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Council Puts Brakes on Whole Foods Project After Question about Little League Fields

During the city's last public meeting about a mixed-use project in University Village, set to include Whole Foods and senior housing, an attempt to require a written commitment between the University of California and Little League took many by surprise.

Silence overtook the crowded Council Chambers on a recent Monday when, rather than moving into of a major mixed-use project in , a councilwoman made a motion to move to closed session due to a letter that, to some, threatened the city of Albany with a lawsuit by the University of California.

The project involves plans for a and  in the lots just north and south of Monroe Street. Aspects of it were  in September after months of talks regarding zoning change requests in exchange for significant community amenities.

One major element of the project is a senior housing development designed to reach 62 feet tall; only heights of 38 feet are allowed in this area under existing city code. (.)

In the Oct. 17 City Council meeting, city staff recommended that the approve , which had been discussed at length by planning commissioners in numerous lengthy meetings. But staff also suggested adding new conditions of approval related to improving cycling access, as well as a guarantee about continued operation of nearby Little League fields.

City staff suggested adding language to require the university to "enter into an agreement with to allow the continued use" of two Little League playing fields, and one practice field, in the Village just west of the project site.

This change, according to the staff report, would be in line with council policy about the fields, and also would help balance the massing of the senior housing complex.

STRONG UNIVERSITY RESPONSE CHILLS COUNCIL

The university replied with a letter to Albany's city attorney arguing that this condition would violate state and federal law. According to the letter, this is because the fields are not part of the mixed-use project site, and also because the proposed Little League agreement has no direct connection to the project height.

The council spent nearly 45 minutes in closed session, then returned to the dais at 9:30 p.m. Following a PowerPoint presentation by the university, which is attached to this story as a PDF, Kevin Hufferd, the university's project manager for the endeavor, addressed the Little League disagreement head-on.

"Now the issue of Little League is, obviously, a hot topic for tonight," he said. "We were a bit surprised by this issue, frankly, to see the way it was included in the staff report."

Hufferd said the university had learned of the proposed new conditions just days earlier, when the staff report for the council meeting was released.

He spoke about the 55-year partnership between Little League and the university, and also explained that, six months earlier, the university had reached an agreement with the league to ensure that the fields would remain in place for at least 10 years. 

(Little League representatives have said they were satisfied with this agreement.)

Any agreement beyond this timeframe, Hufferd said, could become an issue for the Office of the President as well as the university regents. It would set a precedent, he said, by imposing a condition of approval on university property that "is not connected with the (project) application." 

"And I think the regents would not look highly on that," he told the council. "It pains us to be at this point, because ... frankly, we cherish our relationship with the Little League. And we cherish our collaborative relationship with the city of Albany. Unfortunately, we not only feel that this issue is beyond the authority of the city of Albany, we feel we cannot accept the imposition of this condition on our property."

HEIGHT AND TRAFFIC STILL CONCERNS FOR MANY

Twenty-three people spoke during public comment, which took the discussion to 11 p.m. Many were concerned about building height, local business, sustainability and traffic. Others said it was time to move the project forward and revitalize San Pablo Avenue, as well as provide a healthy boost to public art and the local economy and job market. (The project has been in the works for four years.)

Council members said they were not prepared to approve the project that night, given concerns about height, and whether the project actually offered enough public amenities to justify zoning changes. 

Several also said they were unhappy with the university's response to the suggestion that the Little League fields be part of the written agreement, and that the fate of the fields was, in part, holding up the project. 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

said last week that she still hopes the university will consider committing to an official agreement with Albany Little League. 

"We're looking for something that is an extraordinary amenity," she said. "They threatened to sue us because... it's outside the project. We're hoping that the university will think a little further and will choose on its own to enter into that agreement."

She said the fields, however, probably could not be a condition of approval. 

"We don't want to be sued," she said. She credited several aspects of the project, including improvements at the Dartmouth Street crossing, and additional open space near Codornices Creek, but added "we've got a missing piece here. The university's been doing a good thing. But they need to put it in writing. A gentleman's agreement can be fairly nebulous, and it can change." 

Jack Miller, Little League president, said the league "was as surprised as anybody" to see the suggestion regarding a formalized agreement with the university in the Oct. 17 staff report. He said the league was "satisfied" with the prior understanding it had with the university, allowing for 10 years of continued use of the fields. 

"We were dismayed that the city and the university came so close to an agreement and couldn't come to one," he said, adding that he appreciated the council's attempts to protect the fields. "We just want to see that, whatever happens, that Little League fields in Albany are assured for the foreseeable future." 

The league, which is 55 years old, included about 600 youth as of last year, both boys and girls, ages 5-18.

Hufferd said, last week, that the university had not been trying to threaten a lawsuit. 

"We don't intend to sue the city over this issue," he said. "Essentially we were trying to make sure the city was informed... about the potential limits to the city's authority to make such conditions on our project."

He continued: "We thought we were, based on the planning commission's approval, closer to having city approval based on the merits of our project. We went into Monday's hearing hopeful that we were there. It didn't turn out that way."

Hufferd said the university plans to meet with city staff to continue discussing what will come next. In the Oct. 17 meeting, city staff said the council could discuss the project again on Nov. 21.

THE BACKGROUND

In September, that the project did meet the conditions necessary for the requested zoning changes based on several aspects of the project, including improved bicycle access; additional open space along the creeks; and clear commitments from the university about when it would fund improvements to public spaces.

One piece of the project planning commissioners said would still need to be addressed in the future involved a possible cycle track from Dartmouth to Monroe Street, to complete access to the grocery store. 

Some officials have said they're not sure a cycle track would work safely in the space. Numerous cycling advocates in the city have said the project will not receive their support without it.

Want updates when we write about development plans for University Village? Click the green "Keep me posted!" button below the story.

. You can watch an archived video of the meeting on KALB here. Use the "Jump To..." menu below the video and select item 8-1 on the agenda to skip directly to the Whole Foods discussion.

Everybody makes mistakes ...  ! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at emilier@patch.com.  

Mark November 02, 2011 at 03:53 PM
Can everyone get their darn fingers OUT of the pie please???
Barbara Segal November 02, 2011 at 04:12 PM
The headline which comes up when you access the Albany Patch web-site says "Breaks." You should correct that word to "Brakes."
Trevor Grayling November 02, 2011 at 05:23 PM
Never underestimate the ability of some Albany residents and/or council members to naysay any project that might actually improve either the City or its finances. Meanwhile, roads, storm drains, sidewalks, and so on, continue to crumble. ...
Emilie Raguso November 03, 2011 at 12:42 AM
Hi Barbara! This was actually fixed at about 6:20 a.m., but our newsletter went out at 6 a.m. Let me know if you're still seeing it "live" inaccurately. Thanks for the sharp eyes!
Caryl O'Keefe November 03, 2011 at 05:33 AM
UC has been a good neighbor to Albany for decades by providing these fields, and Little League is satisfied with their informal agreement with UC about the fields. Council's approach, while reflecting an admirable desire to support Little League, provides a disincentive for anyone to do good just to be neighborly. Would Albany be better off had UC said decades ago to Little League, "no fields until we want something from the City"? Or if UC hadn't helped the City with space for police and fire a few years ago when work was done on City Hall? Or if UC hadn't found a home for the AUSD district offices now? Or for parking spaces reserved for Oceanview teachers on UC property? I still believe the economic, aesthetic, full-line grocery store, and housing benefits from this project warrant approval without additional amenities, or time.
ginger mcc November 03, 2011 at 03:53 PM
The senior housing project sounds good; bringing in Whole Foods Market - not so much. Within Albany's 2-square miles are: Safeway, The Junket, Happy Produce and Ranch 99 Market - not to mention several other small, locally-owned food businesses. Go just outside Albany's borders to find Lucky Supermarket, Trader Joe's, Andronico's and Monterey Market, and other small, locally-owned markets. What do you think will happen to some of those small businesses if Whole Foods comes in? Think about it, people...
Brian Parsley November 03, 2011 at 04:09 PM
Trader Joe's is a non union, corporate grocery chain with a total of 365 stores in 31 states. The store in El Cerrito pays no taxes to the City of Albany or Albany Schools. Andronico's, Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, El Cerrito/Berkeley natural grocery, Luckys, and Ranch 99 all ZERO property, sales, and parcel taxes to the City of Albany or our cash strapped schools. Shopping at "small, locally owned" stores, outside of Albany, may make us feel warm and fuzzy inside but it does very little to help our community. However I'm sure the students at Berkeley and El Cerrito schools are thankful for your tax dollars, I just wish that Albany children could have that same opportunity.
ginger mcc November 03, 2011 at 04:52 PM
I seem to remember Albany residents expressing concern over the construction of a "big-box" store when our local Target was in the planning stages. Does Target not bring tax dollars to Albany? What local businesses were affected, or went under, as a result of Target opening? There are many small groceries in Albany, and they WILL be affected by a Whole Foods Market - which overcharges for food, and under-pays employees. Also, I'm as concerned about Berkeley and El Cerrito as I am about Albany - I think keeping it local is the way to go. I'd rather spend my money at Monterey Market or Berkeley Bowl West or El Cerrito Natural than at Whole Foods Market. And, of course, that is my choice. I just hope that some of those stores are still an option after Whole Foods comes in. p.s. I strongly suspect that Trader Joe's is a much better employer than Whole Foods - so perhaps their workers don't feel the need to unionize. That's why they don't have the employee turnover that Whole Foods does. And do you think that Whole Foods is not a corporate chain?? At least Trader Joe's is based in California, instead of Texas.
Brian Parsley November 03, 2011 at 06:20 PM
I don't know of any stores that went out of business because of Target. The fact is that Target is the largest taxpayer in Albany. Additionally this evil "big box" store is a sponsor of National Night Out and Music In The Park. How many small Albany restaurants and delis Music in the Park benefit from Targets sponsorship? But we shouldn't talk about good things that corporations and chains do because we are morally superior to them and it doesn't fit nicely in our progressive little box. "There are many small groceries in Albany, and they WILL be affected by a Whole Foods Market - which overcharges for food, and under-pays employees." What are the many small groceries in Albany? What documentation can you cite that Whole Foods under pays it's employees?
John Bozek November 03, 2011 at 07:07 PM
actually TJ's is owned by a Geman company - Aldi I think. They do a great job of projecting a local feel though, don't they?
Sarajane Forbes November 03, 2011 at 11:48 PM
Umm, actually "Ginger",Whole Foods is a great company to work for. They consistently earn in the top 100 of Fortune's 500 Best Companies to work for( I can't find Trader Joe's on the list). My Brother in law works for Whole Foods and he earns an actual living wage to support his family while he goes to school , has great benefits and they even pay for some of his college and work around school hours for him! Isn't that what we want from a corporate giant? to pay employees well, and give back to the community? Oh, but wait, "they charge too much for stuff" in return. Boo hoo.Like john said, TJ's is owned by a larger grocery chain. So, they have done an excellent job of making you "feel" like you are shopping a local small company , but not so.we can't have it all I guess. Keep shopping at your "local" (but not in Albanay) Ranch 99 or Berkeley Bowl, just remember to donate to the Albany Education Foundation to "offset" your purchases just like we buy carbon offsets from Terra pass. Ooooh don't we feel all warm inside now?
Karen November 04, 2011 at 02:39 AM
How many years have we been "talking about" a Whole Foods and senior housing? Are we afraid we won't have anything else to nitpick to death? A lot of us shop at WF anyway and would appreciate not having to drive over to Ashby to do it. And it would be really nice if Albany had some affordable housing for seniors- they should not have to move to San Pablo or El Cerrito to stay in the area. I've lived here for over 15 years and I would LOVE to see that empty area on San Pablo be put to such a use.
ginger mcc November 04, 2011 at 02:44 AM
@Brian - I didn't do a good job of making the point, but yes, I doubt that Target had much impact on locally-owned business - unlike Whole foods, which I believe are likely to have a detrimental impact on Happy Produce, Zarri's Deli, and a few other small shops along Solano Avenue that I would name if I could remember their names. If/when corporations "do good", I'm all in favor of acknowledging those things - remembering, as Robert Reich points out in Supercapitalism, that those actions have NO IMPACT on Target's bottom line. Target is not here to do community service; it exists to make business decisions that will enhance its bottom line and keep its stockholders happy, period. (And yes, I am a Target shopper - can't afford not to be, in this crappy economy.) I have no documentation, but worked with several Whole Foods stores from 1993 to 2003, and at that time, they were paying just above minimum wage, and had a high rate of turnover. Per Sarajane's comment, perhaps they've changed their business model.
ginger mcc November 04, 2011 at 02:47 AM
@John - thank you for this reminder - the chain started in southern Calif. and was based there, but was sold somewhat recently (within the last five years) to the German company - I had forgotten about that. I don't think the company has to work particularly hard to project a local feel; they simply must keep working with the model Trader Joe's established over 35 years ago. Why mess with success?
ginger mcc November 04, 2011 at 03:06 AM
Sarajane, I am glad that your brother-in-law and his family are having a good experience with Whole Foods Market. Trader Joe's may not be a large enough company to be on Forbes' list. Regardless, I do believe that WFM overcharges for food, particularly their organic produce - which is why many people refer to the store as "Whole Paycheck". Personally, I can't afford their prices; however, sounds like your BIL is having a good experience, and I'm glad to hear it. As I said in my original post, I do the best I can to support local stores (and, by extension, local growers) by shopping at Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, El Cerrito Natural, and the local farmer's markets - I try to spread it around. I buy very little meat or produce at Trader Joe's. And as long as I shop Albany, El Cerrito and Berkeley, I feel I AM keeping it local - though perhaps not as local as you would like. I would like to donate to the Albany Education Foundation, but as a self-employed person in a very challenging economy, I'm my own favorite charity. Speaking of charity, you might consider extending some - or at least some courtesy - to your neighbors here in Albany. Meaning me. I did not attack you - but as a local business owner who has seen what big chain stores can do to locally-owned business (i.e., kill them), I do have serious concerns about Whole Foods Market coming in to Albany. And I would prefer to have a dialogue about those concerns without getting nasty about it.
Ross Stapleton-Gray November 04, 2011 at 03:10 AM
I'm one of those Albanians who shop the Ashby WF, and who'd shift to Albany. (Anecdotally, I've seen many of the same employees at that WF for years and years. And turnover isn't necessarily bad... the Solano Peet's seems to be a revolving door, but I suspect they're hiring college kids whose tenure is going to coincide with their time at Cal.) What I'd love to see is for the City to take some of the increased revenue from a Whole Foods, or expanded Safeway, or whatnot, and focus on promotion of the sorts of businesses that would be ideal for Albany, e.g., "knowledge work," where telecommuting is possible, where there aren't the sort of nasty byproducts some manufacturing generates, where you get a local ecosystem supporting those sorts of workers. I have a (very small) company of that sort, and when (crossing fingers) it grows, I'd love to keep it here. And I'd love to be joined by other such businesses... give me more people to talk with.
Michael Cabanatuan November 04, 2011 at 08:25 AM
Seems pretty simple to me. If you think Whole Foods is too pricey or it doesn't fit your political views , don't shop there. But plenty of people will, including me occasionally, and that will benefit the city and schools plus clean up a major eyesore.
John Doh! November 04, 2011 at 11:15 AM
The issue of traffic is being overlooked for some reason. The EIR used 8 year old traffic data from the Berkeley WF and assumes that traffic will be comparable (unavoidably heavy,) ignoring the fact that the UC project will be as much as 80,000 sf plus senior housing, inadequate, parking and the Berkeley WF is old and only 25,000sf.
Sarajane Forbes November 04, 2011 at 12:17 PM
@ Ginger:You are absolutely right, and I apologize. I meant the first part of what I said in response to you. The last, snarky part, was a more general statement to all of those who keep bringing up the "local" thing. Here's my deal. There will always be folks like you who choose to not shop at a Whole Foods for whatever reason (philosophy, prices, just plain hate for them...whatever) and that's fine. That is your choice. BUT we have to remember that there are people who WILL shop at Whole Foods! and a lot of them will come from OUTSIDE of Albany, to spend their dollars here. Right now we don't have much choice when it comes to shopping in Albany ("locally" is different, because like Brian said to shop locally is to spend our money outside of Albany, we get no gain from this) And you actually made a point for me. You , yourself, can't even remember the names of some of the shops on Solano, so why is someone going to drive from Berkeley or El Cerrito to shop at one? I, like you and many others, can't afford a lot at Whole Foods, but I shop there for items I can't find anywhere else. Their vegan and gluten free selection can't be beat, so for some with allergies or intolerances, WF is a Godsend if you want selection. Also, like you, many of us can't afford to donate to our school system. This again proves the point that we can use another large anchor (like Target), and reap the benefit of folks who will come to little Albany to shop. Agree do disagree.No hard feelings I hope.
A Berkeley Parent November 04, 2011 at 04:42 PM
If you wish the Albany Whole Foods/senior housing project to go forward, and disagree with Council Member Peggy Thomsen's attempts to stop the project over the Little League Fields, please let her know. Her phone (as listed on the Patch) is 510-559-7250 and e-mail is peggy.thomsen@gmail.com.
ginger mcc November 04, 2011 at 07:10 PM
thank you for your gracious reply. What I would love most would be to see Berkeley Bowl open a 3rd market in Albany. They'd have to call it something besides "Albany Bowl", since we've already got oone of those... "Berkeley Bowl Northwest", anyone? ; )
ginger mcc November 04, 2011 at 07:13 PM
to those of you who have said you shop at Whole Foods in Berkeley (and brave the traffic and parking hassles to do so): What draws you there? Specifically, what does that store offer that Berkeley Bowl West does not?? I would like to know, and I'll bet the owners of Berkeley bowl would be interested to know, too (and I work with one of them!).
Sarajane Forbes November 04, 2011 at 07:51 PM
A Berkeley Bowl would be great, I agree. But unfortunately Berkeley Bowl hasn't approached the UC and asked to build there. I think it is a great store and all, but I find that I like WF for the selection of GM merchandise best, a close second would be the prepared foods/ Bakery or frozen foods to take home and prepare ( I don't buy much produce at WF, that is either a farmers market or TJ's). I know that BB has a lot to offer, but I loath to drive over there. I hardly drove to WF in Berkeley either (hate that location and parking). The Oakland WF is my favorite♥ And since it is so far, less than a once a month trip and a lot of stocking up are in order.
John Doh! November 05, 2011 at 11:05 PM
I don't think the issue of which companies occupy the spaces should affect the decision to rezone. It's a free country and people will choose to support the businesses or not. To me, the real question is why should UC be granted a zoning variance to add 80,000 sf of retail (55,000 Whole Foods & 30,000 other?) Their lobbyist shows pictures of graffiti covered fences as the before shot (ignoring that UC is not cleaning up the blight,) and drawings of a beautiful gateway to Albany as the after image. But one thing is glaringly absent in the after drawing - TRAFFIC CONGESTION. The traffic will be much worse than the flawed EIR predicts and nobody seems to mind that there isn't going to be adequate parking. Really, what does the city gain? And, food purchases do not have sales taxes attached to them. Under current zoning, UC can still build a 15,000 sf grocery store and senior housing. My understanding is that those 2 pieces are what everyone wants to see.
Preston Jordan November 08, 2011 at 12:25 AM
I generally support this project. There are issues yet to work out (my focus is on getting the project to provide good cycling access to Whole Foods, as many know), but this generally seems like an appropriate in-fill project for a major transportation corridor in a relatively urban area (Albany's 2000 population density was in the 93rd percentile of California cities). I am baffled how the proposed Little League condition of approval came up at the 11th hour, threatening to torpedo this project. Having attended, watched, or at least been familiar with the outcome of almost all the previous Planning and Zoning, Council, Traffic and Safety, and Sustainability meetings, I had never seen this put forward before. Could Patch interview City staff and the Council and let its readership know how and why this happened? Beyond the question timing, I have been informed by staff over the years that conditions of approval can only regard the project property or off site features that are demonstrably impacted by a project. The FEIR does not indicate any impacts to the Little League Fields, again raising question regarding the City's last minute effort. As to Whole Foods, one of the last chapters of Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" suggests that opponents could do more to positively change the corporation by demonstrating at an Albany location than by keeping it out of town. Sunk investment is much more painful to walk away from.
Emilie Raguso November 08, 2011 at 08:56 AM
Great question, Preston! I do not have the answer but I had wondered about this myself, and not managed to ask it. I'll put that on my to-do list!
Robert Marshall November 17, 2011 at 05:02 PM
Help me understand something Ginger. You consider The Junket in Albany, but you don't consider Trader Joe's despite the fact they are both in the El Cerrito Plaza, on the same side of the street and less than 200 feet (or less) between them? Makes no sense to me.
Robert Marshall November 17, 2011 at 05:22 PM
This may not be a popular opinion, but I have to question if the city has the legal authority to require an agreement that benefits a private entity. Regardless of how many boys and girls play in Little League, it IS a private venture. If the local Little League had reached an agreement, and were HAPPY, why should the City, hold up a project that is not directly impacted by those playing fields? Frankly, I'm more concerned about height restrictions being enforced for one project (Verizon Wireless) but basically ignored for a huge complex of Senior Housing/mixed use buildings. We're not talking about a few feet. We're talking about buildings that are taller than most of the trees that have been cut down in the Village.
ginger mcc November 18, 2011 at 12:21 AM
robertjm, I don't mention Trader Joe's because they are not a small, locally-owned business. The Junket is! Small, locally-owned businesses are most vulnerable when a big, well-funded chain store moves in. Trader Joe's ain't going anywhere.
Emilie Raguso January 12, 2012 at 04:06 AM
Council study session coming Tuesday, FYI, details here: http://patch.com/N-cRSJ

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