greening Grant through the California Natural Resources Agency to build the path. The program is extremely competitive—statewide, a total of $376 million in grant funds were requested, but only $76 million will be awarded. The good news, Ottoboni said, is that the Comanche Creek project made it past the first round of cuts; the next step was walking the greenway with Friends of Comanche Creek and a handful of state employees who evaluated the site’s worthiness.

A point in the project’s favor is that it’s adjacent to an underserved and disadvantaged community—the Barber Neighborhood. Another is that volunteers from that neighborhood have done a good job of removing nonnative and invasive plant species, Ottoboni said.

“[The state officials] have to be unbiased, but they said the level of maintenance is unreal,” he said. “One of the guys totally geeked out on us and said, ‘You just don’t see this anywhere.’ We walked away feeling pretty confident that they liked the project.”

The grant awardees will be announced at the end of next month.

Friends of Comanche Creek Greenway and the city aren’t working in isolation to turn the place into a proper park. Companies such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., PG&E and FISHBIO—along with volunteers from local high schools and colleges, business groups and environmental nonprofits—all have contributed either time or money. It’s been a true community project.

Additionally, as per an agreement with the city, Friends of Comanche Creek has raised $17,000 each of the past three years to maintain and patrol the park, mostly through the contributions of businesses in the Hegan Lane Business Park.

“They have been instrumental in putting all of this together,” Ottoboni said of the Friends of Comanche Creek Greenway. “I can’t say enough good things about them.”

As the city seeks to secure more grant funding moving forward, Ottoboni’s staff is looking at putting together a management plan to develop another semi-wild area—Lindo Channel—into a similar park-like space.

“The city is focused on getting these greenways developed and usable,” he said, “because that’s what our community seems to love.”