Column: Open Letter to the Albany City Council on the Gill Tract

The Albany Farm Alliance presented this open letter to the City Council on May 21. Albany Patch welcomes guest columns and letters to the editor via albany@patch.com. Click "Keep me posted" below for Gill Tract updates.

[Editor's Note: This letter was co-written by numerous members of the Albany Farm Alliance. The byline has been corrected to reflect this. Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more on Albany Patch about the Gill Tract occupation.]

The Albany Farm Alliance

May 21, 2012

Open Letter to the

The Albany Farm Alliance thanks Councilwoman Wile for her support and encouragement of urban farming. Resolution 8.1 shows that there is wide ranging interest in the Gill Tract farmland. From small children and their parents up to elected officials, Albany residents have for decades enjoined Albany to explore the possibility of an agricultural center on the public land known as the Gill Tract. 

Unfortunately, Resolution 8.1 does not go far enough to address the issues at the heart of this matter nor does it protect this land in perpetuity. As such, the Albany Farm Alliance cannot support it.  

Albany is a small city in development negotiations with a large land grand University. While UC fulfills its charter to educate the California population, Albany has little legal standing to influence its actions. However, UC is in the process of changing public land into private use. It is at this time, and this time only, that Albany has approval rights over all 20 plus acres of 'open space' left on the Gill Tract.

Albany has the right to bargain with UC specifically because UC is seeking major zoning variances from the City. The Albany Farm Alliance is asking City Council to negotiate the best deal it can. We want Albany to use its power to represent the interests of all Albany residents: home owners, renters, business owners, little leaguers, cyclists, students, seniors - and farmers. 

Development is important, and the right development is part of the City Council's work. As stewards of Albany's future, we trust that decisions are always made with a  clear vision of Albany as connected community, not merely the sum of its individual parts.  Piecemeal development of a ball field here, a supermarket there, a garden elsewhere, may not be the best use of Albany's last  great ‘open space'. 

UC has divided discussion into separate "phases of development". This divided Albany and pitted one group of interests against another. We can avoid conflict if we simply talk about the entire space instead of just one small section at a time.

We are asking City Council to lead us. We would like you, our elected representatives, to discuss and vote on this issue directly. We do not want what may be the most important development decision of the decade to be farmed out to committees staffed by political appointees. This issue deserves your attention and the attention of all Albany residents.

Now is the time for City Council to begin open discussion for the benefit of the entire City on what we envision for the entire 20 plus acres of ‘open space'.

1) Do we want permanent Little League baseball fields in their current location? 

2) Do we want to create a world-renowned community accessible agro-ecology center on the last Class 1 farmland in the East Bay? 

3) Do we want commercial development that will daily bring more than 10,000 new automobile trips into Albany? 

UC wants development that is best for UC and seems to have lost sight of the fact that the Gill Tract is not its private property. Their charter does not include protecting the specific interests of Albany citizens. We elected City Council to lead us into the future. Please show us your vision of what Albany can become. Albany is more than just a dumping ground for UC's plans to make money. The Albany Farm Alliance is asking City Council to step up and advocate for Albany residents. 

Please reject UC's rushed plans and begin an open dialogue with all Albany residents on what our vision is for Gill Tract's remaining 20 plus acres of 'open space'. 

Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more on Albany Patch about the Gill Tract occupation.

papash May 23, 2012 at 02:18 PM
"daily bring more than 10,000 new automobile trips into Albany? "Really? so , besides all the traffic on the freeway and city streets currently, there are 5-10,000 people sitting at home, just waiting for Whole Foods to open so they can start up their cars and drive to Albany EVERY DAY? Somebody should call Fern Tiger and offer her $300,000 to verify this.
Ulan McKnight May 23, 2012 at 03:19 PM
The Albany Farm Alliance (http://albanyfarmalliance.com) was founded earlier this month in response to the Gill Tract occupation. Our mission is to advocate for agro-ecological education and the preservation and promotion of sustainable farmland. We are a group of Albany residents who have come together in support of sustainable urban farming in Albany. This letter was written by our members and approved by our planning committee after two lengthy meetings. Our intent was to stress our support for Councilwoman Wile's forward thinking efforts while hoping to make clear that the entire remaining Gill Tract 'open space' must be part of City negotiations with UC.  We, as a city, have the right to insist on open talks. The Albany Farm Alliance wants to see a united Albany and we believe a sustainable farm can be our vibrant beating heart. 
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 23, 2012 at 03:45 PM
I could die a happy man to never hear the term "Class 1 [soil/farmland]" again; it strikes me as a big fat sustainably-farmed red herring. The soil that's actually being farmed there today isn't some virgin Ur-soil placed there by Gaia and mercifully preserved untouched since the Creation... it's in the shape it's in because it's been worked and amended by researchers for a good long while. And you can buy bags of similar stuff at American Soil. But that raises the whole economics issue... have we ever, EVER, heard a discussion of how to address the "Who pays for things?" question? Not the little things (like who'd pay for water for an urban farm, and how and to whom is produce sold to produce the necessary cash flow), but why this absolutely valuable resource (not irreplaceable... see previous discussion about commercial soil and, say, the availability of commercial space in Berkeley within blocks) ought to be hijacked by this particular crowd. (Where exactly does the "Class 1" designation come from, btw? Whose designation is it... State of California? USDA? Classmates.com?)
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 23, 2012 at 03:47 PM
(That most crops one might imagine wanting to grow can also be grown in raised beds suggests that a plot's soil only matters so deep, which is probably a good thing in the East Bay, where it's clay down below.)
Eric Bordax May 23, 2012 at 04:19 PM
My favorite part of this poorly written article are the obvious appeal to emotion-ridden developmental options listed for the Gill Tract. Hmm, let's see we could either... build a sustainable garden with all these fancy soundbite words that make me feel good ("agro-ecology"?), put permanent Little League fields in because, of course, we need to think of the children, or... thousands of dirty awful cars polluting our sacred land!
Eric Bordax May 23, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Shouldn't that domain have been a ".org" rather than ".com"? Or are you actually a company (which would be a little ironic considering the whole point of your "alliance" is to advocate against another company building a store nearby)?
Dover May 23, 2012 at 04:47 PM
Hey, Ulan, you're back! What a surprise! I guess your adventures in the "real world" didn't work out as you anticipated? I should say thank you. I just won $50 on a bet because you didn't even last a week. Warm up the gas guzzler, kids! Whole Foods, here we come!
M luudensis May 23, 2012 at 04:55 PM
"We can avoid conflict if we simply talk about the entire space instead of just one small section at a time." This seems a wee bit hypocritical coming from the movement that engineered a conflict to avoid participating in/ and to demonstrate the futility of talks with the UC/ city planning
dgies May 23, 2012 at 04:57 PM
'Class 1' is a USDA designation that basically means "good farmland". It's not some high honor to be fetishized. For more details see http://soils.usda.gov/technical/handbook/contents/part622.html
Winifred Owen May 23, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Yep, Dover - my thoughts exactly. Promises, promises. ;-)
Dover May 23, 2012 at 05:25 PM
"We can avoid conflict if we simply talk about the entire space instead of just one small section at a time." Translation: "Do what we want or we'll have another destructive tantrum."
Winifred Owen May 23, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Which will ultimately be put down in the same fashion as the last one.
Caryl O'Keefe May 23, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Ulan, please provide a citation that supports your assertion, "It is at this time, and this time only, that Albany has approval rights over all 20 plus acres of 'open space' left on the Gill Tract." City staff reports affirm that City of Albany land use policies apply to the 6.3 acre proposed mixed use development site on San Pablo Ave, because the proposal is for a non-UC mission project. But nothing I find says Albany has "approval rights" over land other than the project's 6.3 acres.
dgies May 23, 2012 at 08:01 PM
I think he's trying to suggest the city use its authority over the 6.3 acre mixed use project as leverage to gain concessions or an easement over the land being retained by the UC. I'm unsure whether that plan is overly optimistic, or just obstructionist.
John Doh! May 23, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Maybe this all works to UC's benefit. If UC gave control of what's left of, and is now called, the Gill Tract to Albany, it would probably satisfy the exceptional ammenity needed to have a PUD. UC is a very skillful negotiator, I wonder if they recognized this opportunity when OTF began?
Ken May 23, 2012 at 10:09 PM
This appears to be another piece biased towards OTF (aka AFA, since OTF created such a public mess/nuisance to Albany residents?). And again, UC is cast as the evil empire and a commercial development years in the planning process that includes a Whole Foods (oh, the horror!) and senior housing is just not acceptable from the perspective of the "farmers". I see no mention of the benefits that a reasonable development like this would generate, only that it would create "10,000 new auto trips/day". And of course no cost/benefit ratios - how many mouths could be fed from farming this plot? What about the benefits of: A highly desirable grocery store within walking distance of many Albany residents who would then not have to jump in their cars to drive to the WF in Berkeley or other market outside of Albany (sorry, Albany Safeway - you just don't have everything people want), a sorely-needed boost to Albany's tax revenues (anyone seen all those vacant storefronts on Solano and the drop in assessed property values that have cut into Albany's budget?), a highly desirable anchor tenant that will make the somewhat run-down stretch of San Pablo much more desirable, a lift for property owners who have seen their homes plummet in value, etc.? It appears to me that ATA is just a "kinder and gentler" spin of OTF that still supports "my way or the highway".
Michael Barnes May 23, 2012 at 10:13 PM
Dover, Uh, who'd you find to take the other side of that bet? I have this bridge in NYC I'm trying to sell....
Madisonian May 23, 2012 at 10:51 PM
Is the author claiming (or just trying to confuse the public by implication) that the Whole Foods/senior project would bring "more than 10,000 new automobile trips into Albany"? If this is supposed to be a factual claim, I would like a citation. I just checked the EIR for the project, and the greenhouse gas calculations appear to be based on an assumption of 5,770 trips a day, some not-insignificant percentage of which must be assumed to originate from within Albany and not coming "into Albany." Some percentage certainly must also be assumed to displace vehicle trips that would otherwise go to other grocery stores (e.g. Safeway, Andronico's up the road). I'm not claiming that 5,770 trips is a small number either, but this has to be understood in context and not blown out of proportion (or intentionally exaggerated, as appears to be the case here).
Robin Onaka May 23, 2012 at 11:12 PM
With all of the places available to purchase organic groceries (i.e., farmers' markets, smaller retail markets such as Trader Joes and El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company, et al.) why would Albany need a "world-renowned community accessible agro-ecology center?" How would something like this help the city's tax revenues? Who would run it? How large would it be? Very basic, simplistic questions to be sure, but topics that would have to be discussed at some point.
Peggy McQuaid May 23, 2012 at 11:41 PM
Robin, you ask the same questions that have been asked several times before with no answers yet. I am convinced that is because there are no answers as there is no plan. Further questions for Ulan, who are the members of the Albany Farm Alliance? Who are the members of the planning committee and how are they selected? I looked at your website and still see no information about your organization. I have a hard time supporting any suggestions from a organization that hides behind a group name with no individuals committed enough to be identified.
Robin Onaka May 24, 2012 at 12:13 AM
Peggy, the Albany Farm Alliance seems to only be concerned about (1) getting control of the entire 20 acres of land when Albany only has a say on 6.3 acres of it ; (2) the location of the Little League playing fields (whether they stay or are moved elsewhere) and (3) that having a Whole Foods store will increase traffic in the city. Albany could sure use the tax revenues generated by Whole Foods. People say it's an expensive place to shop and while I agree with that, I also feel people are entitled to make their own choices. If it's too costly, don't shop there. You have alternatives. How would a farm be able to compete with all of the other choices available?
Emilie Raguso May 24, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Folks -- This letter was co-written by numerous members of the Albany Farm Alliance. The byline has been corrected to reflect this, and I have added a note about this at the top of the story.
Helen May 24, 2012 at 02:55 AM
10,000 fewer Albany residents driving through Berkeley sounds fabulous to me!
Jon Meyers May 24, 2012 at 04:08 AM
Not repeating points other folks have raised, I'd appreciate some clarification on: 1) "UC is in the process of changing public land into private use." - but I've read over and over that this is not "public" land. Can the authors clarify? 2) How many members does the Albany Farm Alliance have? It would help to get a sense of what proportion of local folks share these views.
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 24, 2012 at 04:55 AM
If you add one more store in an given region, you're most likely to see a net *decrease* in vehicular miles driven in that region, given that you've got more people opting to go to the now nearer store, and more people now able to walk or bike. Now, that's over the whole area... it may mean more net vehicular miles driven in Albany (but then less in Berkeley, etc., and it's a marginal gain... when I drive off to the Telegraph Whole Foods I'm doing some of that driving in Albany)... but we all ultimately share the air, burden of fossil fuel consumption, etc., as a region. In theory, the environmental advocates ought to care about the region, and not focus on one town in it (unless they're trying to divide and conquer, by sparking NIMBYistic concerns). Let's get away from these cartoonish (and exaggerated) visions of environmental impact.
Robin Onaka May 24, 2012 at 04:58 AM
How many members of the Albany Farm Alliance actually live in Albany?
papash May 24, 2012 at 03:39 PM
just wondering- has Whole Foods ever done a survey of how many cars actually come to their locations daily, like Ashby/Telegraph for example? That would provide a real, rather than speculative, number to work with
B May 24, 2012 at 03:52 PM
Hear, hear!
Kirsten Schwartz May 24, 2012 at 06:18 PM
Dear wonderful award-winning Emilie, why this statement? Is it (as I suspect) to correct the idea that Ulan is responsible for the Open Letter? Seeing as he read it aloud at the City Council meeting on Monday night, 5/21, I think we can assume he had something to do with it. He could at least answer some of the very reasonable questions posed here. I, too, am suspicious of people wanting things but hiding their true names behind, say, another (elvish?) name. This is different from suspicion of people merely posting comments behind an incomplete name; Dover is not asking for something in the way AFA is.
don June 01, 2012 at 01:34 AM
looks like we need vote wile out she should been on side of albany not berk or ucberk just have them leave period no words just leave and let uc regents mess with this not us we already have farm planting there anyone notice don


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