Gill Tract Development Plans Move Forward at UCB, Albany

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday August 06, 2009 - 10:37:00 AM
The Gill Tract, once known for agricultural research, will soon have 300 apartments and retail stores, including a Whole Foods.
Richard Brenneman
The Gill Tract, once known for agricultural research, will soon have 300 apartments and retail stores, including a Whole Foods.

While crops still grow on the Gill Tract, the buildings and greenhouses that once housed a thriving research center stand vacant, defaced by broken glass and graffiti scrawls. 

Over the coming months, all but one will be coming down, casualties of economic fortunes and UC Berkeley’s development plans. The last building, a farmhouse, will be relocated and restored. 

The university plans to demolish “approximately 35” structures in Albany, located in a quadrangle across from University Village student housing. 

The demolition site is largely separate from the 4.2- acre site where the university plans a shopping and housing complex, anchored on the north by a Whole Foods store and parking lot and on the south by “approximately” 175 units of senior housing fronted by retail spaces along San Pablo Avenue. 

The doomed buildings include greenhouses and vacant structures, “all of which had been previously used for research,” said Dan Mogulof, the university’s executive director of public affairs. 

The demolitions will take place on property described by Albany City Councilmember Robert Lieber as the last significant urban farming site in the East Bay. 

The Gill Tract has been the site of research in radically different styles of agriculture—from genetically modified crops (GMOs) to agroecology plots in which ecological practices rather than pesticides ensure that crops thrive. 

After raids by GMO foes and promises of more to come, the university erected a sign announcing that no genetically modified crops are being grown on the land. 

But university officials have declared the once-sacrosanct land too valuable for testing crops and proposed to relocate research to another plot of land near Pinole. 

“All of the structures slated for demolition are either vacant buildings or greenhouses,” that had been used for research, Mogulof said. “They are located on the Gill Tract west of San Pablo Avenue and north of Monroe Street.” 

Mogulof said that “the College of Natural Resources has a small research facility on the Gill Tract that is in use and will remain in place, ” even after the demolitions. 

But the farmland isn’t safe from the university’s future plans. 

“Neither the demolition project nor the San Pablo Mixed-Use Project would impact on the agricultural research lands on the Gill Tract north of Village Creek, which the University Village master plan designates for future community uses,” Mogulof said. 

The university’s plans for the tract are outlined in UCB’s 2004 University Village Master Plan, which designates the farmland tract for recreation and open space, featuring a 23,800-square-foot community center with nearby baseball fields and a basketball court. 

Lieber said any plans to transform the agricultural land into anything other than open space would trigger strong resistance from Albany residents. 

“A year ago when I was mayor I tried to get the university to commit to open space, but I couldn’t get it. I think this will be around as an issue for at least the next year or two,” he said.  

Mogulof said “demolition of the agricultural research buildings at the Gill Tract is a long-planned, independent project that has been separately reviewed and approved by the university.  

“The University is proceeding with the demolition at this time because the vacant and dilapidated buildings have become an attractive target for vandalism.  

“To be clear, the majority of the demolition site is designated not for mixed-use, but for University housing at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future.” 

Mogulof said “proceeds from this San Pablo Mixed-Use Project would be used for scholarships for University Village residents, for future University Village improvements, and to address UC Berkeley's budget deficit.” 

The mixed-use project is being developed by The LaLanne Group, a San Francisco developer that has also worked on another development anchored by a Whole Foods store, a project in Novato with 125 condos and a three-story parking structure. 

The five-acre Albany project includes the 55,000-square-foot grocery store, with a parking lot to the north that will overlap with what Mogulof called “a small portion of the area to be demolished.”  

The housing and retail segment to the south features 100 senior apartments, and 75 assisted-living apartments with 30,000 square feet of retail fronting along San Pablo avenue. 

Lieber said the school district had insisted on senior housing, “because our schools are bursting at the seams already.”  

Because the projects aren’t related to the university’s, they fall under the City of Albany’s zoning rules, and before the first shovel of earth can be moved, the city must approve rezoning for the site. 

According to the city planning staff notice for Tuesday night’s hearing on the project’s environmental impact report, the whole site for the UCB/LaLanne project must be rezoned to San Pablo Avenue Commercial. Currently, only the first 100 feet along the roadway is zoned commercial; the rest is designated for Medium Density Residential. 

According to the EIR construction of the new buildings is expected to take between 18 months and two years after the university completes its demolition project. 

The EIR concludes that in only one area would the project pose unavoidable significant environmental impacts, and that is the impact of a major new project near the already heavily traveled intersection of San Pablo and Marin avenues. 

Unavoidable traffic impacts would spread beyond the site to the east- and westbound ramps of Interstate 80 at Gilman Street in Berkeley at several Gilman intersections. 

Unavoidable impacts that were beyond remediation would also include the intersection of San Pablo and Solano avenues, and along both directions of San Pablo during peak afternoon traffic hours. 

The EIR for the project is available at the city Community Development Department, 979 San Pablo Ave.; the Albany Library, 1247 Marin Ave.; or online at www.albanyca.org/index. 


Public comments on the document may be submitted through Aug. 20 to Associate Planner Amber Curl at the Community Development Department or by email at acurl@albanyca.org