By ROBERT CHEASTY
Albany environmentalists seek your support. Toronto-based Magna Entertainment Corporation is planning to add casino gambling and a large development to Golden Gate Fields Racetrack on Albany’s waterfront – all this smack in the middle of the Eastshore State Park.
As part of its plan to shore up the dying horsetrack betting industry, Magna plans to add casino gambling plus mall development (calling them “racinos”) to all its racetracks. (Oakland Tribune) Magna needs to lure a new generation into betting on horse races and other forms of gambling.
Just how serious is Magna about racetrack casinos/malls (“racinos”)? Magna:
• Bankrolled the horsetrack gambling initiative in the 2004 California election (Prop 68; campaign reports); Magna spokesman says they will keep at it until they get casino gaming at racetracks. (L. A. Business Journal)
• Backed the 2006 horsetrack slot machine legislation in Sacramento (San Francisco Chronicle).
• Trademarked the term “Racinos” (Corporate Report).
• Is installing a mixed mall/casino addition to its Miami horsetrack (Miami Herald).
• Entered into casino discussions with Native American Tribes (Daily Planet).
• Threatened to close down Pimlico Track in Maryland if slot machines were not approved (Baltimore Sun).
• Pushed through slot machines for its track in Pennsylvania (Baltimore Sun).
• Is currently trying to push through slot machines for its Ohio track (PR Newswire).
• Spent approximately $4 million (Magna with its mall developer) pushing its development plans in Albany and in southern California at Santa Anita Racetrack.
• In Albany (with its developer) hired a team of political lobbyists, consultants, lawyers, political organizers, an Albany resident; made various promises to as many “influential people” as they could sway; profiled every voter in Albany; deluged voters with phone calls and mailings.
Albany has never witnessed political spending of this magnitude – Magna/Caruso outspent their environmental opponents probably one thousand to one.
Despite the Magna/developer millions, environmentalists are confident that Albany residents will still support waterfront open space, especially when they learn the facts.
Traffic nightmare, downtown ghost town
Magna engaged southern California mall builder Rick Caruso to build the development. Caruso is a heavy hitter who uses political influence. Known for raising millions for Republican candidates, he wields money and influence to push his plans through city halls. (Wall St. Journal; San Francisco Chronicle; West County Times)
Preliminary designs show a mixed-use mall plus the racetrack. This mixed mall, with added parking structures, covers about forty-five acres of development with a minimal amount of privatized open space.
The development plus the racetrack would virtually fill the Albany waterfront.
Caruso recently announced that he is pulling out of Albany, but shortly thereafter Magna told its shareholders that Caruso is doing the development. (El Cerrito-Albany Journal; West County Times) Regardless, of whether this is a Caruso tactic or whether Magna will use another developer, Magna states it is doing the development. (West County Times)
The casino/mall proposal brings a host of problems.
Installing a mall on the water’s edge would sap the economic vitality of Albany’s central business district. Solano Avenue and San Pablo Avenue business losses will likely offset much of the promised income from a Magna development.
Regionally, it will damage neighboring business districts, taking from them to survive.
It will saddle the community with a traffic nightmare at Gilman Street, at Buchanan Street and on I-80.
It places development (a “racino”) on the shoreline thereby precluding shoreline open space, and it expands casino gambling to the Bay Area.
Magna’s development ideas represent the worst of urban planning.
Racetrack likely to close?
The weight of evidence points to the track closing without the casino/mall complex.
Although Magna has stated it has no plans to close the track in Albany, that denial is expected from a publicly traded corporation. Drastic future changes are routinely concealed until the last minute. Albany will be the last to know.
The evidence: Tracks are going out of business.
•In Southern California, the Hollywood Park Race Track owner announced it was giving up after the defeat of Prop 68, stating that unless California approves casino gambling, the horse racing industry cannot stay afloat. (L.A. Times; Hollywood Park Racetrack publication; new owner says will close without expanded gaming (San Francisco Chronicle).
•Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo has announced it is closing and the land will be turned over to developers (Chronicle).
•Magna has lost millions steadily over the last four years and is selling 4 of its own 9 racetracks. It seeks to reduce its continued losses (Toronto Globe & Mail).
Magna arrived on the scene in the United States in the late 1990s, buying up nine racetracks suggesting it would save the horse betting industry. Instead, the industry has continued its steady decline. Magna itself faced a revolt and a lawsuit from its shareholders over the steady losses from its own tracks and it recently reported it was close to going broke in its quarterly report. (Toronto Globe & Mail)
Albany needs to plan for a future that may not include the track.
If the racetrack leaves, Albany would not suffer economically
Albany would not be economically hurt if the track decided to leave. Actually the track does not produce that much revenue for the size of its footprint.
Environmentally sensitive development could be built on the east side of the lot, nearer the freeway and away from the wetlands.
A Development Agreement could be worked out with the owner. In return for changing the zoning to permit some development to replace the track, a deal could be fashioned that could allow the purchase or gifting of the bulk of the land for open space uses.
This gives significant value to both the land owner and the community.
Most of the land could, for example, be added to the Eastshore State Park. Albany would get a world-class shoreline park and expanded beach without having to pay out of its own coffers.
Any replacement development would benefit greatly from having this excellent park at its doorstep and would easily provide greater revenue to Albany than the track currently does.
Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), the Sierra Club, Citizens for the Albany Shoreline (CAS), Audubon and others have proposed such a modest development concept - a hotel/conference center (perhaps including a wellness center).
This would bring in more tax revenue to Albany (both City and school district) than the current track operation including the property tax revenue.
Equally important, a hotel/conference center would enhance, not sap, surrounding business centers.
What if the track stays?
The racetrack can choose to stay.
However, it should not be allowed new development alongside the racetrack. Magna bought a racetrack, not the rights to develop a mall on the Albany shore. Magna’s plans for a casino/mall complex are not legal under current zoning.
The Park District can offer to buy any unused racetrack property, using state and regional park bonds, for inclusion in the shoreline park, just as was successfully done for the ballfields currently being completed at Gilman Street.
Keep protective zoning—start community planning
In no event should Albany unilaterally change its current waterfront zoning of waterfront recreation. This is what the Magna/Caruso supporters seek.
That would only dramatically increase the property value for the landowner without getting anything in return.
Park opponents who support a zoning change know this. Vastly increased property value will likely prevent the purchase of this waterfront property for open space uses or inclusion in the shoreline park – forever. Once it is developed we can’t reclaim it.
Albany must keep the present zoning unless and until there is some agreement guaranteeing real shoreline open space, and not just the hints of open space contained in Magna’s development plans.
We urge the City of Albany to commence an open planning process for the future of the Albany Waterfront. We urge everyone to participate and to respectfully share ideas for the Albany shoreline.
Spectacular open spaces—a wonderful legacy
Albany’s charm includes a unique setting of unparalleled beauty by San Francisco Bay. As racetracks in California are closing, Albany has a miraculous second chance to rethink its entire perspective on its shoreline. Let’s not be rushed into destructive development and an expansion of gambling that would forever preclude recovering our waterfront for the entire community and for generations to come after us.
Please help us protect the shoreline. www.eastshorepark.org
Robert Cheasty is president of Citizens for East Shore Parks and the former mayor
Image courtesy of CAP, CESP, the Sierra Club
An artist’s rendering of the Albany shoreline converted to open space.