It took about five years for East Bay officials to realize an ambitious plan to build two huge, state-of-the-art sports fields on a picturesque swath of bayside land in West Berkeley.

It took 15 minutes, officials said, for the fields to be booked solid until next March by eager young athletes in more than 20 leagues ranging from rugby to ultimate Frisbee.

The intense interest reflects the demand for sports fields along the Interstate 80 corridor, where five cities teamed up with the East Bay Regional Park District to construct the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex on Gilman Street, abutting the Golden Gate Fields racetrack.

At an opening ceremony Saturday, officials praised the regional cooperation that steered the project through a lengthy process that required some creative fundraising and careful consideration of environmental impacts.

The park was a joint project by the cities of Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville and Richmond.

"Any one city council may not be together on every thing, but when you can get five city councils and the regional parks together, you know it's the right thing," Richmond City Councilmember Tony Thurmond said.

A group of young soccer players romping around on the brand-new artificial turf nearby seemed to barely notice the nearly 200 people gathered for the ribbon-cutting event.


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"We like (the turf)," said 9-year-old Dylan Villeneuve of Berkeley, who had just played his first game as midfielder for his team, Chelsea, at the field. "On the artificial stuff, the ball moves faster."

The park district bought the land — which was previously used by the racetrack for parking and storage — for about $12 million using bond money from Measure AA, which was passed in 1988 to preserve open space and fund local parks and trails. The land was then leased to the city of Berkeley and will be operated jointly by the five cities.

"It's a great thing to have a place for kids to play in our urban society," said Pat O'Brien, general manager of the park district. "Too often children don't have the opportunity to get out in the fields and do the things you were able to do when you were growing up."

There is still some work to be done at the 12-acre site, with grass softball and baseball fields slated for construction early next year.