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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.  

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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