I’m behind in blogging about the last city council meeting, but I want to talk about some other, non-city council meetings that have been happening in Albany. I’ll summarize some important stuff from the last three Planning and Zoning meetings.
If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then our Planning and Zoning commission is the James Brown of our city government—the hardest working city commission in Albany. Although I think Traffic and Safety, Parks and Rec, and the other commissions work very hard, too. None of the folks on these commissions get paid the stipends that city council members get, which is about $300/month. So I just want to take a moment to say thanks to them.
There have been three P&Z meetings lately that I want to discuss, April 10, April 24 and May 8. I’ve attended all three either in person or I’ve watched over the KALB internet video link. Here is a quick summary of an important issue at each:
P&Z approved the new retail/orthodonist office at 1600 Solano. This is a big deal because the office, which serves a lot of Albany families (including mine in the past), is currently in Berkeley, just a few blocks up on Ensenada St., and once they move, they will be able to better serve Albany patients and add to our tax base as well.
I kept a low profile on this one, because the office, Berkeley Orthodontics, was where my son did two rounds of braces. I liked the doctors there a lot, so I was hoping the move down the street would be successful and would go smoothly. Not quite.
The problem is that Albany has very generous requirements for parking spots, especially for medical offices. The assumption is that medical offices have a lot of quick turnover of patients, and so new construction along Solano Ave. for these offices requires even more parking spaces than standard retail development—even more than is recommended by professional traffic engineers.
The plans for the new Solano building basically had retail on the first floor and the orthodonist office upstairs, with several lifts for parking in an on-site garage that would allow two cars to fit one space. As much as the architect tried to shoehorn parking spots to meet Albany’s parking requirements, he couldn’t get the project to conform to our zoning code.
During the P&Z meeting, Anne Hersch, Albany city planner, began a lightening round of negotiations with the architect. She realized that if the architect moved an interior wall to shift 200 square feet of the downstairs space to reallocate it from medical to retail space, one less parking spot would required, and the project would conform. It was an impressive site to watch Anne negotiate all this on the spot, but she was successful, and the project was approved by P&Z.
But as commissioner Phillip Moss pointed out, Albany is in a catch-22 situation. Our generous parking requirements make it hard to build higher-density projects along the Solano Ave. commercial district, which means that businesses are spaced far enough apart that people are in turn encouraged to drive instead of bicycle or walk along Solano. If we are going to create a walkable city with denser commercial districts, our zoning requirements for parking will have to be modified.
This meeting included discussion of the new AT&T proposed cell installation on the Sunnyside Café building at 1495 Solano. P&Z members like this unique building and want the antennas masked in a way that is aesthetically appropriate for its Mediterranean style. AT&T had suggested a dormer approach that was not really appropriate, so they will have to go back to drawing board.
But P&Z commissioners stated that they have no problem with the use, i.e. with cell antennas being placed there. After all, this use is consistent with our current code. So I am hopeful the design problems will be resolved and we’ll soon have better cell reception along that part of Solano Ave. and surrounding areas. As Allen Cain of the Solano Ave. Association mentioned during the meeting, younger folks in Albany say they avoid shopping on Solano and head to El Cerrito Plaza instead because smart phone reception is better there.
P&Z took their first look at the plans for the Sprouts Farmer’s Market, and they didn’t like what they saw. I did drive out to Walnut Creek to see their store there, and I agree it’s sort of a cross between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. I think the inside of the store is fine, and will be a good fit for the UC mixed-use project on San Pablo Ave.
The problem is the suburban design of the outside, especially the huge parking lot in front. This is not contemporary urban design, and it is not consistent with our zoning requirements. The proposed senior center is built right up to the sidewalk, with parking hidden inside the building. The older Whole Foods design was consistent with the senior housing project, with parking behind the store.
Sprouts stores have been more concentrated in suburban areas, and the company prefers to lure customers with a sea of available parking spots in front their stores. That doesn’t really work in this context. Here is Damin Esper of the Contra Costa Times:
Fortunately, I think the design problems will be resolved soon, so I am hoping we’ll have a project P&Z and can approve within the next several weeks.