Monday, April 23, 2012

Gill Tract: Seems like a no-win situation for everyone in the immediate future

(comments in this blog are the feelings of the author, and not the publication which this appears in)

Tuesday's Planning & Zoning Committee Meeting has the potential to change Albany in many ways. There are two items which will be up for discussion. Normally, I would have expected the AT&T tower application to have been pretty contentious. At least that was until yesterday, when a group called Occupy The Farm came in and set up in the University of California's Gill Tract agricultural fields.

At first this looked like a spur of the moment get-together in concert with Earth Day 2012. However, organizers have issued a statement that this has been in the works since last November. Honestly, Their ability to keep it under wraps is admirable no matter what you feel of their actions.

The major action item at the P&Z meeting will be action on the university's "Whole Foods/Senior Housing" development. This project has been in the works for over four years and is the largest project to come to our sleepy little town since Target. This project develops about two-thirds of the un(der)developed land. However, does not include the agricultural fields immediately north of the University Village. This area is what Occupy The Farm is fighting over.

When you look at everything said by all sides, pro and con, there are basically three points of discussion.
  • Opening of Whole Foods Market
  • Development of the last agricultural land in Albany
  • Legality of the occupation
* * *

Whole Foods Market is a corporation, based out of Austin, Texas, and has been around since 1980. They have over 300 stores in the United States and Europe. The nearest store is in the Lake Merritt district of Oakland.
Additionally, they tout themselves as a leader in wholesome and organic products for the home. As my church is located in Oakland, I've purposely stopped by Whole Foods on my way home Sundays.

There are two groups which are attacking Whole Foods coming to Albany. First off are those that deny WF's claim to sell organic products. A recent comment on the Albany Patch said Whole Foods primarily sells Genetically Modified Foods. Another person labeled them as "creepy corporate." In fact, I saw only one comment from an anti-WF point where the person actually admitted to setting foot inside a Whole Foods. I don't know exactly what percentage of WF's products contain GMO, and what percentage are certified organic and I seriously doubt the other person does as well. They did not mention their sources to that claim. I will say that their produce section, which a good portion of it claims to be organic is one of the best quality-looking sections in the area. Another comparison would be Berkeley Bowl West.

Another of the complains is their "overpricing" of foods. Their prices are comparable to BBW, and I have to be honest and say the prices I have seen at Farmer's Markets are not cheap in any stretch of the imagination. Lucky and Safeway food pricing is up and down comparable to WF, depending on what sales are on that week. While my family has been a Safeway Family for years, I've found the Albany Safeway is looking more dreary every time I go through there, especially with the amount of water they seem to spray on their vegetables on 15 minute basis. Hopefully, that's to change when/if a new store is built on Solano Avenue.

If you can get past the GMO/Organic and pricing issues, it gets down to politics, union vs non-union. They may be union, but workers at WF seem to be happy with their work and are always helpful when you ask them for/about something. Generally, if people are unhappy with their work it shows in way their carry themselves at work. This boils it down to those that have a union-only mentality vs those that look at it on a case by case basis.

* * *
The second question is regarding development of the open space boarded by Jackson St, Buchanan Street, San Pablo Avenue and Village Creek. Annually, this area is used by the UC agricultural department for experiments. It's probably not really obvious as you usually don't see people working the field, and most of the year the land is vacant, except for the yellow carpet of wild mustard, the famous Albany Turkeys and the flights of Canadian Geese who stop by on their way through on their migration. While not a part of the current proposal, It had been in the past, with varying degrees of development.

The worst possible option was to bring student housing all the way to the Marin extension fence line. I know of nobody that wanted that. My immigrant grandmother called the forest "ViennaWald" because it reminded her of the forests of her native Austria. She would be saddened over the cutting of the diseased trees, and the idea of it being covered with houses. As of right now, its future is nebulous at best. If I had a gut feeling, it is destined as open space with planted grass.

This option is not acceptable to the Occupy The Farm organization, who would like to see this area turned into a community farm. The idea certainly should be looked at. The idea of turning this area into a working farm is not original to Occupy The Farm. is an organization that would like to do that, in concert with UC and the Albany Unified School District.

A perfect example of a community farm in the San Francisco Bay Area urban area would be Fremont's Ardenwood Historic Farm. Ardenwood is 200+ acres of rural goodness. You can buy organic produce. They have farming demonstrations. Could something similar be done with Gill Tract? Well, yes and no. Having a community garden would be great. However, we're only talking several acres. If it's a working garden, how would it be managed?

As mentioned earlier, the University of California DOES use this for agricultural studies, whether it looks like it to the average passer by, or not. At the present time they have not announced any intentions to discontinue that usage. Should a community garden go in here, an equal amount of acreage would need to be found elsewhere to make up for the loss.

Lastly, anyone who lives in the immediate area are familiar with the wild life that calls the area their's. You have Albany's famous Wild Turkey flock that calls the area home. I can only imagine what is going through their little heads as their see humans invading their area and setting up camp; tearing up their nesting area. Should this be turned into a farm what is to become of the turkeys? Will pens be built to domesticate them? Not a very happy proposition for the turkeys.

While we may have the ability to control the turkeys, how despicable that idea is, there is the question of the huge flocks of Canadian Geese that take stop in the Gill Tract fields, along with the ball park at Oceanview School and the small grassy area of the Agricultural Building, while on their migration. The like this area particularly because of the corn left over, and other edible plants. I'm lucky enough to live on the glide path, and if you're never had a huge V of 30 geese fly less than 10 feet over the roof of your house, I feel sorry for you. These geese are bigger than the average Beagle and make a unique honking noise. (We've had a couple not so happy experiences where they've hit the power lines and actually knocked power out to a six+ block area!!). What is going to happen when the it's fall harvest time and the flocks return on their way South? Will they be unmolested while they sample the farm goods?

* * *
The last question is about legality of the occupation. Plain and simple it's not. It really amazes me the way people who support something gloss over the illegality because they feel their cause is just, or that they are fighting something. The property in question is owned by the University of California. The rebuttal argument is that this is a public institution and I am a member of the public. Well, sure, you're a member of the public, and the State of California owns the Gill Tract. But does that give a group of Californians the right to usurp the land because they think it should be used a different way? If you say "Yes" then you also support someone moving onto park land and doing with it what they wish. How about looking at it another way. Say me and my buddies want to build an ice rink because downtown Oakland is just too far to drive. There are a couple hundred of us who want to form our own league. There's this property owned by the city and we're just going to break the lock, go in and set up some ice equipment (free electricity courtesy of the city after all!!). Are we trespassing since we didn't negotiate to use the property? Absolutely! On a basic level, what's the difference between my ice rink and your farm on property that does not belong to you? Nada.

* * *
The biggest retort from Pro-Occupy people is you just want the status quo and are fearful of change. If you don't like this, what's your suggestion? So here are some suggestions for the City of Albany, University of California and the citizens of Albany to consider.

The agricultural area was taken out of the University Village project (I think) because it was a political fight that wasn't necessary for their immediate cause. Smart on their part. If the City of Albany wants to continue to have the most leverage over the area they need to reintroduce it back into the conversation. They delayed the project by insisting the little league ballparks were protected for another 10 years. Right or wrong, UC considered that and worked with Albany Little League to come to some sort of a resolution. The City of Albany should get some type of a moratorium agreed to that would preserve this property from being developed for a period of 25 years. As an alternative option, and since Occupy The Farm insists it's so, an advisory ballot measure should be considered asking the voters of Albany whether they would support a Bond Measure to purchase the property outright, or at the very least lease it for 100 years, from the university. Price should be contingent on the undeveloped land price NOT the developed land price. The money would then allow UC to find suitable land elsewhere to continue their tests.

My gut feeling is the actual voting populace of Albany will not vote for it. The importance of doing this on a city-level is that it shows how the citizens feel, not an organization that probably does not contain a majority of people form Albany.

Here's another more radical thought. Has there EVER been a burrowing spotted owl that took up residence in the plateau area of the waterfront? It's been something like five years since the controversial project was put in as a compromise for the well used soccer fields south of Golden Gate Fields. How many years will that land sit without any owls before it's written off as a valiant try that just didn't work? There's certainly enough acreage up there to set up a working farm the size of the Gill Tract's agricultural area. The only question would be suited the climate is to vegetables and fruits as it's a lot closer to the Bay than the Gill Tract?

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