Current news and the Gill tract yet again

Due to some recent information that has been passed along to me about Albany’s local history, I’d like to discuss the Gill tract again, in particular its “class one agricultural soil.” By the end of this post, I hope you agree that as far as the Gill tract goes, we’ve flogged this horse to death. Since getting there will involve a few long quotes, I’ll save my thoughts on some other big items for the next post, which I’ll finish soon. But first, here are some updates on current issues:

The AT&T cell site at 1035 San Pablo Ave. is finally working, after too many years of delay. I tried it out myself, and I could get good reception with my old AT&T phone along both of Albany’s two biggest streets, Marin and San Pablo (I pulled over, of course). Reception near city hall seemed good. Cell sites were also approved in Kensington.

I am as frustrated as anyone with the delays in getting bulb campers into our transition shelter and placed in housing. There will be a flurry of activity in January, but until the court documents are public, there isn’t much more that I can say. My apologies, but as I often complain, the public’s business moves behind closed doors once the lawsuits start flying. Some information is available here and here.

A five-story affordable housing project for seniors has been approved in El Cerrito. The 63-unit project, located on a large parcel that was formerly a furniture store, will include a clinic and retail space. This is exactly what I’ve had in mind for Albany, but it would be difficult to find that large a space here.


In my recent posts on the Gill tract, I have discussed evidence that shows the tract never was a farm, but a rose nursery. And if part of it was farmed, it was about a century ago. Now another shibboleth about the Gill tract—that consists of “class one agricultural soil”—can be tossed aside.

First let me distinguish between two different definitions of the Gill tract. The original Gill tract was purchased in 1890 and consisted of 104 acres of land, bounded by the railroad right-of-way to the west, Buchanan Ave. to the north, San Pablo Ave. to the east, and the Berkeley border, formed by Codornices Creek, to the south. Note that the current Albany City Hall, including the police and fire station, sits on the far NE corner of the original Gill tract, because Buchanan Ave. was rerouted on a curve to join Marin Ave. at San Pablo.

 gill new and old

The current Gill tract occupies about 15 acres just south and west of city hall, bounded by Jackson St. on the west, the new Buchanan Ave. to the north, San Pablo Ave. to the east, and the fence line to the south that separates it from the old Codornices housing area. The fence line parallels Monroe Ave.

In the Google Maps screen shot above, the original Gill tract is in red, the current Gill tract is in purple. These are the two definitions I will use below. Also note that Google Maps thinks Oceanview school is the Solano Community Church.

The mixed-use project consists of assisted-living senior housing south of Monroe Ave. and a supermarket north of Monroe Ave., in the area where the old Codornices housing was located along San Pablo Ave. The plan for the supermarket does have it extend north of the fence line into the current Gill tract, into an area where there is no cultivation, but where some trees will have to be removed or relocated.

Many thanks to Albany resident David Sanger for uncovering some interesting comments by UC agricultural leader Claude B. Hutchison (1885-1980), who was the first head of what would become UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Hutchison discussed many California agricultural issues for an oral history project of UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO). ROHO has some fascinating stuff on everything from early Portuguese immigration to the biotech revolution.

Hutchison’s oral history can be found near the bottom of the page here. The full text in pdf form can be downloaded, but the file is quite large. Here is an excerpt concerning the original Gill tract, recorded in December 1961:

Anyway, it [the Gill tract] was bought mainly for the use of the College of Agriculture. But only a small portion of that tract is good soil, the rest of it is a rather heavy adobe clay. But despite this and up until World War II I was still expecting that that tract would over the years become more and more useful to the college. But with the outbreak of war, the federal government commandeered a major portion of it and built war housing on it for shipbuilders at Richmond and more or less ruined it for agriculture purposes. We might have dug out all the concrete and so on like we did with the foundations of the old houses on the Oxford tract, and restored it to agricultural usefulness, but again, by reason of further developments at Davis and the need of the University for housing purposes, a major portion of the Gill tract will never be used again for agricultural purposes.

And we’ve had to struggle against the pressure on the part of the city of Albany which at one time wanted to run a street through it to extend Marin Avenue on a curve coming into Buchanan Street, and there’s been a demand for part of it for a school site. It is awfully hard to maintain a farm in the city because of various pressures. As I read the picture of the future it’s only a question of time until the college will have to give up its use of the Gill tract—maybe we can retain a small part of the area because we have built some greenhouses there and other physical facilities and maybe these can be held for a while. In the long run I think the chances are that the College of Agriculture’s work there will be closed up, particularly if at the same time the work here on the campus is transferred to Davis.

As mentioned above, Albany did link Buchanan and Marin streets, and now city hall sits on what used to be the far NE corner of the original Gill tract. The school site he mentions is AUSD’s Oceanview elementary school.

So the old Codornices area of Albany Village, where the mixed-use project will be built, isn’t composed of “class one agricultural soil” after all. Preserving that soil for farming has been one of the main justifications for the trespassing action there last spring by Occupy the Farm members and their supporters.

That there is plenty of clay soil around (like my yard) doesn’t come as a surprise to many local gardeners. Nor it is a surprise to USDA soil scientists. You can use the online map feature here to discover that the Gill Tract’s soil is classified as 148–urban land-Clear Lake complex. The program downloads slowly. Here is a screen shot:

soil map

For more information, you can see pages 25 and 31 of this 1981 USDA soil survey, but it is another big pdf. The two relevant pages are here in pdf format. I quote from them below:

From page 25:  148-Urban land-Clear Lake complex: The Clear Lake soil is very deep and poorly drained. It formed in alluvium that derived mainly from sedimentary rock. Typically, the surface layer is very dark gray, neutral and moderately alkaline clay about 37 inches thick. The underlying material is dark gray and grayish brown, calcareous clay and silty clay and extends to a depth of 60 inches or more… Adding organic matter to the soil can improve the rate of water intake, aeration, and soil tilth. Capability classification not assigned.

From page 31:  Capability classification shows, in a general way, the suitability of soils for most kinds of field crops. The soils are classed according to their limitation when they are used for field crops, the risk of damage when they are used, and the way they respond to treatment… Class I soils have few limitations that restrict their use.

I found an older, but helpful, soil map of Alameda County from 1977. Given the variety of soils in Alameda Country, it is hard to believe, as stated in a recent Eastbay Express article, that the Gill tract “is some of the best soil in the East Bay,” according to Occupy the Farm spokesperson Lesley Haddock. Claude Hutchison, someone who actually knew what he was talking about, didn’t agree.

I agree the current 15-acre Gill tract is most likely good soil, but that’s not where the mixed-use project will be built. Because of the decades of careful research and continuous cultivation of the current Gill tract, including plowing under crop residues at the end of the growing season to increase the organic matter in the soil, it makes sense that the soil there is good.

As for the section where the Codornices housing existed until just a few years ago—it’s just a vacant lot, with the same old clay soil that many of us find in our backyards and crawl spaces.

From an agricultural perspective, there is nothing special about the land where the mixed-use project will be built. There was nothing special about it when the Codornices housing was built there 70 years ago, and the intervening decades under asphalt and concrete have done nothing to improve the soil.

If the OTF at times seems to wander aimlessly about one corner of our little town, it’s because they are chasing something that never existed. The original Gill tract was never a farm. It was a nursery. But “Occupy the Rose Nursery” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. And if OTF members and their supporters can’t find more “class I agricultural soil” where the mixed-use project will be built, that’s because there isn’t any.

Why I don’t support Albany joining Marin Clean Energy

At the Nov. 18 city council meeting, there was a discussion and vote about the city of Albany joining Marin Clean Energy (MCE), what is known as a community choice aggregator (CCA) for electricity.

The council voted in favor of exploring becoming a member of MCE. I was the only council member to vote against. I have real misgivings about the CCA model, which I think has become outmoded, is not a good fit for Albany and may expose the city to downside financial risks.

The staff report has a good discussion of the CCA model (here), and MCE’s website is here. MCE has been controversial from the very start. See these three articles from the Marin Independent Journal (here, here and here).

I am concerned if Albany joins MCE, and if MCE goes belly up at some point in the future, Albany residents could be liable for at least part of any debts. I am not aware of any California CCA ventures failing yet, so there is no record of how the legal issues might play out.

Here is another problem: In the telecommunications world, it’s is illegal to practice “slamming,” or switching a consumer from one long-distance rate plan to another without their permission. If Albany joins MCE, all residents will automatically be switched from PGE to MCE, unless they opt out. This strikes me as being a legalized form of slamming our electricity bills. I plan to opt out. However, those of us who opt out may still be liable for any MCE debts if the organization goes bankrupt.

The downside risks of joining MCE might be worth it for Albany if there was an upside. But in my opinion, there is no upside. MCE doesn’t deliver anything that we can’t get by sticking with PGE. For example, PGE now offers similar green energy programs to MCE

MCE basically buys PGE electricity in bulk and sells it to consumers at roughly the same retail rate. The allegedly good news is that MCE makes the electricity “greener,” mostly through buying renewable energy certificates (RECs), which act something like buying stock market shares. But in this case you are buying shares of renewable energy production, production which can be anywhere in the U.S. Then you can apply these RECs to your non-renewable electricity and count it as renewable electricity.

The idea is that if you buy enough RECs, you can make your energy up to 100 percent renewable, although in reality, the electrons are still coming from the same PGE sources, where are primarily hydro, nuclear and natural gas generation plants. This is similar to the way you can purchase carbon offsets to cancel the greenhouse gases from taking an airplane trip. MCE does also try to encourage the development of local renewable energy, but this has not panned out as well as expected.

California already has low-carbon electricity because there are no coal-burning plants in the state. We get our electricity from clean Pacific NW hydro, PGE’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and efficient combined-cycle natural gas generating plants. A small but growing percentage comes from renewables. The carbon intensity of PGE and CCA electricity is similar, but MCE buys enough RECs to offset the nuclear power electrons, so it claims to be nuclear-free.

Going forward, PGE electricity will get greener and greener due to the state’s renewable portfolio standards (see here and here for more), AB32 climate change legislation, and executive orders from state governors. Basically, top-down government legislation is driving carbon reduction so hard that MCE’s bottom up model is now almost irrelevant. The state is on track to hit its renewable 2020 targets, but we will have difficulty with the 2050 target.

Renewable electricity sources are intermittent because the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind sometimes doesn’t blow. This makes renewables difficult to integrate into the existing electrical grid. This problem is beyond the scope of a small CCA like MCE. Nor could a small CCA have built out PGE’s smart meter system–it takes a big operation to create a network of smart meters and devise software to share the data in a way to help consumers maximize efficiency.

Germany provides a painful example of the problems that accompany an infatuation with renewables. That country went overboard with its subsidies of renewables and decided to shut down its nuclear power plants. But the renewables couldn’t fill the gap left by the lost nuclear power, so Germany switched to burning more coal. As a consequence, Germany has the highest electricity costs in Europe, and because it has switched back to coal, it now produces more carbon than it used to.

 In general, given our older housing stock, I think the problem in Albany is on the demand side, not the supply side, and I think the problem is natural gas usage, not electricity usage. So the MCE proposal misses our problem. I’d rather see more emphasis put on reducing our heating bills with weatherizing and better insulation, along with efficient LED lighting and more energy-efficient refrigerators (available at Albany’s own Galvin Appliance). We also need to teach people, especially young people, to put all their electric devices on power strips and turn them off at night.

To give you an example, last week, during the most frigid week in years, my house used 20.8 therms of natural gas, but only 34 kilowatt hours of electricity. Accord to the information here, my natural gas usage produced almost 16 times as much carbon dioxide as my electricity usage.

An extreme case you say? Well, in the middle of the summer, when the furnace doesn’t even run, my house still uses more than three therms per week, which means that my gas stove and hot water heater alone produce about twice as much carbon dioxide as my electricity use (interestingly, that two-to-one ratio also applies to the average household in California).

Actually, since I have solar panels, my net electricity use is negative. Because of my frugality with electricity, on an annual basis I produce way more electricity than I use. Nice, but that also means my solar panels will never pay for themselves. It would have made more sense to put the money instead into better windows and more insulation.

So to reduce Albany’s residential carbon footprint, I think we need to work on reducing natural gas usage. In comparison, electricity usage is not so much a problem. It’s relatively easy to solve. Hence joining MCE is barking up the wrong tree–even if it is an appealing tree at first glance.

A local history challenge!

Albany resident Catherine Sutton sent this photograph to me (see below) to point out that farming was taking place on the Gill Tract sometime in the past. But when? There is nothing I appreciate quite so much as a local history challenge (see this as an example, although the text is a little garbled), so here goes:

But first, I must warn you that I spent many happy hours in the darkroom as a teenager growing up in Alaska (what else was there to do all winter, except ski?), and I am familiar with the history of B&W photography and technology. Also, way back in economics grad school, I wrote a few papers on the economic history of 19th century grain harvesting implements, so I am a bit familiar with that topic, too. So here is the photo in question, sent to me by Ms. Sutton, which I have enhanced in photoshop:

Old GillOK, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this photo was taken on the Gill Tract, or at least on the land that eventually would become the Gill Tract (although other than the caption, I have no evidence of this). What can we say about when the photo was taken? Mind you, I am not referring at all to the source (that’s no fun). Rather, I am asking based on our knowledge of photographic technology, farm technology, and the style of dress of the men, can we narrow down the range of years in which this photo could have been taken?

We know from my previous post that the Gill Tract was purchased in 1890, and construction began on shipyard worker housing in the 1940s. So it is extremely likely that these photos were taken well before 1940, and perhaps even before 1890. My best guess is that these were taken before WWI, based on the farm implements, the quality of the image, and the dress of the men. But you may disagree.

Some good information is available here and here on the history of mechanization of farm equipment. The main point in that by 1900, mechanization was well underway, including the technology of baling hay. The modern farm tractor was developed in the 1920s (recall the lament of the Great Depression that tenant farmers were being “tractored off” the land. Or see the beginning of the movie version of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”).

My favorite piece of early harvesting equipment was the Marsh Harvester, patented in 1858, see the beautiful illustration here. Several more illustrations are available on the web, just google it if you like. Based on comparison to the Marsh Harvester, the level of technology in the Gill Tract image seems pretty early to me, perhaps around the turn of the century. In the image there are horses but no tractors, rudimentary equipment, but nothing that looks terribly sophisticated even in comparison to the March Harvester of 1858.

Our next piece of evidence comes from looking at the washed-out sky in the image. It could be that it was just one of those infernal foggy summer morning that we get so often in Albany, but I think there is a better explanation. Early photo emulsions were only sensitive to relatively energetic blue light. That means in 19th-century photos, the color blue photographs as white, while the color red photographs almost as black. See here for an example.

This explains why the Civil War photos of Matthew Brady almost always have washed-out skies. Even suntanned white officers have an odd burnished quality to their skin tone in the Brady images, see here. This effect is even more pronounced in the Edward Curtis images of American Indians, even in images of children. Here is just one of many wonderful images. Even if this child was dark-skinned and tanned, if she had a reddish hue to her skin, she would have photographed even darker. Again, note the burnished quality to her skin, which is typical of blue-sensitive photo emulsions.

The Gill Tract image above has the classic washed out sky of many 19th-century photos, and the image quality seems comparable (if that) to the 19-century images of Brady and Curtis (although an original print could look much sharper, hard to say). This leads me to suspect the Gill Tract image is also very early. Later B&W films used special dyes in the emulsion that made them sensitive to all colors of visible light, and in those photos, the sky is often dark enough to see clouds. Photo techniques that were only sensitive to blue light survived in the form of photo booth images (again skin tones had that funny dark, burnished quality), and early photo copiers–red ink showed up better than blue ink.

Another good comparison is to the amazing body of work of the Farm Security Administration photographers in the Great Depression. The most famous of these photographers was Dorothea Lange, and her most famous subject was Florence Owens Thompson.The story of how her identity was discovered is pretty darn interesting (click on her name to view it). In general in the FSA photos, note how much the image quality has improved since the 19th century, and note how the clothing is different in the Gill Tract photo above. This Dorothea Lange photo is a good example. A quick check of WWI images (easy to find via google) reveals the same thing.

So I have come to the conclusion that the Gill Tract photo is quite old, probably early 20th century, or even late 19th century, possibly even before Gill purchased the Gill Tract land in 1890. But again, you might disagree.

There remains one issue. In the photo hay is being harvested.  Hay is typically not grown on rich bottom land. For example, if you visit the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s stomping ground, you see lots of lettuce and other vegetables, and even some wine grapes, but you don’t find any hay. Hay is grown on drier, more marginal soils.

So if, as the Occupy the Farm (OTF) folks have asserted ad nauseam with their tired cliche, it is the case that the Gill Tract contains “class one agricultural soil,” why was hay being grown on it? I suspect the current quality of the soil is due to the years of hard work of competent UC and USDA researchers. Sadly, hard work and competence are not the words that come to mind when I think about OTF.




Save the date: P&Z next Wednesday


This is just a brief note to encourage Albany residents to attend the next planning and zoning meeting to support the hard work of P&Z and the city staff, who have worked diligently for months with UC and the developers to bring the mixed use project planning very close to completion.

The Planning and Zoning Commission will review some final documents on Wednesday night, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. Please note the early start time. The mixed-use project is the first item on the agenda (here). You can also watch the meeting via the internet (here).

It would be good to hear from Albany residents who support moving the project forward. Sadly, P&Z and council meetings on this topic occasionally have been delayed by the Occupy the Farm (OTF) supporters, who may put in an appearance Wednesday night. It would be refreshing to hear from some more realistic Albany residents for a change.

And speaking of realism, the OTF have based their objections on a bizarre view of the history of University Village and the Gill Tract. Fortunately, this lack of realism is easy to correct. Below I have excerpted several paragraphs from the book, “A Selective History of the Codornices–University Village, the City of Albany and Environs,” by Warren F. Lee and Catherine T. Lee (Copyright 2000, Belvidere Delaware Railroad Enterprises Ltd. ISBN: 0-9675646-0-3).

Lee’s research makes clear that the Gill Tract has been used for agricultural research in recent decades, and before that as a horticultural nursery for roses. But there is no evidence that the Gill Tract was ever used for conventional farming. If the land was ever farmed, it was most likely before 1890.

The excerpts are below. As a former village resident who was living there when UC began tearing down some of the older buildings, I was especially amused by the final item.

[Page 9, paragraph 1, in full] The Albany land tract upon which approximately forty percent of the Codornices Village was built came down intact through the first four decades of the twentieth century because there were only two owners. Around 1890 Edward Gill established the future Gill Tract when he bought 104 acres of land from one Captain Boswell. Here Gill, a horticulturist and a renowned authority on roses, established a large nursery which flourished until his death in 1909. The tract stood idle until 14 February 1928, when it was purchased by the regents of the University of California for $450,000. During 1939 a large portion of this land, more than 16 acres, was turned over to the federal government for use as the site of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Western Regional Research Center. This impressive facility, built during 1939, began operations in 1940. In 1945 another 36 acres of land were assigned by the University of California at Berkeley to the Department of Biological Control for use as an experimental field station.

[Page 9, paragraph 2, excerpted] During 1943 the government informed local civic authorities that it intended to requisition most of the remaining acreage of the Gill Tract in Albany and an even larger amount of land in Berkeley to construct a wartime housing project. Soon after the initial announcement, organized resistance to the mass public housing plan, No. CAL 4479, developed very rapidly. Local government and business leaders in Berkeley and Albany, as well as some of the regents of the University of California in Berkeley, protested the selection of this land as a construction site for temporary public housing. Specifically, the regents did not like the idea that 42 acres of their Gill Tract in Albany were to be condemned and taken out of their control. Indeed they had just gained legislative approval for a half-million-dollar appropriation that would have been used to build a College of Veterinary Medicine on the Gill Tract.

[Page 9, paragraph 4, in full] By the middle of August 1943, the civic leaders of Albany and Berkeley realized that the near future construction of the Codornices Village was a fait accompli. This was borne out from the statements made by two local political leaders. Fitch Robertson, mayor of Berkeley, stated, “If Mr. Post [Landon Post, director, Region VI, of the Federal Housing Authority] has come to the conclusion that this is the only available site for this project, which we do not believe, naturally we will have to cooperate in the interest of the war effort.” W.R. McGeorge, mayor of Albany, was much more conciliatory. He simple stated that “the city did not want to hamper the war effort.”

[Page 9, paragraph 5, excerpted] During the latter days of October 1943, approximately sixty days after the exchange of correspondence between the mayors and the Federal Housing Authority, construction on the Codornices Village was already under way. The allocation of the number of planned units along the Codornices Creek, the center point of the village, kept increasing until there were 1,896 units instead of the 1,200 that were originally authorized. Eventually, 1,056 of the units would be located in Berkeley, and 840 of the units would be located in Albany. By 10 May 1944, 72 apartment units has been completed and were ready for occupancy.

[Page 23, endnote 7, excerpted] Early commentaries about the village often stated that the village was opened for occupancy during 1942 or 1943. Such statements are totally incorrect. The period of construction of the village, 1943–1944, is further confirmed by the issuing dates that appear on the California driver’s license, the Selective Service Registration Certificate, and other vital papers that were discovered in the long lost wallet of Charles Raymond Smith (1904–1978), a plasterer from Santa Cruz. The wallet was extracted after 54 years by Kandy L. Piper on 18 August 1998, from the bathroom wall of Unit F in Codornices Bldg. 17. An identification card, A–12402020, issued to Smith on 28 June 1943, by the U.S. Coast Guard, indicates that Smith may have needed to be approved by that service to work in the village.