CITY COUNCIL ELECTION CANCELLED
A brief note: On Thursday, Aug. 21, the council held a special meeting to appoint three new members to the city council. They are Rochelle Nason, Peggy McQuaid, and Nick Pilch. Details here in Damin Esper’s first Albany Journal article on the topic.
This is what my former school-board colleague David Ferrell called an “Albanian election,” when the number of candidates is equal to the number of open seats. In this situation, there isn’t much point in holding an election, which would have cost about $20K.
A week after the first article, a second article by Esper appeared in the Albany Journal. In the article, Esper quoted the concerns expressed by the local Green Party. I find the position of the Green Party curious. All the Greens had to do to solve their concern is run a candidate in the election. But I guess complaining about lack of democracy is easier than doing the hard work of running a campaign.
I’d like to think that things are better over on the school district side, but the reality is that if only one candidate dropped out of that race, we’d have an Albanian election there, too.
As a council member, I find this discouraging. Given the mess at the federal and state level, local governments are taking on more and more responsibility to find creative solutions to their citizens’ problems. Although I think Jerry Brown deserves credit for his leadership as California’s governor, local governments are still working hard to take up the slack. I just wish we could get people to pay attention.
But there is possibly a silver lining. Since all three candidates made it on the city council without having to spend a dime for campaign activities, there are no campaign funders who will be owed favors. In a few years, all the candidates will have to run again based on their records and what they have accomplished for the citizens of Albany, and not based on what they have done for the usual special interest groups that fund campaigns.
THE EMPEROR’S NEW BIRDS
In my last post, now several weeks ago, I discussed the back-side issues of a proposed digital billboard facing the freeway in Albany. In this post I will discuss the front-side issues of billboard, the issues the city faces in regards to the people, birds, and animals that could see the front side of the billboard.
The digital billboard debate brings up many issues. I think it is important to discuss them because they reveal much about what we will be dealing with as we begin to turn the Albany Bulb over the park district. I wish I could say that I am optimistic, but I think recent events have shown that the bulb transition is likely to be very problematic.
As for the billboards, how people outside of Albany view billboards is an issue of low concern for me. Albany’s digital billboard policy was thoughtfully formulated, and respected the longstanding federal and state rules that the city must follow about the placement of freeway billboards.
The light from billboards also shines on wildlife, as do the lights from many other sources. This issue has been taken up by the various local environmental groups like Citizens for Eastshore State Parks (CESP), the local Sierra Club (SC) chapters, the Audubon Society, a spinoff organization known as SPRAWLDEF, and Citizens for Albany Shoreline. These groups are not really distinct entities, and members and leaders are shared between them in ways that are opaque to outsiders. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to them collectively as CESP/SC.
The billboard issue is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of Albany’s waterfront mismanagement. The Voices to Vision process cost the city about $650K, and was almost a complete waste of money. During that era the CESP/SC-dominated city council ignored the problem of the Albany Bulb, and allowed it to fester. That problem was not addressed until a new city council was elected almost two years ago that including me, and the new council spent about $500K cleaning up the bulb.
The digital billboard proposal has been the latest victim of Albany’s messy waterfront politics. The price tag this time, in terms of lost staff time and consultant fees, and the costs of redesigning the public works center, I estimate at $50K to $100K, plus the on-going loss of the revenue from the digital billboard. What ultimately made the city change course was the threat of a CEQA lawsuit from CESP/SC, a threat that blindsided the city. Let me explain.
During the bulb cleanup, the city reached out to CESP/SC, meet with them often and made sure that they were informed of the city’s plans and progress. In return, CESP/SC heaped praise on the city for cleaning up the bulb (you may have to scroll down). The city made a big effort to develop a mutually respectful relationship base on good will and common goals, and the city thought it had built such a relationship.
In retrospect, this was a big mistake (or perhaps it was a revealing experiment). CESP/SC, I have come to conclude, never did deal with the city in good faith, and the organizations lack the integrity and competence to be reliable partners for the city government or the citizens of Albany.
I will discuss this in the following two sections. First, a brief timeline will feature links to video of city council meetings. Then I will discuss some of the arguments CESP/SC have offered as a basis for a CEQA lawsuit against the city, and I will show that they are weak.
A BRIEF TIMELINE:
The digital billboard was originally proposed during the Fall 2012 campaign by the Sierra Club-endorsed candidate (and now council member) Peter Maass. I thought it was a good idea, so when the plans for a new public works center were being proposed, I discussed this idea with the then city manager, Beth Pollard, and I reminded her of Maass’s idea.
The proposed digital billboard was first discussed at length in the January 22, 2014, Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, now more than seven months ago. P&Z commissioner Nick Pilch, an at-large member of the executive committee of the local Sierra Club, made many thoughtful comments in support of the digital billboard. I was impressed with his comments, which you can review at the link below. The discussion of the digital billboard starts at 1:22:20, i.e. one hour and 22 minutes and 20 seconds into the meeting, and Commissioner Pilch’s comments start at 1:31:50. (Sometimes the council videos can be slow to load, please be patient).
There was another reason that I didn’t anticipate any problems—a digital billboard similar to the one we were proposing has existed for years at the corner of Virginia St. and the I-80 frontage road, and CESP/SC had been a party to a “grand bargain” that used money from this billboard to support the new Tom Bates sports facility at the foot of Gilman Street, just south of Golden Gate Fields, on the Berkeley waterfront. In return, the designated use of the Albany Plateau, which was to be playing fields under the Eastshore State Park General Plan, was switched to burrowing owl habitat (although no burrowing owls have ever been sighted there.)
Given CESP/SC’s history of acceptance of digital billboards, and the open endorsement of them by Sierra Club-supported members of the Albany city council (Maass) and P&Z Commission (Pilch), and that the city manager was meeting regularly with CESP/SC to discuss the bulb, there was no reason to anticipate any problems.
As it turns out, the Sierra Club was raising the issue of digital billboards further south. In an item dated January 12, 2014, 10 days before the Albany P&Z discussion of our digital billboard proposal, an item appeared in the Yodeler, the publication of the local Sierra Club. The article was about digital billboards proposed for the approach to the Bay Bridge in Oakland. Nowhere were the smaller digital billboards further north mentioned.
By May 19, that had changed. By then the Yodeler was breathlessly reporting that “a plague of giant digital billboards threatens to blight the East Bay.” In this article, the Albany digital billboard was erroneously referred to as “an enormous wall-mounted LED billboard.” Actually, the digital billboard planned for the public works center would have been comprised of two screens mounted in a V pattern, much like the digital billboard near the I-80 freeway at the corner of the access road and Virginia St. in Berkeley.
Oddly enough, the Berkeley digital billboard at Virginia St. isn’t included in the list of East Bay billboard “plagues” cited in the Yodeler article of May 19. Perhaps that’s because the Sierra Club was party to the agreement that used revenue from the billboard for the Berkeley waterfront.
Unless the Serra Club had only heard about the Albany billboard the morning of May 19 and rushed to post this story the same day, the Sierra Club was aware of it before then. This is worth noting because May 19 was also the date of the Albany City Council meeting. At that meeting, Norman La Force of the Sierra Club (West County Costa group leader and chair of the East Bay Public Lands Committee) and the Vice president of CESP, stated that although he was working on the billboard issue both in Oakland and Richmond, he wasn’t aware of our the Albany billboard until “recently.” By May 19, the public debate had been going on for four months.
It’s useful to watch Mr. La Force’s comments in full during the May 19 city council meeting, which run for about three minutes starting at 2:44:18. Although it is subtle, note the threat of a CEQA lawsuit, a threat Mr. La Force made much more explicit in an email later to the council. Unfortunately, although I thought most of his complaints were groundless (see next section), CEQA lawsuits are often filed not to win, but to cause delays.
In this case, the city needed to move forward with the new public works center because of the expense of the lease on our current center, which we do not own. So the city decided to avoid the delays of a CEQA lawsuit by eliminating the digital billboard, although the result was an inferior public works center, and one that will be more costly to build out in the long run.
The issue here is not the billboard per se, but the four-month delay in CESP/SC speaking out, even though the city had made a strong effort to work with these organizations. After four months the city had committed tens of thousands of dollars to consultants and architects, plans, etc., much of which has gone to waste because the CESP/SC leadership claimed not to be paying attention (a claim which I find hard to believe).
The billboard issue was on the agenda again at the council meeting of June 9. By then, the staff had recommended that the digital billboard proposal be removed from the public works center project after the CESP/SC threat of a CEQA lawsuit. P&Z commissioner Nick Pilch spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and it was obvious he had completely reversed his opinion. His comments, which I find embarrassing, can be found at 1:09:49. I think he got it right the first time, but you can’t serve two masters, and Mr. Pilch decided to place the his loyalty to the Sierra Club above his obligations to the City of Albany. I hope now that he is on the city council, Mr. Pilch will instead begin to serve the citizens of Albany.
THE AUDUBON SOCIETY LETTER
As justification for his objection to the digital billboard, CESP president Robert Cheasty gave the city council a copy of the following document written by the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
The document starts with this statement:
“The Golden Gate Audubon Society objects to, and, where appropriate, will oppose electronic billboards, large neon signs, and other unnecessary sources of environmentally damaging light pollution.”
The Audubon Society next states four points, the first being the following:“Many birds navigate at night by the stars and can be confused by urban lights. Drawn off course by brightly-lit buildings, they may be harmed or killed due to collisions with windows or they may circle buildings and other light sources until exhausted.”
MY COMMENT: Along the Albany waterfront near the foot of Albany Hill, the freeway itself is the biggest source of light pollution. But the second largest source, and perhaps the most damaging due to their height, are the Gateview Towers and other condominium buildings. By comparison to these two sources, the light from a digital billboard would be trivial. (For more on buildings and bird strikes, see this SF Chronicle article, and this Wired article.)
The Audubon letter’s second point:
“Studies show that light pollution can cause urban birds to initiate their breeding earlier than their counterparts in rural, less-lit areas. ‘Our findings show clearly that light pollution influences the timing of breeding behavior, with unknown consequences for bird populations.’ (Current Biology, 16 September 2010, Volume 20, Issue 19, pages 1735-1739.) Early breeding can result in the birth of young during unfavorable conditions, including inclement weather and inadequate food supplies.”
MY COMMENT: I took the time to look up the Current Biology article mentioned in the Audubon letter (article here, supplemental materials here) It’s an interesting study, but the Audubon letter’s second point mischaracterizes it.
The area of study was a European forest plot, not an urban one, and it compared how birds on the edge of the forest fared depending upon the presence or lack of street lighting at the forest edge. While there was an advance in breeding behavior, it was only of a few days, so it was unlikely to have the negative consequences described in the Audubon comment.
The Audubon letter’s third point:
“The Fatal Light Awareness Program, which researches bird-building collisions, explains some light-related hazards: Many species of birds, especially the small insect-eaters, migrate at night. Night-migrating birds use the age-old and constant patterns of light from the moon, the stars, and from the setting sun as navigational tools to follow their migration routes. Artificial city lights interfere with this instinctive behavior and draw night-migrating birds toward brightly-lit buildings in urban areas. … observations found that once [birds] fly through a lit environment they’ll return to that lit source and then hesitate to leave it . . . The danger of artificial light to migrating birds is intensified on foggy or rainy nights, when the weather further obscures the night sky, or when cloud cover is low and the birds naturally migrate at lower altitudes.” (More info available at: http://www.flap.org/lights.php)
MY COMMENT: I followed the link to the FLAP website where I found the bird-friendly guidelines published by the city of Toronto (eight meg. pdf available here).
On page 24, you can find descriptions of good and bad lighting practices for advertisements. I’d like to point out that the two billboards at the corner of Solano and San Pablo, which the city planned to remove under the agreement with Clear Channel, are the worst sort of billboards according the the Toronto document, because they are lit from below and project light upwards. Digital billboards do not spill light either up or down, and the off-axis intensity of the light is fairly low. You can check this for yourself by examining the digital billboard at Virginia St. along the frontage road in Berkeley. From a light pollution perspective, digital billboards are better than similarly sized conventionally lit billboards. (For more, see this interesting article on light pollution.)
The Audubon letter’s fourth point:
“Golden Gate Audubon does not believe that electronic billboards comply with applicable laws and ordinances. Oakland’s Outdoor Lighting Standards section 1.1(C)(6) specifically prohibits them. Moreover, electronic billboards violate the spirit of the Highway Beautification Act and are rightly subject to a legal challenge on that basis.”
MY COMMENT: The Highway Beautification Act took shape in 1965, about the time the Beatles released Help! and Rubber Soul. 1965 was when the first U.S. troops began arriving in Vietnam, and the bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder began. The suburbs were expanding thanks large gas-guzzling automobiles.
The goal of the act was to make driving more enjoyable and scenic. But from the beginning, the act allowed exceptions for local zoning ordinances that covered commercial and industrial areas. The Highway Beautification Act was not meant to apply to areas like Albany’s commercial mixed use zone alongside Interstate 580.
But more importantly, the beautification act is an anachronism, and using it to justify opposition to the Albany’s digital billboard is an act of nostalgia, not of environmental awareness. I don’t think the planet can take much more of this sort of nostalgia.
Personally, I’m all in favor of highway uglification if it gets people off freeways and helps reduce their carbon footprint. Wouldn’t the resources of CESP/SC be better spent on encouraging the use of public transportation and other alternatives to driving on freeways?
A deeper problem with the Audubon letter is that it refers to locations (European forests, mid-continental cities like Toronto) that don’t have much in common with the California coast or the unique type of birds here. Many types of birds adapt very well to urban environments–seagulls, pigeons, crows and Canadian geese come to mind. But in addition to these, there are several others–raptors in NY City, the parrots of San Francisco, and even barn owls in my Albany neighborhood.
CESP/SC haven’t presented any evidence that the types of birds that inhabit the Albany waterfront are threatened by the degree of urban and freeway light pollution that is typical of this area, or of any major metropolitan area (if they were, they wouldn’t be here). After spending a few hours at the waterfront near the location of the proposed billboard, I’m beginning to wonder if any birds of any sort find the section of the waterfront near the condos appealing.
The problem is not only light from the freeway and condos, it is also freeway noise. Short of tearing down the freeway, or building a huge sound wall which would have environmental issues of its own, I don’t see any solution to the freeway noise and light problem. I’ll discuss this more in the next section.
A VIEW OF THE ALBANY WATERFRONT
Some critics of the digital billboard claimed it would ruin the enjoyment of the Bay Trail. To find out, I rode my bicycle to the spot on the Bay Trail opposite the site of our proposed public works center. I visited this spot twice on my bike, both times in the afternoon, both times carrying a camera and binoculars.
The Bay Trail is a pleasant experience starting from the Tom Bates playing fields at the foot of Gilman Street and riding south toward Emeryville. It is also a pleasant experience riding north from Costco toward Point Richmond. In both cases, the bike path is far removed from the freeway and is quiet and peaceful.
The section of the Bay Trail between Buchanan St. and Costco is another story. It is located on a narrow corridor next to the freeway, where it is very noisy, windy and where the smell of the mud flats is nasty. I’ve taken several photos from the spot opposite the planned public works center below:
While riding or standing, you are right at ear level with the passing vehicles. It is very noisy. In addition, the Bay Area’s strong prevailing winds are out of the WNW, and this spot is unprotected from them.
Note that the public works center will be located just to the right of the Albany Steel building in the image below.
Just south of the public works center you can see the imposing bulk of the Gateview Towers. At night, the light pollution from the towers is second only to that of the freeway itself.
The final photo in this sequence shows the view to the south. Note how the freeway is elevated where it passes over Buchanan Street. That spot is considerably less noisy because the noise is projected overhead. In this photo, the prevailing wind, which is usually very strong (less so in early morning and in Autumn), blows from right to left across the photo. This explains why birds tend to shelter in the lee of the bulb, about 1/2 mile south, where there is less freeway noise and more shelter from the wind.
At the spot where the above photos were taken, I never saw more than two or three birds. Further south I saw some seagulls. But 1/2 mile south, at the foot of Buchanan Street, I saw many more birds, including two white egrets.
Since my bicycle trips, I have made an effort to drive by this spot perhaps a dozen times in the last several weeks, and I have never seen any birds here, even early on weekend mornings when both the traffic noise and the prevailing winds are light. The major impression is not how full of bird life this spot is, but rather how devoid of bird life it is. I think both the strong winds are the loud freeway noise are the culprits. (Note: on the morning of Sept. 1, I drove by this spot in the early morning, and I did see several birds in the general area, although none near the freeway. Far more birds were located further south in the lee of the bulb and plateau.)
The follow three images are Google street view shots from three different locations of the Sierra Club-approved Berkeley digital billboard. It looks large or small, depending upon how close you are. But during the day, as you can see from the images, it is not any brighter than the other freeway signs. The proposed Albany billboard would probably have been smaller, but it is hard to say, since we never got very far along in the discussion before the threat of a CEQA lawsuit from CESP/SC ended the discussion.
I visited this digital billboard twice at night, and it is considerably less bright than many other freeway signs and the brightly lit commercial area on lower Solano Ave., where the city was attempting two remove two existing conventional billboards.
The image below is a screen shot from Google Earth of the sites of the two billboards in question. In this photo, east is at the top, and the prevailing winds blow from the bottom of the image to the top, west to east. On the left edge of the photo is the Costco parking lot. In the middle is the Albany bulb, neck and plateau, and the racetrack at Golden Gate Fields. On the right is Caesar Chavez Park.
The apex of the two red lines on the left of the image is the location of the proposed Albany billboard. Note how the WNW prevailing winds are not blocked at this location, while further south the bulk of the bulb, neck and plateau block the wind, creating a sheltered area for birds at the foot of Buchanan Street.
Also note that the location of the proposed Albany digital billboard is 880 yards, or 1/2 mile, from this sheltered spot. It is also across a major interstate freeway. These distances are comparable to the existing Berkeley billboard and the east-facing section of the paved path in Caesar Chavez Park, where the average distance to the billboard is about 1,000 yards.
The image above was taken from the Albany plateau, facing east to the Gateview Towers. The distance is about 1/2 mile.
Notice the small bush with the two vertical branches on the left in the image above. In the distance, just to the left of the two vertical branches, is the Albany Steel building, with its large rectangular sign on top. Just to the right of the two vertical branches is the gap where the Albany public works center will be built. Even assuming a digital billboard there would be twice the height and the same length as the Albany Steel sign, it is dwarfed by the bulk of the Gateview Towers and other condos.
The leadership of CESP/SC has presented many less-than-persuasive arguments about how the proposed digital billboard would have harmed birds along the Albany shoreline.The reality is that existing birds along Albany’s shoreline would be just fine with a digital billboard, just as they are with the existing light pollution from the freeway and the condominiums, and just as the birds in Berkeley seem to do fine in the presence of the digital billboard within several hundred yards of the Berkeley waterfront. The extra light from a digital billboard would be unnoticed compared to the existing sources of light pollution.
When a burrowing owl was spotted where the Tom Bates sports fields are now located, an accommodation was agreed upon to address the loss of that hypothetical habitat. Under this agreement, the Albany plateau area, slated to become playing fields under the Eastshore State Park General Plan, instead became a protected, fenced-off area with pre-constructed burrows.
The trouble is that the owls never appeared (the comments following the story are worth viewing). And we know now that breeding pairs of burrowing owls will most likely never appear, since new GPS-based tracking technology has shown that the Bay Area outside the migration area of male burrowing owls. If any owls did appear on the plateau, they would be females. Other environmental organizations in the Bay Area have made note of this.
Now the CESP/SC leadership is proclaiming a hazard to birds from a proposed digital billboard. I think there arguments are unpersuasive (although even terrible arguments are a sufficient basis for a CEQA lawsuit). Given the level of light pollution along the freeway, including the condominiums at the foot of Albany Hill, the light from Albany’s proposed digital billboard would be trivial. This is easily verified by merely observing the environment as you pass by on the freeway.
The track record of CESP/SC in predicting the benefits to birds of eliminating playing fields and digital billboards is not very strong. This makes me question the competence of these organizations.
But even more important, I question their ethics, and their ability to work with the city in good faith. Let me give you an example from the last few months. Albany’s city manager made a good-faith effort to reach out to CESP/SC. At one meeting, the CESP leadership actually insisted that the CESP members in attendance applaud the city’s work in removing the homeless encampment on the bulb.
Meanwhile, without notifying the city, at least one CESP board member, Brian Parker, begin helping organize opposition to the digital billboard among condo residents. I heard this from more than one acquaintance who lives in the condos.
Of course, if they had such deep concerns about the billboard, the CESP leadership and Mr. Parker in particular could have initiated a friendly discussion with the city about their environmental concerns. But CESP/SC didn’t take this step. The evidence leads me to conclude that CESP/SC deliberately blindsided the city, and were not dealing with the city in good faith. These facts make me question the ethics of CESP/SC.
As we move forward with plans to turn the bulb over to the park district, I think it would be naive to assume that CESP/SC will suddenly become more conscientious and reliable. Instead, I think the City of Albany, and Albany’s citizens, should expect more of the legal threats, blindsiding and half truths from CESP/SC. I wish I could come to some other conclusion, but there is nothing in the events of the last several months that makes me optimistic.