Recent planning and zoning meetings

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.

City council, Apr. 15, 2013



Next week will be busy, with a Monday night, May 6, city council meeting on homelessness in Albany, which will focus on the Bulb. Then on Wednesday, May 8, Planning and Zoning will have a study session on the new supermarket plans for the UC mixed-use project. The new supermarket will a Sprouts Farmers Market, sort of a cross between Whole Foods and Trader Joes. I visited their Walnut Creek store today, it seems like a good fit for us. Here are some short notes about the last city council meeting.


 The April 15 meeting started with a special report form Ray Chan, the city’s public works director, about the state of the city’s infrastructure. I’ve been looking around the city’s website for a copy, but I can’t find the presentation. I’ll keep looking. For now you can review Caryl O’Keefe’s write up on the Patch, which generated lots of comments (here). 

 Chan’s presentation was very clearand very disturbing. I checked-in with city staff, and our infrastructure is actually in better shape than it was five years ago. But keeping infrastructure up to date is like trying swim upstream—it takes a lot of continuous effort just to stay in the same place. How much further up steam we can hope to get will emerge during our budget process over the next few months.


 We did successfully negotiate a new contract with the Albany Police Officer’s Association (APOA). We accepted the negotiator’s recommendations, as did APOA. I think the agreement is fair and reasonable in the situation.

 It was important to get salaries closer to parity with other local police departments and with our own fire department. Because Albany is small department, our officers are more broadly trained and have a better feeling for the community than in many larger towns, and I think that makes our officers attractive to our neighbors. So unless we want to see our police department become a AA farm team for surrounding communities, we have to pay competitive wages. Staff report (here).


 With help from James Boito, our fire captain, and Ed Tubbs, our fire chief, our fire department successfully applied for grants from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program for the purchase of an ambulance, and the joint purchase (with Piedmont) of self contained breathing apparatus. Grants have been awarded in the amount of $135,938 for the ambulance and in the amount of $136,802 for the SCBAs. Yikes! Real money. Thanks guys!


The city has successfully negotiated to purchase the 31,000 square-foot Western Forge and Flange property at 540 Cleveland Ave. The plan is to make this our new maintenance center. We currently lease the property next door, and the rent is very high.

 Note that our maintenance center had been slated to move to the SW corner Pierce St. park property. But modifying the grade of the steeply sloping land proved to be too expensive, so the city jumped when the 540 Cleveland property became available. The SW corner of the Pierce St. project is now up for grabs, and will be developed as phase 5 of the project. Staff report (here). 


The big issue at the April 15 meeting was state Assembly Bill 162, a stinker of a bill that would have severely limited the ability of local governments to control upgrades and collocations of cell sites. The bill would have cut the FCC’s (Federal Communication Commission) 90-day “shot clock” to 45 days, which we heard from staff was unworkable. The council agreed to send a letter to the legislature, a letter that was similar one circulated by the League of California Cities.

 It looks like the bill has already been effectively killed for this legislative session, although the 45-day shot clock provision had already been revised back to the 90-day federal standard. The bill was early in the sausage-making process, so it was best not got too worked up about it. Lots of bills at this stage don’t survive. For more drama, see (here).

At the federal level, President Obama has nominated the former head of CTIA (a.k.a. the Cellular Telephone Industry Association) to be the head of FCC. That sure sends a signal (here).

 The FCC is growing concerned about the transition from broadcasting to broadband. That includes reallocating frequencies from TV to cellular phone companies for building out LTE service (and whatever else comes after that). I suspect the FCC will also start asserting more authority over state and local governments on these issues. Remember where you heard it first…