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UC Moves Forward with Albany Development Plans

Friday July 02, 2004

Despite objections from several students, faculty and the Albany City Council, a University of California committee Wednesday approved UC Berkeley’s plan to demolish some of its most affordable housing and uproot one of the area’s last vestiges of farmland. 

However, the fight over University Village—a 77-acre plot just over the Berkeley border along San Pablo Avenue with apartments for graduate student families and 10 acres of agricultural research land—might be far from over.  

Residents of the 412 units of condemned housing have promised a legal challenge to the university’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and one Albany official hinted at doing the same. 

“It’s a possibility,” said City Councilmember Alan Maris. “Their EIR says traffic impacts are insignificant. They haven’t proven that to us.” 

The $268 million project, in the works since 1998, will come in two parts. Starting in early fall, the university will demolish and replace a row of 1960s-era graduate student housing. Two bedroom apartments that currently rent at $786 per month will nearly double to $1,302 to pay off the bonds floated by UC. 

Then in 2006, the university plans to move two little league fields to the agricultural land known as the Gill Tract, restore Cordornices Creek near where the baseball fields currently sit, and build roughly 800 new units of housing for faculty and mostly single graduate students. Some of that new housing would be on San Pablo Avenue above 72,000 square feet of new retail space that would include a mid-sized supermarket. 

The second phase of the project, which still requires official approval from the regents’ buildings and maintenance committee, was scheduled to begin this year, but UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor Tom Lollini said the university had floated too many construction bonds at other building sites to start the project at the present time. 

Also, Lollini said, UC has dismissed the Memphis, Tenn.-based private developer Allen & O’Hara and will likely develop the retail space itself through public financing. 

Agricultural researchers—who would probably be displaced to an East Bay Municipal Utilities District site in Pinole—and UC graduate students have opposed the plan from the start. The city of Albany, however, is a recent convert to the opposition camp. 

The Albany City Council supports relocating the ballfields to the Gill Tract, building the supermarket and replacing the housing, which is susceptible to mold, but has balked at UC’s refusal to pay development fees and mitigate costs for services to the proposed village, which is expected to house nearly one out of every four Albany residents. 

Environmental Planning Systems, Inc., the same consulting firm Berkeley hired to determine the cost of the university’s exemption from local taxes and assessments, found that the project would result in a net deficit of $713,000 to Albany’s general fund. 

“Right now the way things are heading the university wouldn’t be paying its fair share,” said Albany Planning Manager Dave Dowswell. Although Albany, with a population of just 17,000, didn’t have a budget deficit this year, Dowswell said the city “wasn’t flush enough to be put in that position.” 

Most egregious, said city officials, was UC’s refusal to compensate Albany for increased fire services. Not only could expansion at University Village result in a 41 percent to 83 percent increase in calls for service, according to a city study, but the five story buildings considered for San Pablo Avenue would require a ladder truck, which the Albany Fire Department lacks. Currently Albany depends on Berkeley to supply such equipment in case of emergencies. 

Councilmember Maris said UC’s original plans never contemplated five-story buildings. “It is shocking that UC would build up to five stories on San Pablo when our zoning code set height limits at 38 feet,” he said. 

Assistant Vice Chancellor Harry Le Grande told the UC Regents that UC Berkeley “does not typically pay for fire services in the community where we are,” and that “the university does not provide for all local services.”  

Lollini, who oversees university planning, highlighted a number of benefits Albany would gain from the development, including the new ballfields, restored creek, an infant/toddler center, a community center, and a redesigned street system for the village. He also said the development would net the city about $250,000 in sales tax revenue, although Albany City Administrator Beth Pollard estimated the revenues at significantly less: $16,000. Further negotiations between the city and university are planned before the second phase of the project begins. 

The regents’ committee asked tough questions of Lollini, but voted unanimously to approve with only Student Regent Matt Murray abstaining. Regent Joanne Kozberg complimented the campus on “a really good plan....The materials were very clear and it will make a contribution to the East Bay and university,” she said. 

But before UC can start construction, it will likely have to fend off a lawsuit from displaced graduate students. The Village Residents Association Committee for Affordable Housing has retained Stuart Flashman, an Oakland-based attorney, to challenge the university’s EIR. Flashman said if negotiations failed he would seek an injunction to block construction and argued UC had failed to address the impacts of displacing low income students. 

Although the prices for the new units will nearly double to $1,302 per month, Le Grande, who oversees residential housing, said they would still be about 23 percent below market rate, which he estimated at $1,709. “I think we’re being as responsive as we can given the cost of construction in the area,” he said.