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Column: Not the Right Time for Referenda

Two council members have spoken out against a petition that is circulating regarding a mixed-use development in University Village. Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we post more on this topic.

Now is not the right time for . The project has been under public consideration for the past five years. Based on community input at properly noticed meetings, changes have been made to the project since its inception. Compromises by both UC and the city have been reached, and the council approved the zoning changes necessary to let the project go forward. Now, unfortunately, a small group of Albany citizens along with people from other places are circulating petitions for a referendum on the zoning change and one on the development agreement. We ask Albany voters not to sign the petitions.

The project, characterized as a “Mega Mall” by petitioners is not a mall at all.  Instead, it has a maximum of 85,000 square feet. It will bring more than $400,000 a year to the city with a net of about $200,000. This $200,000 is about the same as the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab project, the 6 million square foot projected project once proposed at the waterfront. The petitioners registered no public complaints about the size of the LBNL project.

Importantly, the project will also bring needed senior housing to our area. A number of Albany residents have told us this looks like a hopeful option for them. They want to stay in Albany and want the conveniences of such a facility. Further, the project helps Albany meet a long standing regional housing commitment and does so at the same time it helps meet sustainability goals to reduce carbon emissions by supporting transit-oriented-development.

Whole Foods Market is a large, out-of-state business; what the petitioners do not note is that the market provides an outlet for local organic vendors, 100 plus at one of their new Silicon Valley stores. Additionally, until very recently, no other market was interested in the site.

The project provides a large public good in that the Albany Little League fields will be preserved for future generations. This currently impacts 600 boys and girls directly and 2,000 indirectly as loss of fields impacts girls’ softball and girls’ and boys’ soccer.

Also, the project will provide much needed construction jobs and ongoing jobs in the senior and retail facilities. Many of these jobs will go to local residents.

Is the project ideal? No. We wanted inclusionary housing, but the law does not provide that when  the senior housing is rental. The height will be four stories; we would have preferred three, but we brought it down from five.

Finally, the time has passed for petitioners to ask the council to put the measures on the November ballot; thus a special election would be required at a cost of about $60,000 from the city’s general fund that could be spent instead on services for residents. We ask Albany voters to say no if asked to sign the petitions currently being passed. Now is not the time for referenda.

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Albany City Council Members

Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on the Whole Foods project. Learn about the proposed Whole Foods and senior housing development here.

Skip Moore August 16, 2012 at 03:44 PM
The petitioners were posted at each corner of farmer's Market yesterday. I had a lively conversation with one of them. I think their position regarding additional traffic can be countered with the argument that many nearby residents will be able walk to the market instead of driving, and the trip for many west Berkeley and Albany residents will be greatly reduced. I believe the actual carbon footprint due to car trips will be mitigated by the lessened distance consumers will have to travel. Bottom line to me is that no matter what, the development is in the best interests of Albany. Get real; jobs, taxes and productive land use. Like the council members, I wish some of these Luddites would accept the results of the planning process and the mechanics of economic change and focus on other relevant issues like the increasing number of vacant storefronts along Albany's commercial corridors.
Ross Stapleton-Gray August 16, 2012 at 03:53 PM
I ran into a petitioner down in North Berkeley BART this morning, as she angled for Albany residents. Asked her if she knew how much a special election would cost the City... "No, I have no idea." Whether or not she actually did, I volunteered the information for her edification. Standard spiel from her re democracy ("But I voted for Obama... I don't expect to second-guess him on everything that crosses his desk") and claims that people are slandering the Referendites on Albany Patch. Like with voter suppression in PA and OH, if your ideas aren't popular enough that you need to lie to get them enacted, you're doing it wrong.
Robin Onaka August 16, 2012 at 04:21 PM
There were also two petitioners at the El Cerrito BART station this morning when I was getting on my train to SF. They were on the train platform instead of outside of the turnstiles; I suppose they were able to get upstairs because of the free BART rides. Anyway, I was the only Albany resident there at that time. I was very polite and said I was not interested and they backed off. Also helped that the train showed up at that very moment;) I thought yesterday (August 15) was the last day they could get signatures; I guess I was wrong.
Bart Grossman August 16, 2012 at 05:22 PM
It makes me angry that these petitioners call themselves "Keep Albany Local," when most of them would have never heard of Albany if they hadn't decided to seize the Gil Trac. We should not allow them to mess up what has truly been a local process that will have positive results for Albany.
Dawn August 16, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Is there a guarantee that these jobs will go to Albany residents? How about the senior apartments? The ball fields are only saved for 10 years, not "generations". I disagree that the inevitable increase in traffic will be offset by nearby residents walking to the market. Have you ever tried to walk home with weekly groceries for a family of four? I doubt that a lot of the nearby residents can afford to shop at Whole Foods anyway. The city has failed to approve any of the Safeway plans, yet they change zoning to allow a Whole Foods into Albany? Wouldn't our net taxes increase with a bigger Safeway, too? I, personally, like Whole Foods and would love to have one close by, but at least 800 people have signed this position.
Tess August 16, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Dawn, what would your reaction be if the Safeway moved into the new proposed location currently slated for WF and the WF moved into smaller existing Safeway current location on Solano? Yes, we would walk to the new store. We currently walk or ride bikes to Tokyo Fish Market, Safeway, Andronicos, and occasionally to Monterey Market. We walk to Eunice Gourmet to get coffee and to Starbucks if we want a longer walk. We frequent the farmer's market on Solano and many of the local restaurants. Buy what you need - sometimes smaller amounts.
don August 16, 2012 at 06:34 PM
dont know where you come from i was born and raised here i and others like albany we dont care of what other citys have we are albany leave it alone its not new york with tons of people and not friendly we dont want that its why people want to move here as its simple friendly and have a view not all cement and high rise so yes i will sign ref as for concil go with albany city people not others citys views if not its then time for all you to go don george
Tatter Salad August 16, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Tess, You listed several grocery markets within a mile of the 'proposed' Whole Foods; that is: Safeway, Tokyo Fish Mkt, Andronico's, and Monterey Market; you forgot Target (which has groceries and meat), Lucky's at the El Cerrito Plaza, Costco, and the weekly Albany Street Market. Costco underbids everyone here by an average of 14% on pricing, and Whole Foods charges more than all but Andronicos. Very few living immediately west of San Pablo will be shopping their unless they run out of milk or beer. Very few East of them will shop there unless they drive, and IF they drive, they will continue to shop from the surrounding stores which continue to offer much more, -for either price or quality-, then Whole Foods. (Meanwhile, the local Andronico's is in Chapter 11, and Safeway is waiting for their Berkeley store to be completed before they back-outa there). I don't think the Whole Foods marketing team is stupid. If Andronico's doesn't leave, then I doubt that Whole Foods will continue down this pipe dream. The City Council knows this too; they just want to get some retail stores fronts in, and the more the better. I suspect they are correct. The 'petitioners' are not doing this in the interest of Albany; -they will do anything to be a thorn in the side of the Big-U. From Oak Trees next to the stadium, to 'Tomatos' in the Gill Tract; they are just here to raise a ruckus (www.ruckus.org/).
Robin Onaka August 16, 2012 at 08:19 PM
I was curious and Googled the population of Albany. We have 18,786 people living here as of July 2012. While it is commendable that "at least 800 people have signed this 'position' (petition)" in such a short period of time, that is no way near a majority of of our current residents. While I also like the idea of having Whole Foods nearby, it is expensive and I don't forsee myself doing the bulk of my shopping there. But so what? It's all about choice and I like having options.
McGill August 16, 2012 at 08:38 PM
800 people have voiced their concerns about this project by signing the petition. I imagine this represents a meaningful percentage of the city's electorate and therefore maybe another discussion about the proposed plans maybe warranted, no? We can potentially avoid a special election. What percentage of the city's budget does the $200K in projected net benefit for this project represents?
Skip Moore August 16, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Robin, I'm glad you saved me the trouble, as I was thinking the same thing. Of course not all of the population are of voting age, as I'm guessing not all 800 signatories are Albany residents or are registered to vote. This aversion to improving our community with an increased tax base and improved access to goods and services really leaves me baffled.
Skip Moore August 16, 2012 at 09:02 PM
As Robin points out above, the population of Albany is 18,786. The 800 signatories represent 4% of that. I think your imagination has deceived you if your going to call that meaningful.
Madisonian August 16, 2012 at 09:04 PM
So 800 people have signed the referendum petition. Some of them did it because they know the facts but are idealogically opposed for one reason or another -- fine. What concerns me is the misinformation petitioners are disseminating in order to get people to sign. I had one petitioner tell me (I believe this is the exact quote): "They completely circumvented the environmental review process and the public never got to have a say." [?!?] Another swore to me, "It won't cost the city a dime to put this on the ballot." I'm sure these are not the most egregious examples, and perhaps the petitioners weren't doing it intentionally, but it should be the responsibility of the organizers to make sure their volunteers are informed and honest. I seriously doubt that those behind the referendum care if people sign for the "right" reasons - but if your arguments are sound, you shouldn't have to lie to people.
McGill August 16, 2012 at 09:20 PM
Skip, You are using the wrong denominator b/c ~18K is the population of the city not the number of eligible voters. You bring up a good starting point. Suppose 2/3 of the population is eligible to vote then 800 / (18,786*2/3) = 6% of the electorate. Does 6% of the electorate warrant another look at the proposal?
Alan Riffer August 16, 2012 at 09:30 PM
California Election Code establishes 10% as a meaningful percentage. There are approximately 10,000 registered voters in Albany. (It changes daily as people add, change or delete registrations.) Thus, there is a need for approximately 1000 valid signatures of registered voters on petitions circulated in compliance with the Election Code for the referendum process to proceed. Close counts in horseshoes, not elections. The net benefit is about 1.5% of the City's General Fund revenues. The scope of the analysis of the net impact was limited to the General Fund. This does not include the benefit from parcel taxes to the School DIstrict of approximately $35,000, Library of $5,000 and various other agencies in other amounts. It also does not include the reduction in individual property taxes that each current taxpayer will receive because the fixed interest payments associated with City, School District and other bond issuers will be spread across an increased assessment base.
Michael Barnes August 16, 2012 at 09:31 PM
McGill, Here's a thought experiment for you. Let's say every signature gatherer had been paired-up with someone as knowledgeable as Peggy McQuaid about the history of the Whole Foods project. If a potential signatory to the petitions listened to both sides of the story, how many signatures do you think would have been gathered by now? I suggest it would be far less than 800.
Alan Riffer August 16, 2012 at 09:42 PM
McGill - California Election Code establishes 10% as the threshold for a referendum, not 6% or 9.9%. There are approximately 10,000 registered voters in Albany. (It changes daily as people add, change or delete registrations.) Thus, there is a need for approximately 1000 valid signatures of registered voters on petitions circulated in compliance with the Election Code for the referendum process to proceed. Close counts in horseshoes, not elections.
Michael Barnes August 16, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Tatter, I know you have been on my case about Google lately, but a quick check in Google Earth using the line/ruler tool shows that Costco is about 1.6 miles from the proposed site of Whole Foods. As the crow flies. Andronico's is just about one mile.
Jewel Okawachi August 17, 2012 at 01:51 AM
I submitted to PATCH, the comments by Council members Thomsen and Wile because I feel strongly that this is not the right time for a referenda. I worked very closely with the University when on the City Council, long before any specific plans were discussed. We need the senior housing now; having lived in albany for over 80 years, I have elderly friends who have asked when the housing will be available. These friends who have no desire to leave Albany. Whole Foods will be a welcome addition to those Albany citizens who live in the Western areas of Albany and have never had a grocery store within walking distance to their homes - less cars? I wonder how many of those who have signed the petition realize that it will cost at least $60,000 from our general fund, to put this referenda on a special ballot? Remember these are your tax dollars.
Karin Lamb August 17, 2012 at 01:59 AM
Just a fast comment on the senior housing: It backs up onto the ball fields, and is smack at the entrance to a VERY child-friendly village environment that has always been a safe haven for neighborhood kids. The village *is* a village. What happens when the seniors decide they don't like all the noise from the ball fields, any lights on at night, the hundreds of kids who WILL trick-or-treat their building (one of the busiest trick-or-treat locales in Albany on Halloween)? Will kids playing hide and seek around their building make them grouchy, will they complain to the city, yell at the kids? Before you answer that, look up what happened to Cougar Field, which has been there for many many years in the last 15 years--no lights after 8PM, noise ordinances--and this is our highschool playing field, and has been there since before most of those residents who are up-in-arms about it moved in! Has there been an environmental impact report? How many trips will be generated by Whole Foods, and how many by the senior housing? How much parking is being provided? WHY is there no subsidized housing for seniors in the project? Why are none of the units considered "affordable housing"? How will the height of the project affect the temperature at the ball fields and in the village when they block out the early sun? Why shouldn't this be put to a vote by ALL the people--since some of us weren't able to attend all the evening meetings?
Dennis Keller August 17, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Karin - You appear to be someone who is quite busy (a trait shared by many of us). If you haven't had time to review the documents and attend the planning meetings, then what makes you believe you're more qualified than your elected representatives to make the decision? We elect our government so that they will spend the time to make informed decisions. It appears that the community has had sufficient time to voice concerns and that most of these have been resolved. If we've reduced the set of questions to those that include concerns about trick-or-treat traffic and ball field temperatures, then it seems that the process has been successful. I look forward to having a reason to walk down to San Pablo Ave from southern Albany. In the 7 years we've lived here, I've made that walk exactly twice.
Skip Moore August 17, 2012 at 04:29 AM
Thanks for bringing this topic back to earth, Dennis. Well said.
Caryl O'Keefe August 17, 2012 at 05:54 AM
Karin, Dennis says perfectly the major problem with us ALL voting - the improbability of very many being informed about this complex issue. Another reason is the cost of a special election, estimated by the mayor at $60,000 (it's too late to get on the Nov ballot. The City would have to pay Alameda County Registrar of Voters for a special election). Third, concerns about a misinformation campaign. The flyer I was handed today when asked to sign petitions had wrong info despite corrections provided days ago on PATCH. Misinformation would make it frustrating and confusing for voters. Objective information including the Draft and Final EIR is at this City link in 60+docs from several years for this project: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=521. Also, you asked about affordable housing. Maybe you meant inclusionary housing, which isn't in this project because CA appellate court rulings have invalidated requirements for inclusionary housing in rental units (like what's proposed here). If you meant affordable housing, see this: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=385.
don August 17, 2012 at 11:12 AM
SKIP MOORE do you know albany village uc berk land and rental of students to none moneys goes to albany and students stay and vote all the taxes in and they leave as their here short time and we end up paying the tax we didnt want stuck with now remember albany race track they paid good part of home owners taxes they paid around million in taxes now also note this new complex will give is what 200 hundred thousand we should have left the track alone don
Timothy August 17, 2012 at 03:46 PM
It was 1450 signatures at the end, and 1392 were accepted as valid, registered Albany voters.
B August 18, 2012 at 09:52 PM
Hear, hear!
tr August 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM
reminds me of the 60s complaints about yankees registering black voters in the south. it makes me disapointed that council members did not represent the opinions of people who live here.

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