Albany council adopts recommendations for waterfront

November 9, 2007 – By Shelly Meron STAFF WRITER

Albany city officials this week accepted a consultant’s recommendation to focus their waterfront-planning process on civic engagement and education, saying they want to be prepared if the landowner comes forward with its own proposal.

“It’s always been my contention that whatever we do with the waterfront should be Albany-driven, not developer-driven,” Mayor Robert Lieber said. “We need to be ready with our own plan.”

Following a recommendation from the city’s waterfront committee, the City Council voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Jewel Okawachi dissenting, to accept the first phase of option No. 3 in consultant Don Neuwirth’s preliminary report.

The “grounded visioning program for the waterfront,” as it is called in the report, is estimated to cost $500,000 and take about 18 months. It will include hiring a consultant to help with the public education and engagement process, and it may involve tours at the Albany waterfront and other nearby waterfronts as well as educating local schoolchildren.

Neuwirth’s preliminary report was released in September and followed by a final report last month.
Okawachi said this week that taking action on the waterfront now is “premature,” and that she was concerned about the time being spent on the process by the City Council, city staff and community.

Magna Entertainment Corp., which operates Golden Gate Fields racetrack, has not disclosed any plans for its land since developer Rick Caruso withdrew his proposal last year for a retail and housing project on underused parking lots.

“I really think we should wait and see what happens,” Okawachi said. “(Magna) may make a decision (about Golden Gate Fields) soon.”

The other three council members agreed with Lieber that accepting Neuwirth’s report was a good way to prepare for the future.

“One thing that seems clear is that the education and information part of this is necessary no matter what we do,” Councilman Farid Javandel said. “If Magna comes up with a plan, it would be nice for us to have a vision in place with which to compare it to. We can let the landowner know what’s likely to succeed.”

Twenty-two members of the community turned out Tuesday night to comment on Neuwirth’s report, and the group was split between supporters and opponents.

“I think it’s a long time in coming,” said Robert Cheasty, president of Citizens for East Shore Parks. “This is a good day for Albany.”

Resident Preston Jordan said he was “initially skeptical of going this route, but having read the report, I’m quite optimistic.” He added that he also was supportive of Neuwirth’s idea to have a design competition for the waterfront, which was included in the final report.

The council decided to hold off on acting on the design competition idea.

Meanwhile, several members of the public expressed concerns about going forward with a planning process without Magna’s participation, and they wondered whether the city’s money could be better spent.

Clay Larson, the only member of the city’s waterfront committee to vote against adopting the report, said he preferred to do nothing because Neuwirth himself wrote in his report that the suggestions “won’t work.”
Larson said those involved are “all good people, but they’re enamored with their view of the waterfront, and it keeps them from being objective. I don’t think it’s worth the money.”

In his preliminary report, Neuwirth wrote that “if the landowner does not participate in the process, any positive outcome is questionable. … We suggest that any new planning process be based on real commitments, not mere involvement, otherwise it will simply become another expensive and futile exercise.”

Resident Trevor Grayling agreed, saying that going forward without Magna’s participation would be a waste of time and money. Grayling said Albany officials have “pushed Magna away, into a corner. Now we have no influence on them and no idea what they are planning.”

Golden Gate Fields officials have said they would participate only in a waterfront-planning process that assumes the racetrack will remain in operation. Some in the community have speculated that Magna’s financial problems may force the racetrack to close, creating an opportunity for much of the land to be developed as a public park.

“It just depends on how much focus they’re going to put on us going away,” Golden Gate Fields General Manager Robert Hartman told the Times earlier this month. “We’re the owners, and we’re not going away.”
Lieber said Magna officials were welcome to participate in the process at any time, and that they did not return phone calls from city officials.

“I have reached out to the owners and continue to reach out to the owners on a regular basis,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We don’t get return calls. We are willing to work with them at any time on a plan that’s good for Albany and respects the owner within zoning regulations.”

On Wednesday, Lieber added that Magna representatives always have said they will continue operating the racetrack, but previous owners of Golden Gate Fields said the same thing and then sold the business anyway.

“Just because somebody says that doesn’t mean it’s true,” he said.

Source: The Albany Journal

Reach Shelly Meron at 510-243-3578 or