Albany Hopes Community Input Will Resolve Waterfront Debate

By Paul Gackle, The Berkeley Daily Planet
Thursday January 14, 2010

For more than 40 years the city of Albany has been caught in a game of tug-of-war over its waterfront property. But the city hopes that a new campaign to solicit community input will break the stalemate and provide a shared vision for the community’s shoreline.

More than 375 Albany residents attended the city’s Community Center and Senior Center over the Jan. 9-10 weekend to participate in the last round of community meetings aimed at finding common ground in a battle over the property that has pitted environmentalists against corporate developers. The meetings were the final phase of Albany’s Voices to Vision program, which was designed to help find a strategic vision for the waterfront’s future.

Next month, 102 acres of land owned by the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corporation – most of which is occupied by Golden Gate Fields and its adjacent parking lots – will be put up for auction. The city hopes these community discussion sessions will provide the next owners with a blueprint for what Albany residents want for the the shoreline property.

“Now if a developer comes to us, we will be able to say, ‘This is what the community wants for this site; can you work with us to make that happen?'” said Albany Mayor Joanne Wile. “We want to be involved in something collaborative rather than having everyone fighting with each other.”

Over the years a variety of development proposals for the waterfront have been tossed around-three-story housing complexes, hotels, restaurants, bars, office space, a shopping district similar to Berkeley’s Fourth Street, a helicopter terminal, and even the construction of a freeway west of Interstate 80 that would hasten the trip from San Francisco to Sacramento. Every initiative has brought a fight; every attempt to develop the property beyond the racetrack has failed.

One roadblock for any potential developer is and has been Albany’s voter-approved Measure C, the Citizens Waterfront Approval Initiative. Passed in 1989, Measure C specifies that the waterfront property can be used only for park facilities, horse racing, restaurants, bars, marinas, boat-launching ramps, parking and waterfront and sports-related commercial sales and services. Any other use, or any change to the land-use and zoning regulations, requires voter approval. But every plan a developer has put forth for the waterfront has run afoul of these restrictions.

“Unfortunately, most of the time these developers come in and have their own ideas that don’t jibe with what the community wants. That’s the history of the last 30 years,” said Norman La Force, chair of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.

And it’s because of these continued failures that the city hired Fern Tiger Associates in 2008 to bring the people of Albany together, give them a voice, and formulate a strategic vision for a community-driven reshaping of the waterfront. If the people of Albany are willing to accept a plan that differs from what is defined in Measure C, the city wants to know where the boundaries are.

“We were brought on board to design and implement a community process so that the city can better understand the hopes and dreams of the people of Albany for the waterfront,” said Fern Tiger, creative director of Fern Tiger Associates.

Tiger’s Voices to Vision program has been a year-long, three-part project that kicked off with community meetings on nearly 40 different Albany blocks last spring. Groups of three to five people were given maps and asked to determine how they wanted the land used, where they wanted building constructed and how much tax revenue they wanted to collect. More than 200 maps were analyzed.

In November, an online survey was conducted with 450 participants, 58 percent of whom had not attended the spring sessions. All told, more than 1,100 Albany residents have made their voices heard.

Last weekend’s attendees were divided into groups of five or six people and were asked to comment on six conceptual waterfront scenarios that were developed out of their previous responses and then reviewed by urban planners, developers, economists, architects, environmental-impact specialists and traffic planners. Each scenario looked at the soon-to-be-auctioned land owned by Magna Entertainment and the 88 acres of publicly owned land north of Golden Gate Fields that juts into the bay-a piece of land whose three segments are commonly referred to as “the Plateau,” “the Neck,” and “the Bulb.”

The scenarios presented a range of options for the waterfront, such as a boutique hotel, a museum or an aquarium. But they also found some common ground: each scenario required access to public transportation, the completion of the Bay Trail, no buildings to be constructed within 100 feet of the shoreline, and the Bulb to be reserved for the Eastshore Park.

Tiger said the Voices to Vision project has revealed that most Albany citizens want a combination of open space and development for the waterfront property. They want to preserve and enjoy the natural beauty of the property while tapping its potential tax revenue for the city and schools. The tricky part, again, will be finding the middle ground.

A session for residents outside of Albany who want to make their voices heard is scheduled for Jan. 19. Fern Tiger plans to release a final report to the city in March.

One criticism of the Voices to Vision project has been its $650,000 price tag. Mayor Wile defended the city, saying that it’s an investment that will pay dividends in the future.

“This is a Bay Area treasure. We are making an investment for people’s grandchildren by getting this right,” she said.

Some residents doubt the likelihood of bridging the gap between the open-space advocates and those who want maximum revenue from the property. Howard McNenny, president of the Albany Waterfront Coalition, a group that leans toward more development than open space, fears the waterfront debate will continue to be a source of contention in the community after Magna Entertainment auctions off Golden Gate Fields.

“I don’t see a consensus in the community yet. I don’t think there will be one when the final report is done,” he said.

But former Albany Mayor Ruth Ganong, who has looked out at the waterfront from her Albany Hills balcony almost every day for the last 45 years, is hopeful. For almost half a century, she’s fought, through Save the Bay and the Albany Waterfront Committee, to ensure that the waterfront property is something for the people of Albany. When Ganong looks out her window in the coming years, she’d like to see a mix of parks and development that is accessible to the city’s residents. She thinks that’s what Albany wants.

“This is a fantastically valuable piece of land; there is probably nowhere in the world that is more valuable. It looks over downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s surrounded by water. It’s a great location for a wonderful development,” she said.

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