The anatomy of a bad decision-making process: Part One

There are many items I could discuss in this blog post, but I will save them for later, since I what to discuss is going to take some time.

I am concerned by the recent decision on the digital billboard by the city council. The process was so messy that the public never got a chance to learn what the issues are. I think that ultimately the council (including me) failed to fulfill its obligation to provide information and have a well-informed discussion about the options. So in the next several paragraphs, I want to have the conversation that I wish was held at the council meeting.

The billboard per se is not a huge issue, although $150K annually sure would be nice. But it is worth exploring because it shows how good local-government decision making can go astray, and I don’t want to see that happen again in Albany. In particular, I am directing this post to residents of the three Pierce St. condos, but I hope other Albany residents find it useful. This issues are nitty-gritty, but hey, that’s what local government is about.

In Part One of this discussion, I will restrict myself to what I call  the backside issues–how the digital billboard might or might not block views, or whether condo dwellers can see any light from the billboard. The backside issues affect Albany, so they are the responsibility of the city council. The frontside issues–how such a billboard might affect freeway drivers or wildlife–I’ll leave for Part Two. Here goes:

The City of Albany needs a new public works center for storing the vehicles, equipment and supplies that the maintenance staff uses for repairing pavement, sewers, trimming vegetation, etc. Office space is necessary, too. Currently the city is leasing a building along Cleveland Ave., but we have outgrown the building and the lease is getting expensive.

The city was able to purchase the site of the old Western Forge and Flange building just a few sites north of our current facility. The new location is 540 Cleveland Ave. The site is between the two freeways at the foot of Albany Hill, in front of the middle condos at 545 Pierce St. (images below). The old building there has been torn down and the lot has been prepared.

To help fund the project, the city planned to install a digital billboard which would bring in $150,000 in rental income annually. In my discussion with the city staff, I was aware there was more than one option being discussed. The options involved removing (or not) the utility poles and wires alongside the freeway, which would allow the billboard to be lower. The digital billboard company, Clear Channel, had agreed to pay all costs for the billboard, but the city would have to absorb the costs of undergrounding the utilities, an amount of roughly $100-200K.

At the city council meeting on May 19 I sat next to Mayor Peggy Thomsen (it was the last time I saw her, although I talked to her on the phone about the billboard several times before she died). I remember seeing the paper version of the agenda including the very ugly option 3 for the digital billboard. I had missed it because I have gone “paperless,” and I am still getting used to the iPad version of the agenda. I hadn’t noticed that particular attachment at the end of a long list of documents because you needed to use a little scroll bar to find it. Yup, I screwed up.  However, you can see it here:

Although that option was ugly, I was more concerned about wasn’t there—the other option that showed what the digital billboard would have looked like if we had undergrounded the utilities behind the new public works center. For some reason drawings of that option were not included. I’d like to think that, had I noticed this omission earlier, I would have asked that the other drawing be included.

At the end of the May 19 meeting, I stated publicly that I really couldn’t get a sense for what that billboard looked like in context of the surrounding space, so I decided to find out. Contrary to what many condo residents may think, I have, along with other council members, spent many hours in the neighborhood of the condos, visiting friends there, visiting the site of Pierce Street Park, driving along the street to think about the best location for the crosswalk, and measuring distances to the three condos in Google Earth. Let me show you what I discovered during my field research.

Image One below is a screen shot I grabbed from Google Maps. Based on the specifications in the billboard drawings linked above, the red area shows the region that would be in the shade of the digital billboard. Note the outline of the condos in in the Google Maps image.


Image One: Shadow of digital billboard. Red indicates region from where face of sign would not be visible.

No one in the middle condos would be able to see the front of the sign. However, residents of the far northern and far southern condos would be able to see the front of the sign from their buildings. This is a show-stopper for me, as it was for Mayor Thomsen when I showed her this image. Some additional screening could have solved this problem, but it doesn’t matter, because there is even a bigger problem.

Please take a long look at Image Two below. I will refer to it several times. This shot was taken from the parking garage in the middle condo complex (545 Pierce St.). The camera is looking west across the vacant lot where Western Forge and Flange used to be. This vacant lot will be the location of the new City of Albany public works center.


Image Two: View looking west from garage of 545 Pierce St., the middle condo complex.

 In particular note the tree you can see at the far end of the vacant lot, and if you can see them, notice the utility poles on the near side of I-580 that frame the tree. You cannot see the I-80 freeway in this photo because it is blocked by the wall of greenery just behind the row of diagonally parked cars on Pierce St. in the middle of the photo.

 Image Three below is taken at the same location, but from the I-580 freeway. This is a screen shot from a Google Maps street view photo.

Northbound looking east_cropped

Image Three: View from northbound lane of I-580, showing backside of former Western Forge and Flange building, now a vacant lot where City of Albany public works center will be constructed.

 Notice the same tree. The graffiti-covered building in Image Three is no longer there. That’s the backside of the old Western Forge and Flange building that has been torn down to make room for the public works center. Also notice the same utility poles that you can see in Image Two. The option shown in the May 19 city council agenda mounts the digital billboard over the top of the back of the new maintenance center to clear these utility poles. In order to mount the sign lower, behind the new public works building, the utilities would have to be undergrounded.

Now please look again at Image Two. If you look at the height of the utility wires, you can tell that a sign mounted at that height or above would block the view not of the water, but of the landforms in the background–the Albany Bulb and Angel Island. For me, this is another show-stopper. I can’t imagine that any member of the city council would have approved this plan, had we gotten far enough along in the process to see how high the sign would have been. In fact, I doubt if the sign would have survived the design review process in the Planning and Zoning Commission.

 All along, there was was a better option, but one that we never saw–so let’s explore it now. If you return once again to the parking lot view of Image Two above, you can see a large freeway sign in the image. It’s hard to make out if you don’t already know it is there, but Image Four below makes it clear.

Albany Steel building. Large sign is about 8 x 54 feet.

Image Four: Albany Steel building. Large sign is about 8 x 54 feet.

On the back of the Albany Steel building just north of the site of the new public works center is a big freeway sign. It is unlit, it is not digital, and by my estimates, it is about 8 feet high and 54 feet wide. By comparison, the length of one panel of the digital billboard is 48 feet, and is probably the standard height of 14 feet. In other words, one panel of the digital billboard would be taller but not as long as the Albany Steel sign. As part of the digital billboard, there would be two panels arranged in a triangle facing the freeway, as in the illustration in the May 19 city council link shows.

If we underground the utilities and put a digital billboard behind the new public works center, how would it affect the views? To see that, please look at Image Five below:

Image Five: View from garage with Albany Steel building cloned into public works space.

Image Five: View from garage with Albany Steel building cloned into public works space.

This is the same photo in Image Two above, but I have cloned in a copy of the Albany Steel building where the public works center will be (the city’s building will be much more attractive).

This is a useful comparison because, based on city records, the height of the Albany Steel sign is 42 feet above grade. The height of the public works center is about 40 feet, and if the utilities are undergrounded, the height of the top of the digital billboard behind the public works center would be three feet above the roof line. In addition, it appears in Google Earth that the elevation of the grade level in the public works lot is about one foot lower than the Albany Steel lot. That means a digital billboard tucked behind the public works center should be at the same height as the cloned building sign in Image Five above.

It is important to keep in mind that the height limit in the CMX (commercial mixed-use) zone is 45 feet. So, for example, if the City of Albany hadn’t bought this property, a private company could have bought it and built a building up to 45 feet above grade level. With undergrounded utilities, a digital billboard would be below the CMX height limit.

I would like to see a better analysis of this option with accurate drawings, but based on what I know now, as a council member, I would be willing to accept a digital billboard if three additional conditions are met: 1) No one living in the condos could see the front side of the billboard, 2) The sign is below the height limit in the CMX zone, and 3) The P&Z design review process has been completed before the proposal reaches the city council. I would be happy to see these conditions added to the digital billboard ordinance–and if they were, I’d vote to keep the ordinance.

The diagram below summarizes the options:

billboardsWhat has been consistently left of out this story is that the digital billboard plan was always intended to be swap. Two conventional billboards would be removed from on top of the Montero’s building at San Pablo and Solano, and two digital billboards would be added facing the freeway in front of the condos.

To make the revenue comparison equal on both sides, replacing the $150K of billboard revenue would require a permanent parcel tax of about $20 annually, according to an estimate from P&Z Commissioner Doug Donaldson at the June 25 P&Z meeting. That’s assuming the voters would go for it. Many might prefer the billboard option.

So here are the two options side-by-side. I think the billboard option is better for Albany, and I think it’s better for the condos, too, since there is a good argument to be made that billboard revenue should stay local. I personally would be overjoyed to see the extra revenue stay in the neighborhood by using it to help build Pierce St. Park. We’ve had trouble finding money during the last several months. You might disagree, but at least now we have more information and can make better comparisons.





Catching up on recent council issues

It’s been a busy few months on the council, time to catch up. First some brief notes:

In my last post, I discussed the generous health care benefits previous Albany city councils had approved for themselves. The current council did vote to eliminate the in lieu benefits by the end of the year. However, the council did not eliminate the provision that it is eligible for benefits better than those of the staff. Perhaps that issue will be resolved with the election of a new council next fall.

I had previously written optimistically about a new affordable senior housing project in El Cerrito. My optimism was premature. The project is struggling to find funding, a very common situation with affordable housing developments.

The council voted to sunset the waterfront committee. Although controversial for some, I thought this was an overdue decision. However, I am thankful for the years of diligent work by many Albany citizens who volunteered on the committee. There is an excellent discussion by Damin Esper of the CC Times here, so there is no need repeat his reporting.


Although we did get some rain in the last few weeks, we are still far below average. The last three years have been dry, and there may be more drought years coming.

About a month ago, the drain line under my kitchen sink (new with the house in 1926) became permanently clogged. While I waited a few days for a plumber, I took out the p-trap and replaced it with a 5-gal. bucket, which I emptied into the bathtub. I learned a lot about how much water I was using—the hard way.

Around the house, monitoring your water usage is harder than monitoring electricity usage. That’s because there are no smart water meters. I can easily monitor my solar panel electricity output and electricity usage via my smart meter and the PGE website. But I have to manually read my water meter. This isn’t too hard, at least if your house has a good meter.

Mine is right out on the curb, and is accurate down to about 0.01 cubic feet. There are 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, and 16 cups per gallon, so the meter reads down to 1.2 cups.

It’s tedious, but you don’t have to conduct the following experiments very often: Turn off all sources of water. Read the meter. Go inside the house, flush to toilet, read the meter. Take a shower, read the meter. Wash dishes, read the meter. You get the idea.

To check for any leaks, read the meter late at night. Go to bed. Don’t flush the toilet in the middle of the night. Get up in the morning, read the meter. My house doesn’t leak, which is surprising given much of the plumbing is circa 1926, and that my neighborhood has high water pressure.

I learned that low-flow toilets and shower heads really aren’t. Washing your car isn’t that bad. Hand washing dishes is a joke—stop being compulsive, just put them in the dishwasher, which uses very little water (although it does use electricity, unlike washing by hand). The amount of water we waste waiting for it to get warm is ridiculous.

Smart water meters would be fun, but the reality is that agriculture uses 75-80 percent of California’s water, so the innovation really needs to be there, and it is coming. There are some amazing remote sensing/GPS-based technologies that are already being used. Trouble is that more efficient water delivery systems will require considerable capital investment.

Here are some typical water readings from my house, in gallons, rank-ordered from low to high usage (remember, about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot). I’d be curious to know what reading other Albany residents get:

Flush toilet:                             2.6 gals.

Hose off solar panels:           3.0 gals.

Dishwasher, light cycle:        4.5 gals.

Regular shower (for me):      22.5 gals.

One load of laundry:              26.2 gals.

Wash car:                                30.0 gals.

Long hot shower:                  33.7 gals.

The average household in the U.S. uses 100 gallons of water per person per day. That’s hard to believe, but my house turns out to be pretty average. I am a little discouraged—although I thought I used less water during my plumbing crisis, it wasn’t reflected in my water meter readings. I’ll try to update these figures once I start watering lawn and garden in summer.


The city continues to make slow and steady progress in removing the homeless encampment on the bulb. The background on the city website is worth a quick review (here, here and here). Here is another good summary from Damin Esper from CC Times/Albany Journal, who spoke with City Clerk and PR representative Nicole Almaguer.

The only point I would like to add is that the city is also trimming trees and clearing brush on the bulb to create sight lines so that the police can patrol more easily, and to prevent new camps from being hidden in the bushes.


The council recently authorized $75,000 to continue funding the effort to remove the homeless and find them alternative housing. One issue needs to be clarified about thisthe difference in government jargon between authorization and appropriation.

At the state and federal level, authorization and appropriation are handled by different committees in the house and senate. Many different policy-making committees can authorize spending, but all these amounts must be squared against a budget by appropriations committees. In some instances, money can be authorized but not appropriated.

The Albany City Council is basically an authorizing committee. We vote to approve certain types of funding, up to a certain dollar limit. The city manager acts as the appropriation authority. In most cases the council gives permission for certain type of expenditures, but the city manager maintains discretion day-to-day and month-to-month as to how much of the money is actually spent. It is not the council’s role to micromanage the very diverse and complex tasks of our small city.

As I mentioned above, the council recently authorized up to $75,000 for continued homeless-related services on the bulb. But that does not mean that all the money will be spent any time soon. This is largely due to the unwillingness of some of the homeless on the bulb to take advantage of the programs the city is offering.

Mentally ill and drug-addicted individuals (even more so than the rest of us) put off accepting unpleasant realities for as long as possible. This is not in the interest of the homeless themselves, who would be better served by taking advantage of the opportunities provided for them to find alternative housing. Fortunately, several of them have done so.

The city and its contractor, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, have now rented three apartments in the East Bay and are moving folks from the bulb to these apartments. Special thanks to Albany resident and former chair of the Waterfront committee, Francesco Papalia. Francesco has been coordinating donations of furniture and other household goods for the apartments. He is doing a great job. To contact Francesco, see this Albany Patch article.


Finally, here are some relevant news items about homelessness. Little Albany isn’t going to solve this terrible regional and national problem all by itself. We have to be realistic. Here is a good video about the efforts made in Ventura, CA. As on the bulb, water pollution is a problem for San Jose, too.

For all its efforts, San Francisco has made little progress reducing homelessness in the city. And NYT’s Joe Nocera adds this sad reminder of one of the root causes of the problem in this comment.


On March 5, the council held a special meeting to hear appeals on the P&Z commission’s final approvals for the UC Village mixed-use project. The first appeal had been brought by housing advocates who complained that Albany hadn’t completed a state-mandated review of housing, known as the “housing element.” This appeal was moot by March 5, because the city had completed the element by then, and has begun working on the next housing element as part of the general plan process.

A second appeal had been filed by Albany resident Ed Fields, who had many concerns about the planned unit development (PUD)  aspects of the project. A PUD allows exemptions from local zoning ordinances for big projects. Creating a planned unit development requires the writing of “findings” to justify the need for the PUD. Over the years, I have disagreed with Ed on many issues, but he plays by the rules, does meticulous background research, and presents his arguments coherently.

I wish I could say the same for the audience at the appeal, which consisted of many Occupy the Farm followers, whose behavior was adolescent, disruptive and boorish. Councilmember Marge Atkinson, a former high school teacher, dealt with this with equanimity, due to her long experience with adolescent behavior. Mayor Peggy Thomsen did a great job keeping the meeting under control, although it was difficult at times.

On hand that evening were the city staff, our consulting attorney for land use issues, at least one member of P&Z (a professional in land-use law), and some representatives of the developers. Between them, there was probably a century of planning expertise in the room. So I was very confident by the end of the meeting that city had thoroughly addressed Ed Fields’s technical concerns.

However, I left the meeting feeling sad and disappointed, both for the city and for Ed Fields. Although I disagreed with his technical complaints, Ed’s concerns raised policy issues for the city, and I think, given that we were having the meeting, we could have had a much more thoughtful discussion. If only the audience had permitted it.

In particular, I wished we could have discussed how the city deals with trees, creeks and public space for our graying population—the broader policy issues that were touched on by Ed’s appeal. But these are all on-going concerns, so there will be many more chances to discuss them at future council meetings.


Although the members of Occupy the Farm are probably their own worst enemy when it comes to advocating for sustainable farming and urban farming, these are serious movements, so I wanted to provide some background information.

First, here is an article I wrote about agroecology 11 years ago now (pdf). Much of what I wrote then would now be referred to as “sustainable agriculture.” Agroecology has gotten pretty mixed up with the food sovereignty movement (pdf) and has become less scientific and more overtly political (pdf).

It’s not clear just how much sense agroecology makes from an ecological perspective (here and here). Many serious organizations are working on sustainable and urban farming (here, here and here). This includes UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, right here in Albany on the Gill Tract. See letter from CNR Dean Keith Gilless (pdf).

Many urban farming advocates, including OTF, like to talk about urban food deserts. Unfortunately it’s mostly a myth (here, here and here). When it comes to cities where grocery stores are within easy walking distance, SF scores second only to New York City, and Oakland is rated fifth, much higher than Seattle and Portland, which rank in 12th and 13th place.

Finally, on a happy note, Consumer Reports magazine just ranked Sprouts Farmer’s Market, the grocery store planned for the mixed-use project, and the fifth-best in the nation. Trader Joe’s was second, Costco fourth, Whole Foods 15th, and dead last, in 55th place, was Walmart. So I am looking forward to the day when I can return to University Village, where I lived from 1995—2000, and shop right next door at one the better-run grocery chains in the country.


Council medical benefits, the “Bell” test, and Complete Streets


When I joined the city council about a year ago, one of the first things I did was to attend a new member’s conference in Sacramento, sponsored by the League of California Cities. There I learned about the City of Bell in Los Angeles County.

Bell was an example of notoriously corrupt city government, where a handful of people stole millions from the mostly working-class Latino population. The courts are still sorting out the mess. “Don’t be like Bell,” we heard over and over again at that conference.

Since that experience, I have attempted to make sure that our city council here in Albany acts in a straightforward and transparent manner. I believe that everything the council does should pass the “Bell test.” Don’t be self-serving. Be transparent. Sadly, when it comes to medical benefits for the city council, we have failed the Bell test.

Let me give you the most egregious example. As council members, we get paid $300/month, a very typical amount for a small city in California. However, due to a vote the city council took in 2010, before I was elected, council members are eligible for an “in lieu” benefit if they have other health coverage and don’t join the city health care plan.

Because I already get medical benefits from my employer, I’m eligible for these in lieu benefits. If I chose to take them, and if I served for two terms (eight years total) I would quietly walk away from my council service with a retirement fund worth around $80K to $90K. This is in addition to my monthly wages of $300. Did you know that? Uh, why not? Let me explain how this came about:

City councils and school boards often allow elected officials to take advantage of their health care plans. This makes sense in a world where health insurance is very expensive for small business owners. Up until the Affordable Care Act (ACA) there were big economies of scale for large organizations, since they had more bargaining power and bigger risk pools than smaller organizations.

A city government could offer health care benefits to council members who were small business owners at a much lower rate than the business owners could find it on their own. If you wanted small business owners to serve, this benefit made a lot of sense. Small business owners often have to work extra hours to afford health carehours that they could spend serving on a city council or school board.

On the other hand, there really isn’t any good social-efficiency argument for offering health care benefits to elected officials who already get health care through their (or their spouse’s) employer—especially employers that are large organizations. However, because it’s not considered fair to discriminate, council members like me, who work for large organizations, are also eligible to join the city’s health care plan at no cost, even if we don’t need to.

Providing coverage for people who don’t really need it is expensive for cities, so to discourage this practice, our city government, along with many others, offers an in lieu payment. The payment is substantial, but less than the cost of the health insurance. For Albany, the payment is set at the level of the individual Kaiser health plan, which in 2014 is $742 per month. If I chose to take this money, it would be deposited in a retirement plan, and I would be able to withdraw it at the end of my city council service. That would be about $80K to $90K, as I mentioned, assuming I successfully ran for office again.

But wait, it gets better. Back in 2010, the council members not only voted for in lieu benefits for themselves, they also voted to give themselves better health care benefits than the city staff. City staff are eligible for Kaiser plans at no cost, but must pay the difference if they want a more expensive Blue Cross or other plan. The city council voted to give themselves the more expensive plans at no cost to themselves at all (however, currently, council members do pay the difference out of pocket).

 A few Albany citizens who were at those meetings were surprised and disappointed (to put it politely) and have been trying to raise this issue ever since. Council candidates were asked about this during the elections in the fall of 2012, and we agreed to review these arrangements.

 After I got elected I requested this item be put on the agenda, which it was, a few months ago. The council asked to staff to provide more background information, and staff has done so, in an excellent survey that is part of the agenda packet for the Jan. 21 meeting.

The report compares Albany to 26 other Bay Area small local governments. Of the 26, only 20 offer health care benefits to council members. Of the 20 that offer these benefits, only half (10) provide an in lieu benefit. Guess which city offers the highest in lieu benefit—Albany. Of the 20 cities that offer health care benefits, only five offer full coverage. Only one offers council members better benefits than staff—Albany. To be fair, some cities offer some benefits that Albany doesn’t, and those are mentioned in the report.

Our city staff are also eligible for an in lieu benefit, but they are employees, and their work is governed by a very different set of rules, including labor union contracts. And many city employees work far more than 40 hours per week, due to the number of evening meetings they must attend.

By comparison, I estimate that a city council member spends about average of 10 hours per meeting. We attend the meetings, study the agenda items, meet with the city manager, discuss with the citizenry and attend some other meetings on the side. With two meeting per month, we work about 20 hours per month, probably more when we are serving as mayor or if there are special meetings. A 40 hour per week job is at least 160 hours per month. So the way I see it, serving on the city council is a one-eighth time job, occasionally more.

 In addition to comparing our work to other city councils—an external comparison—we need to make an internal comparison as well. Many of Albany’s citizens volunteer for 20 hours per month with little or no compensation. Our own planning and zoning commission is a good example. Several athletic coaches in our Albany schools work long hours and get very little compensation.

So by both internal and external comparisons, I think the way the city council has chosen to pad its income is arbitrary, self-serving and hidden from plain sight. It doesn’t pass the Bell test. The solution is simple—the council needs to reverse the two votes from 2010 that gave the council higher medical benefits than the staff (the only city in our comparison group to do so), and that gave them the highest in lieu benefits of all the cities in our comparison group.

Before I move on, I’d like to emphasize again that current council members do not take full advantage of these benefits (although others have in the past). I’d also like to point out that there was only one council member at the time that voted against both the higher health care benefits for council, and against in lieu benefits. That person is Peggy Thomsen, our current mayor.


At the last meeting in December, before the holiday break, the council accepted the latest version of the Complete Streets report. (Staff report here, big pdf of full report here.)  I attended the planning meetings before I was on the council and I was impressed by the work of group of planners and citizens during the complete streets process.

There were two sticking points at the last council meeting that brought out several people to this discussion. The first is tradeoff between bicycle lanes and parking along San Pablo Avenue, and the second is the AC Transit bus stop at the corner of San Pablo Ave. and Solano Ave. Let’s discuss the bus stop first.

The problem is the bus stop for the northbound buses on San Pablo Ave. It currently stops before the stoplight at the Solano intersection, right in front of Montero’s. A much better idea would be to move the bus stop just north of the intersection, in front of Max’s Liquors. That way the bus is not impeded by having to wait for the stoplight to turn green.

From a traffic planning perspective, this is a great solution. For the businesses on the NE corner of the intersection, including Max’s Liquors, this is a bad solution. They would lose the parking spots in front of their stores.

 More generally, the merchants near the intersection are concerned about losing parking spots. While I am supportive of trying to maintain parking spots around the intersection, I am also supportive of getting the bus stop moved to a more rational location, which would be somewhere north of the intersection.

As I stated during the meeting, we had a complete streets planning process (mostly for Buchanan and San Pablo corridors), not a complete San Pablo/Solano intersection planning process. We will have to zoom in on particular trouble spots as we go.

The other sticking point was whether to eliminate parking along one side of San Pablo Avenue to make more room for bicycle routes. As an avid bicyclist and bike commuter, I am strongly opposed to this. No matter how much bright paint you put on the roadway, San Pablo simply is not a safe place to ride bicycles.

I am in favor of some striping for bicycles to solve the “half-block” problem. That’s the problem that occurs when you first turn on to San Pablo on your bike and you find your destination is in the middle of the block. I’m fine with encouraging short trips along San Pablo and keeping bikes off the sidewalks.

But I think San Pablo, a state highway after all, should primarily be used by cars, especially at night and in rainy weather. Cycling at night or in rainy weather is dangerous, although I do it on my commute to and from work. But I never ride my bike at night except to come home from work. It’s not safe unless you are familiar with the route and have memorized where the potholes are, because you can’t seem them at night, especially if a car’s headlights are shining in your eyes.

There are many safe alternative routes for riding bicycles, and Google Maps provides a great way to find them. Too see this, go to Google Maps, find directions from Point A to Point B as usual. Then move your cursor up to the horizontal set of icons that show a car, bus, pedestrian and cyclist. Click the cyclist on the far right, and you will get a route better suited to bikes. Try this route, for example:

 From: Albany City Hall, San Pablo Avenue, Albany, CA

To: DMV El Cerrito Office, Manila Avenue, El Cerrito, CA

Or here is another good one:

 From: Caffe Strada, College Avenue, Berkeley, CA

To: Oakland Kaiser Medical Center, Oakland, CA

In both cases, the car route keeps you on the arterial (San Pablo Ave, College Ave.) while the cycling route takes you on quiet side streets. We have many such options, so routing bikes along San Pablo isn’t a great idea. With many cyclists now carrying GPS-enabled smart phones, you can seek out these routes at any time.

To summarize: I am a big fan of the Complete Streets process, but there are many details to be worked out, and many compromises to be made. That being said, I think we are off to a good start.

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.

Lots of news


I see now that it’s been over two months since I last posted. My apologies, it’s been busy, mostly with the issues surrounded the Albany bulb. It’s a not a good time to comment on what is happening regarding the bulb, with yet another lawsuit in the works. Besides, anything I say now will soon be outdated, so let’s just see how it turns out.

The reality is that the bulb will someday be turned over to the park district, and while the current controversy may affect the timing and the cost, it won’t affect the final outcome. The Albany Patch has had some good coverage, in chronological order (here, here, here).

In the long run, it is important to keep in mind that the price tag for the city’s various waterfront-related “activities” since 1999 is now up to almost $1.3 million, if you include the $650,000 spent on the Voices to Vision process, the $60,000 allocated so far to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and the $570,000 the council just approved for a temporary homeless shelter at the bulb. That last item includes the cost of cleaning up the bulb, including the biohazards—mostly human waste and discarded hypodermic needles.

All this to get us back to where we were in 1999, when a much smaller homeless encampment was removed. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think the taxpayers are owed an explanation of why this situation was allowed to spin out of control, if only so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. I can think of a lot good things the city could do with $1.3 million.


Elections are only one year away. We will need to find two new city council members. I’m hoping we can find two new members with broad public sector skill sets and a good grasp of the formal and informal institutions in Albany.

Often in small cities like Albany, candidates are drawn from local single-interest groups. I am skeptical that single-issue candidates make good council members (at least at first, since there is a lot of formal and informal on-the-job training). The variety of issues a city council must deal with requires a broad perspective and an interest in the well-being of all residents, including those that haven’t been born yet.


There is another issue brewing for the next election, and that issue is affordable housing. Although many Albany residents conflate this issue with the homeless encampment on the bulb, to me the two issues are separate.

In the process of completing the housing element section of the general plan, we have learned that we are at a disadvantage because Albany is a small, built-out city. Many of the potential building sites can only accommodate projects with a ten units or less. Affordable housing developers prefer to develop larger projects to capture economies of scale. For example, here is some good news about a 90-unit project in Oakland.

There are many changes that the council can make unilaterally to encourage development of all sorts—commercial, retail and housing—including affordable housing. The council has already begin to do so as part of the general plan process.

However, one thing the council cannot do is overturn Measure D, a measure approved by the voters in 1978 that requires very generous amounts of parking for residential areas in Albany. The parking requirements make it difficult to build multi-family housing near public transit corridors or to convert detached garages and other structures to in-law apartments. Some folks in town tell me that was really the unspoken purpose of Measure D.

The council has requested a study of Measure D by a committee drawn from members of our Planning and Zoning, Traffic and Safety, and Sustainability commissions. The council heard during our last meeting that Measure D revisions can be placed on the ballot for next November’s election if the revisions come in the form of a voter initiative, which will require signatures from more than ten percent of Albany’s registered voters.

A council-originated proposal to revise Measure D would require expensive environmental review of $50K to $100K. It would mostly like not appear on the ballot until Nov. 2016. If Albany residents would like to see Measure D revised soon, and I hope they do, we need to start planning to gather signatures and place an initiative on the Nov. 2014 ballot.


If and when Albany is in a position to develop affordable housing, I think affordable senior housing is the way to go. There are four good reasons for this:

1)  Economics and demographics: Due to the aging of the baby boom generation, and the economic collapse that started in 2008, many boomers are nearing retirement age without adequate savings. There is a coming epidemic of senior poverty, and Albany won’t escape this trend. San Mateo County is beginning to address the issue (here). Also see this NYT article (here).

2) Albany is sympathetic to the needs of seniors: The city already runs a senior center and we provide senior exemptions for parcel taxes. As affordable housing goes, senior housing is a relatively easy sell. Seniors are generally not considered to be troublesome neighbors. Let’s not forget how ferocious NIMBYism can be in Albany.

3) State law provides for “density bonuses” for senior and affordable housing: State law can trump local ordinances like Measure D. So even if we cannot reform Measure D, multi-unit senior housing might still be possible.

4) Seniors don’t add kids to our crowded school district: New housing projects, whether affordable or not, will face opposition from community members who are concerned about class size in Albany schools. If new housing is perceived to be a threat to the quality of our schools, it will be a tough sell. See these recent Albany Patch articles (here, here, here)

UC learned about Albany’s crowded schools when it started to develop the mixed-use project on the site of the former student housing in University Village. At first UC was planning on building conventional housing, but it switched to senior housing (and assisted living in particular), when UC learned that Albany’s public schools were running out of room. I think our affordable housing advocates should take note of that approach.

Affordable senior housing, including programs to keep seniors living safely in their current homes (see here again),  would be a good complement to the mixed-use project. Many seniors retire and are suddenly cash poor but asset-rich, yet may not need to move to an assisted-living facility for a few decades. Affordable senior housing could really help fill that gap. Quality assisted living senior housing is expensive, so it is good to keep the options open for elderly for as long as possible. Inexpensive assisted living can have its costs, too, as we recently learned in Castro Valley (here).

In family-centric Albany, the quality of our public schools is the tail that wags the dog. Therefore, when it comes to new building projects, two very important long-run goals should be affordable senior housing (an issue for city council) and more classrooms at our public schools (an issue for AUSD school board).


In closing, let me just say that I was a big beneficiary of affordable housing when, as a UC Berkeley grad student, I lived in the old Section-B part of University Village. In the mid-1990s, my rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $500-$600/month. I had great neighbors from all over the world. It wasn’t perfect (let’s not talk about the plumbing), but it was an amazing experience.

I had a toddler then (now a UC Berkeley senior) who started at Albany schools there. At first, I was saddened that his multinational cohort of preschool friends would be scattered to the winds as their parents returned to their home countries. Yet when my son graduated from AHS in 2010, many of those same kids graduated with him.

The rents in University Village are now about at market rate, although the plan is for revenue from the mixed-use project to help subsidize costs. I think my experience in University Village is a good example of how affordable housing for young families can allow them to get their start in Albany. I’m all in favor of that, but again, we are going to need more classrooms to accommodate them, and this will be the real constraint in coming years.


On a happier note, the council has been interviewing candidates for the city manager position formerly filled by Beth Pollard. There should be some announcement in the next few weeks, and a new manager could be in place before the end of the year.

City council meeting, Sept. 3, 2013


First, here’s an item I’ve been meaning to post for a while. Last spring the UC Berkeley political science dept. held a conference on California’s energy future (agenda here). Jane Long’s keynote speech is the best summary of the issues for California that I have seen. She is the Associate Director for Energy and Environment, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Co-chair, California’s Energy Future Committee.

Some of the other remarks are good, too, especially Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein’s opening comments. But Long’s overview is a must-see (here).


Stephanie Rawlings of Occupy the Farm (OTF) has filed an appeal in her CEQA lawsuit against the mixed-use project at University Village (CEQA background here).

As you probably remember, the Rawlings lawsuit, in conjunction with the CEQA lawsuit filed by Albany Strollers and Rollers and Carbon Neutral Albany, caused Whole Foods to back out of the project. UC found a new tenant, Sprouts Farmers Market, and the new project has been successfully making its way through the planning and zoning process.

The AS&R/C0A lawsuit was settled with an agreement to add a cycletrack and some solar panels to the mixed-use project, an agreement that I think was of very dubious value, speaking as an avid cyclist and the owner of residential PV system. But no need to rehash that here.

The OTF lawsuit was originally filed by Eric Larsen, and Albany resident, and joined by Rawlings. The lawsuit attempted to link the mixed-use project with long-range plans for the Gill Tract. The lawsuit never made much sense, and it was shot down by the courts. Although an appeal has almost no chance of succeeding, Rawlings filed one anyway. Larsen dropped out, to be replaced by another Albany resident, OTF supporter and former city council candidate Ulan McKnight.

It’s important to keep in mind that the point of filing CEQA lawsuits typically is not to win—the point is to create delays to projects that will either extract concessions from developers or make them walk away. This appeal will take several months to be resolved. It may jeopardize the current project.

Unfortunately, these tactics are a very common abuse of the CEQA process. CEQA reform has been supported by Governor Jerry Brown, a former mayor of Oakland. While pushing for urban redevelopment in Oakland, he encountered firsthand the problems with CEQA. The reform effort has had limited success. Links to articles here, here and here.

A revised bill did pass, and it will almost certainly be signed by the governor. The bill may prevent some of the abuses to urban projects, but the devil will be in the details (here).

Frivolous CEQA lawsuits in Albany have caused expensive delays to worthwhile projects like the mixed-use project and the school district’s Cougar Field renovation. In addition, these lawsuits are used to subvert democratic process. For example, McKnight ran as an OTF candidate, and he was trounced in the city council election, coming in dead last by quite a margin. But who needs the support of voters when you can just file a CEQA lawsuit instead?


The Sept. 3 city council meeting was the first after returning from the August break. The meeting opened with an appeal of the AT&T cell tower application at 1495 Solano Ave., the Sunnyside Café building, that had been unanimously approved by a 4-0 vote by the Planning and Zoning Commission (member Phillip Moss recused himself because he lives within 500 feet of project).

In addition to being a waste of time on a busy night, the appeal was a sad throwback to the grandstanding, tilting-at-windmills approach of the former city council. I have come to think of that era, although it lasted only eight years, as Albany’s lost decade. There was no basis for the appeal, other than to appease Albany’s shrinking number of cell-tower opponents.

I had followed the P&Z discussion on the Sunnyside Café application over the last several months, and I had discussed it with my P&Z appointee Doug Donaldson, who wrote a very good letter to the council about the appeal (here).

As the AT&T representative stated at the meeting, AT&T followed the city’s rules and did everything the city asked them to do. I basically agree. There was no legal basis for denying the application, and if the council had done so, we could have had our heads handed to us by a judge (or, more likely, during a settlement). It would not be the first time, in fact, it would be the third time in recent years.

I always felt the appeal would be denied, and in the end it was. The good news is that former P&Z member and current council member Peter Maass gave a balanced, well-reasoned summary of the issues. After Maass spoke, I felt I had nothing to add. The council voted and the appeal was denied 3-2, with Atkinson and Wile voting to uphold the appeal. See Damin Esper of CC Times here


A brief review of the timeline: The city council passed a resolution to start enforcing the city’s anti-camping ordinance on May 6. By the time the ordinance begins to be enforced in early October, it will have been five months since notice was first given.

The city hired Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP), and authorized an initial $30K to make contact with the campers on the bulb and begin the efforts to find housing for them. So far, no one has been housed. On Sept. 3, The council agreed to extend the contract for another $30K, and to reaffirm the October deadline. CC Times article here.

The situation is very fluid, so I don’t want to comment too much, because anything I say at this point might be outdated very quickly. However, I will say that although I have mixed feelings, I have grown less sympathetic to the bulb campers since May.

Yet at the same time, while I am in agreement with the local waterfront advocates about the need to turn the bulb over to the park district, my question is, “Where ya been?” During the years that the waterfront coalition dominated the council, the bulb was on the backburner.

Despite the advocacy for the waterfront, the reality is the waterfront is in worse shape today than it was in 1999, 14 years ago, when the bulb was successfully cleared of the homeless campers. At any time during Albany’s lost decade, it would have been far easier to deal with the situation on the bulb than it is now.

Given the growing dysfunction of the federal government, state and local governments have had to step up. Local government has become serious business, too serious to be left to single-issue groups like the waterfront coalition, Occupy the Farm, Carbon Neutral Albany, Strollers and Rollers and our anti-cell tower friends. Albany needs a broader, more inclusive brand of politics, one that puts the well-being of the city as a whole above that of its single-issue groups.


City Council meeting July 15, 2013

Just a few points on the July 15 meeting. Note that the meeting was the last one before the annual council August break, so the council will not meet again until Sept. 3.


The council considered the next steps for Pierce Street Park. As one of the audience members suggested, only half-joking, we are trying to do a $2 million initial project for $1 million. Sadly, there is a lot of truth to that statement.

When you cut budgets, there is a presumption you can cut the fat and leave the lean. That’s not the case here. With Pierce St. Park, we cut the fat months ago, and are now fighting over what scraps are left.

Do we complete the fences to help keep toddlers more contained, or instead, do we keep both bathroom stalls? It is both very frustrating and completely inefficient to struggle with every one of these little details. But that is the reality.

We are moving forward with two handicapped parking spots on the west side of Pierce St., a playground for kids of various ages, a bathroom with one or two stalls, and a lower section graded for a potential irrigated playing field at some point in the future. The current plans include an ADA-approved path that will make wheelchair access possible.

There are many options for how to develop the rest of the property, especially now that the planned maintenance center has moved, but further developments will come as money becomes available.


OK, now onto the next big issue–trees. The council discussed a tree ordinance that will require permits to remove “legacy” or “heritage” trees. The proposed ordinance concerns trees on private property, i.e. our yards, not the city-owned trees in the median strips between sidewalks and the street. Those are already controlled by the city.

There are many Bay Area cities that have similar ordinances, and in most of them, a review by the city and a permit are required before removing a tree over a certain size.

I have mixed feelings. Trees are both private and public goods, and it’s import to respect the homeowner who might want to take a tree down, for example, to provide more light for a garden or solar panels. Yet other folks in the community might enjoy seeing the tree and enjoying its existence.

It is also important to keep in mind that a forest, even an urban forest, is a dynamic thing. Imagine a time-lapse video of Albany that compresses 30 years into one minute. The shifting green mass in that video is our urban forest.

It is not a great idea to think of a forest in a slice in time, but rather as a growing, evolving system the changes over time. While I think mature trees are important, especially long-lived ones like oaks and redwoods, it is also important to consider that today’s small trees will be legacy trees a generation from now.

I also expressed some concerns that with climate change, bigger storms will mean higher winds, more rain, and more saturated ground, leading to high risks that big trees will fall or drop limbs.

If an ordinance encourages disgruntled homeowners stop maintaining large trees because the city won’t allow them to be removed, than it creates incentives to allow poorly maintained trees to become hazardous. I gave a few examples of people who have been killed in the Bay Area by poorly maintained large trees in recent years.

I think the city can have a legacy tree ordinance, since it has obviously worked in many other cities. Whether or not it is revenue neutral is another matter. I think it should be, which I suspect will mean high fees for removing trees.

A tree ordinance could have a very big impact on our yards and our lives, so I hope Albany residents will pay attention as the policies are developed.


I attended the P&Z meeting on Wednesday, July 24. The audience saw the latest plans for the grocery store and the senior housing project. By the standard of recent meetings, it was a love fest. It should be, because P&Z commissioners got much of what they had asked for, and were pleased with the progress. The staff report and drawings can be found on the meeting agenda as item 7.C. (here).

Please keep in mind this meeting was a study session to review progress, not to vote on final plans. With luck, that meeting should happen in the next few months.

The grocery store and the senior housing retail area have been realigned so that they now face each other across Monroe Ave, which is the main entrance to UC Village that runs East/West. At an improved stoplight, large delivery trucks will turn off San Pablo Ave. onto Monroe St. and into the Sprouts parking lot, where the loading docks are located.

There will be no retail in front of the senior housing project along San Pablo. The main entrance, with a curved driveway much like that of a large downtown hotel, will be located on San Pablo. The parking is covered at the mixed use project, and is uncovered at the Sprouts grocery store, between the store front and Monroe Ave. to the south and west.

The design calls for restoring the remaining section of Cordonices Creek, so we should see the plans for that soon. I am looking forward to it.

Damin Esper of the Conta Costa Times was in attendance, his take on the meeting is (here).