The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
September - October 2007
Planning with a recalcitrant developer
Keeping public control of the Albany shoreline
What if you gave a planning process, and the developer wouldn't come?
For the city of Albany, this is a real question, and the answer could have serious consequences for Albany's shoreline.
In 2006, when Albany's big issue was the proposal by Magna, owner of the Golden Gate Fields race track, and developer Rick Caruso to establish a shopping mall and casino on the shoreline, the Sierra Club worked for a planning process that would allow the community to be in control rather than developers. The pro-development majority of the City Council set up a different planning process that they hoped might deflect the community opposition to the mall. Magna and Caruso in turn showed no interest in participating at all.
The November 2006 election brought in a new Council majority who opposed the mall. Caruso left town, and Magna declared that it was not interested in any new development.
But the city now had a planning process on the books. The new Council felt a need to go forward with a process, but no one was or is sure just what kind of process. Magna made it clear that it would not fund the planning work, and has not clearly committed to full participation; it has stated that it will "engage in" the process, but just what that means is unknown.
The Sierra Club will not oppose a process if the city wants one, but we have concerns. How can a process lead to anything definitive if the landowner is not willing to abide by the results? If the developer is going to walk away and then come back in a few years with a new proposal and demanding a new process, what will have been accomplished?
After all, for close to 30 years developers have repeatedly announced huge commercial developments for the Albany waterfront, met huge opposition, and left town stymied. It is clear that most people in Albany want a waterfront with lots of open space and limited development that will complement and not destroy Solano Avenue businesses. Until a developer is willing to buy into a community planning process, what more can we accomplish with one?
There are dangers in a planning process.
The city must be careful not to give away its key bargaining chip: the fact that any zoning change must be approved in an election. The current zoning for the race track is "Waterfront Recreational", essentially limiting the land to a track and its ancillary operations. This limitation keeps the property value low. If the zoning were changed to other types of commercial, retail, or office uses, the property value would skyrocket.
So long as the zoning remains "Waterfront Recreational", Magna has a huge incentive to agree to meeting community needs by dedicating away the shoreline and large portions of the land area for parks and open space, including ball fields and other recreation, along with the restoration of Codornices Creek in its original meandering creek bed through the middle of the site. Until the property-owner signs a development agreement guaranteeing large portions of the site as open space, the city should not change the zoning.
For any effective process, the public must be provided with accurate information. In the past city staff has put out supposedly neutral fact sheets that gave the false notion that park and open space land would cost the city huge amounts. The City Council must review all materials and information before the city gives them broad distribution.
If the city is to begin a process, the Sierra Club suggests starting with an initial round of public meetings and perhaps polling to lead up to a vision statement. Such a vision would undoubtedly include the closing of the track and some limited scope of subsequent development. The next step should be to ask Magna if it wants to develop the shoreline along the lines of that vision statement. Until Magna or its successor says yes, the process would be put on hold. Once the developer signs an agreement to that effect, then the parties can work out a plan for the site through a community planning process that leads up to a vote on the development agreement, the rezoning, and the new plan for the waterfront.
Thus we can guarantee that the reins of the race horse remain firmly in the hands of the people of Albany.
To help the work of the Sierra Club's East Bay Public Lands Committee on this issue, contact conservation manager or call (510) 848-0800, ext. 307
© 2007 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
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