Gilman Ballfields Hit Fast Track By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday June 24, 2005

Two city commissions mulled matters as diverse as artificial turf and burrowing owls Thursday during a joint evening meeting called to discuss the Gilman Street Playing Fields. 

During the 90-minute session, both Planning and Parks and Recreation commissioners heard from an Albany city councilmember, the chair of the Waterfront Commission, representatives of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Citizens for Eastshore Parks plus assorted city staffers and others. 

The meeting follows the release of proposed amendments to the Waterfront Specific Plan and zoning codes, along with the project’s environmental impact study and its accompanying proposed mitigated negative declaration. 

The city is pushing the project through the commission process, hoping for a final City Council vote on Sept. 27, according to planner Alan Gatzke. 

While the entire project will include two regulation soccer fields, two softball fields and a full-scale hardball field, only the soccer fields are in line for the first phase of development, said Parks and Recreation Department project manager Roger Miller. 

The $3 million initial phase will build the end-to-end fields on the northeast portion of the site along the south side of Gilman and extending down the Eastshore Freeway frontage road end at the northern edge of the hardball field site. 

The fields are costly in part because they are made of artificial turf atop an 18-inch drainage platform designed to allow play within an hour after a rain. 

The baseball fields, a small field house with restrooms on the north and additional restrooms on the south and, perhaps, night lighting would follow in a second phase after further funds are secured. 

The land, owned by the East Bay Regional Parks District, is currently occupied by the overflow parking lot for Golden Gate Fields on its northern half and unpaved land on the south. 

Eastshore State Park owns the narrow strip along the waterfront, including the Bayshore Trail. 

A joint powers agreement formed by the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito and Richmond was created to initiate the project, and will result in the formation of a Joint Powers Authority which will work with Berkeley officials to bring it into being. 

City Director of Parks and Recreation and the Waterfront Mark Seleznow said the cities banded together because “of the enormous deficit of playing fields throughout the East Bay community” and “the parks district doesn’t do this kind of work.” 


Environmental concerns 

Vice Mayor Allan Maris of Albany, a veteran of his city’s Waterfront and Parks and Recreation Commissions before his election to the council, noted that the East Shore Park General Plan included playing fields on the Albany Plateau at the base of the Albany Bulb to the north of Golden Gate Fields. 

That notion was later abandoned after objections were raised by environmentalists, including Norman La Force of the Sierra Club and Robert Cheasty of Citizens for East Shore Parks. 

Both were on hand Thursday to endorse the current proposal—with one proviso. 

La Force, who was speaking both for the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, said the best alternative was to create a new habitat for burrowing owls on the Albany Plateau. 

When Planning Commissioner Sara Shumer noted that the Berkeley Meadow at the base of the Berkeley Marina was also used as an owl habitat, La Force said that the land was also reserved as habitat for two raptors that compete directly with the owl, while a habitat on the plateau could be prepared especially for the owls, officially recognized as a threatened species.  

Planner Alan Gatzke said the Planning Commission will be asked to vote on two amendments to the Waterfront Specific Plan which will allow the fields to be built. 

The first provides specific language to allow development of ballfields on the site, while the second would exempt the project from a requirement to prepare a master development plan for the project, a lengthy and potentially expensive process. 


Deadlines and meetings 

Planning commissioners will also be asked to give their approval to a zoning ordinance change needed before the city can move ahead. 

As the joint meeting ended, the Planning Commission voted to set a July 13 hearing on the environmental impact statement. 

“Major commissions involved in drafting the plan must all provide comments” on the EIS, Gatzke said. 

While the Transportation Commission offered their comments last week, the Waterfront Commission offered theirs at a meeting held simultaneously with the Planning Commission. Parks and Recreation is scheduled to offers theirs on Monday, with a final deadline for submission on July 6. 

Final comments for the environmental documents will be taken at the Planning Commission July 13 meeting, with the commission scheduled to vote on the plan and zoning amendments on July 27. 

Seleznow said that if all goes as planned, the construction contract on the soccer fields would be signed in spring or early summer of 2006, with the first games to begin early that September.,