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Albany Council Will Oversee Mall Development By F. Timothy Martin Special to the Planet

Friday October 14, 2005

Some call it a mall, others, mixed-use retail. Whichever the case, tensions were mounting in Albany as city leaders prepared for the unveiling of the latest development plan for the 102-acre Golden Gate Fields property on the Albany waterfront. 

For the past 10 months, Los Angeles-based developer Caruso Affiliated has been promoting the idea of building “high quality” retail development on the parking lot of the racetrack, which was purchased by Magna Entertainment in 1999. A presentation of plans by the Magna-Caruso partnership took place Thursday, but the Albany City Council decided to take action of its own earlier in the week. 

The Albany City Council gave their approval to establish an advisory team to explore the idea of developing at Golden Gate Fields. The city will use its own staff and consultants, while Caruso will cover the costs. 

“This clearly is the most significant piece of property in the city,” said Beth Pollard, Albany’s city administrator, who presented the council with a highly-anticipated staff report on the Golden Gate Fields property. The report was distributed to the public at the meeting and is available on the city’s website.  

City officials stressed the importance of exploring options that would strike a balance between maintaining revenues and open space. 

“Ultimately it’s the Albany voters that will determine what uses are allowed,” Pollard said, referring to Measure C. 

Passed in 1990 in response to previous development proposals at the waterfront, Measure C forces a city-wide election on any application for a use not authorized by the waterfront zoning district. Commercial retail is currently not an authorized use, therefore Magna-Caruso will have to convince Albany residents if they are to move forward. 

With the growing popularity of simulcasting taking race fans out of the grandstand, Magna is seeking new ways to boost sagging revenue and track attendance. Proponents of the retail development plan argue that it would provide a stable source of income for the city as well as business opportunities for entrepreneurs.  

While the city still generates close to $900,000 annually from having the track in town, there is concern over how much longer Magna will keep their horses running in Albany. Some point to Magna’s plans to develop a new racetrack in Dixon as a sign they might be pulling out of the Bay area. 

Magna representatives say the track isn’t going anywhere. 

“We have no plans to end thoroughbred racing at Golden Gate Fields,” said Peter Tunney, vice president with Magna. 

But not everyone seemed reassured by their assurances. 

“In my experience people are most adamant they’re not going to leave just before they do,” said Albany Mayor Robert Good. “It would be wise for us to prepare.” 

Heeding calls for such preparation, earlier this month the city’s waterfront committee asked for the creation of a waterfront master plan to be completed independent of any specific development proposal. Such a plan could cost Albany between $500,000 and $1 million. 

That would be money well spent, according to some Albany city leaders who have expressed concerns over the likelihood that the Caruso-funded advisory team, though staffed by city consultants, would favor the developer’s agenda.  

Former Albany mayor and current waterfront committee member Robert Cheasty said he was “mildly disappointed” upon hearing that Caruso would fund the advisory team. 

“Asking a developer to put up the money may save money, but it puts us at a disadvantage,” said Cheasty. “We don’t have a truly independent process.” 

Cheasty and others are solidly against major retail development at the site. Environmentalists and open-space advocates desperately want to protect one of the last underdeveloped spots in the Bay area. For them, the area presents a rare opportunity to preserve waterfront property as parkland. 

“They [Caruso] have wonderful ideas for Southern California and I think they should take them back to Southern California,” quipped Cheasty, who is also the president of Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), an umbrella organization of environmentalists dedicated to preserving open space at the waterfront. CESP is promoting an alternative plan that favors tearing down the track to create more open space. As a compromise, the CESP plan would build a hotel conference center on a smaller portion of land close to the freeway. 

On Thursday all eyes were on Caruso as residents and officials awaited the announcement of their development proposal.  

“If we don’t see significant park and open space in the presentation, it will have difficulty passing a vote by Measure C,” warned Albany Councilman Allan Maris. “I hope the developer hears that loud and clear.”