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Albany Mall Foes Generate Ballot Initiative By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday March 03, 2006

Foes of a proposed shopping mall at Albany’s Golden Gate Fields race track filed notice Monday that they’ll begin circulating an initiative that would temporarily halt waterfront development. 

If successful, the measure would appear on the November ballot. 

“Albany residents have consistently said they don’t want a lot of development on the waterfront,” said Norman La Force, an environmental activist and attorney who helped draft the ordinance. 

Former Albany Mayor Robert Cheasty, one of the measure’s sponsors, said the proposal would establish a setback banning new development within 500 feet of the waterfront. 

The measure is a direct challenge to Los Angeles shopping mall developer Rick Caruso, who is partnering with race track owner Magna Entertainment on the project. 

“We want to protect the shoreline and he (Caruso) wants to put a mall on it. That’s about it,” said Cheasty. 

The proposal specifically targets the 102 acres that encompass the track and its parking lots and stables—including the 45-acre plot at the base of the Albany Bulb targeted by the Caruso project. 

The ordinance also calls for creation of the Shoreline Protection Planning Process, and the implementation of a citizen task force to prepare a specific plan that would allow limited development outside the 500-foot limit. 

The limited development permitted by the plan would help provide additional revenue for schools and city government, Cheasty said.  

Albany City Attorney Robert J. Zweben said earlier this week that he expects a counter-initiative will be filed by the Albany Waterfront Coalition, a group more favorably disposed to development at the track. 

While group spokesperson Howard McNenny was not available for comment, the coalition’s website portrays the initiative as “an effort to deprive you of your right to decide what happens at the waterfront ... based on the idea that you can’t be trusted to decide whether there should be any changes at the waterfront.” 

Magna Entertainment, the Canadian corporation that owns Golden Gate Fields and other tracks around the country, has been hemorrhaging money in recent years and one response has been to partner with developers to building shopping centers and casinos at their tracks. 

Caruso has managed to overcome political opposition before, and has been willing to shell out massive funds to do it—as was the case in Glendale, where seven-figure sums were spent by both sides in an election Caruso won to build the Americana at Brand project. 

Caruso’s projects feature open air upscale theme shopping malls with housing built over the commercial spaces. 

Matt Middlebrook, the former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor who is Caruso’s local representative on the project, called the initiative “a sham” that masquerades as an open planning process but is designed to reach a foregone conclusion. 

“The city is facing a $12 million deficit, and this initiative is trying to drive the city’s largest revenue-generator (the track) out of town,” he said. 

Middlebrook also asked how the city could afford to pay for an environmental review that would be required by the initiative—which he said would cost at least $1 million—without sacrificing crucial services. 

Initiative proponents say the measure would allow limited development that would still generate revenue for the city.