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Residents, Environmentalists Debate Albany Mall By MARK SCHNEIDER Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

Albany residents and other environmentalists packed the multi-purpose room of Albany High School Thursday to voice their opposition to Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso’s proposal for a massive shopping plaza on what is now the parking lot for Golden Gate Fields racetrack. Proponents introduced an initiative calling for a community planning process to guide development of commercial and park areas on the Albany shore. 

Sponsored by Citizens for the Albany Shoreline (CAS), the Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), and the Sierra Club, the Citizens’ Planning Initiative to Protect Albany’s Shoreline calls for creation of a waterfront plan for substantial park area along the bay and a minimum of commercial development to be formulated by a planning committee of 15 appointed Albany voters. The proposal asks for a setback of open parkland for 600 feet from the bay, with sustainable, green commercial development to be placed as close to Highway 80 as possible without significant obstructions of bay views. It establishes a moratorium on development and re-zoning of the area for two years while the planning committee meets. 

The planning process to be undertaken by the committee would cover all types of development, recreational and park-related facilities as well as commercial developments, from the perspective of what would be best for Albany. The group would plan for the entire waterfront, including the racetrack area, against the possibility that its owner, the Magna Corporation, decides to sell it because of declining profits. 

The initiative’s backers say that it is aimed at keeping city planning in the control of voters rather than of officials and corporations. Three committee members will be appointed by environmental groups. According to Albany resident and environmental activist Brian Parker, dialogue between Caruso and residents until now has largely been about what to include in the mall, and the question of what was best for Albany over the long term was not asked. Relying on an opinion poll collected by Evans/McDonough Company, which reported two to one against the mall, opponents argue that parks are what Albany residents want instead.  

Since the purpose of the meeting was to present the initiative as an alternative to Caruso’s project, many of the presentations and much of the panel discussion directly attacked the mall. It was portrayed as something that would destroy small businesses, bring perpetual gridlock with environmental degradation, give big business control over local politics, and irreparably harm Albany’s natural resources and small town ambiance.  

“Caruso creates make-believe main streets like Disneyland,” said Robert Cheasty, CESP president and former Albany mayor. “Malls on the edge of town hurt main streets. We [already] have a main street, and this is Northern California, not L.A.” 

Former executive director of the Albany Chamber of Commerce James Carter elaborated on the threat to small businesses and argued that small business would be crushed not only in Albany but in neighboring Berkeley and El Cerrito as well. Small businesses cannot compete with Caruso’s multi-million dollar advertising budget and the low prices of national chain stores, he said. Consumers will be drawn away from shops and restaurants on Solano Avenueand Fourth Street, he predicted.  

Community activists at the meeting envision a different Albany if the project gets approved. Sustainable Albany founder Nan Wishner noted that a mall with significant parking facilities would bring between 18,000 and 60,000 cars each day and would encourage single-passenger driving. Gridlock on streets near schools would raise the risk of asthma and other illnesses for children, she said, and would detract from rather than contribute to the waterfront’s appeal. She said Albany should utilize its spectacular waterfront instead of destroying it in an effort to compete with commercial attractions like those in El Cerrito and Emeryville.  

“Putting a mall at this beautiful site is just wrong,” City Council member Robert Lieber added. “We have a chance to protect our unique waterfront with stunning views for generations to enjoy.”  

Although environmental preservation was a core concern at the meeting, the threat of local politics being subjugated to a wealthy Los Angeles developer with ties to big money, George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger was also cause for alarm. “Big corporations are buying our country. Are we going to let them buy Albany?” Carter asked. “One person could conceivably control the whole town,” he added. 

Albany environmental and citizens groups say they’re doing all they can to prevent that from happening, and that they have some good legal tools at their disposal. Albany’s Measure C requires a citizens’ vote to approve any changes in zoning laws at the waterfront. Since current zoning prohibits general retail like Nordstrom’s, such a vote would be required for this project. However, Caruso has had experience in navigating the electoral process and money to support a public relations campaign to sway voters in an election.  

The new initiative, if approved, is designed to protect the waterfront from development as much as possible by putting all the planning in the hands of selected voters and professional consultants. The results of this planning process will then be submitted for approval to the Albany electorate. 

“We should have an open citizens’ planning process,” Lieber said. “We need to hear everyone’s vision and make a choice for what Albany needs.” ª