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

THE MIXED-USE PROJECT AND THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE GILL TRACT

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

ALBANY BULB

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.

THE NEXT ELECTION

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.

 AFFORDABLE HOUSING AND MEASURE D

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.

AFFORDABLE SENIOR HOUSING SHOULD BE A PRIORITY

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).

 A PERSONAL NOTE ON AFFORDABLE HOUSING

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.

NEW CITY MANAGER SOON

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

CALIFORNIA’S ENERGY FUTURE

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).

 CEQA APPEAL AGAINST MIXED-USE PROJECT

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?

CELL TOWERS ONCE AGAIN AND ALBANY’S LOST DECADE

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

THE HOMELESS AND THE ALBANY BULB

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.

PIERCE STREET PARK

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.

LEGACY TREE ORDINANCE

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.

MIXED USE PROJECT AT P&Z

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).

 

City Council notes, June 17 and July 1 meetings

SEWER MASTER PLAN

At the June 17 city council meeting, I requested the sewer master plan be pulled from the consent calendar so it could be discussed. The plan proposes spending $127,000 to help maintain and upgrade our sewer system. The report is just a few pages, you can view it (here).

A few months ago, Ray Chan, Public Works Director/City Engineer, provided a power point presentation to the city on the state of our infrastructure (mostly streets and sewers). They are in decent, but not great shape. Many folks were concerned, so when I saw the master plan, I wanted to highlight it to make sure residents are aware that we do have a long-range plan for improving our sewer system.

In the East Bay, the storm drain system and the sewer systems are designed to be separate. This separation should prevent our water treatment plant at the foot of the Bay bridge from being overwhelmed by excess water entering the system during large rainstorms.

But it doesn’t always work that way in practice. If excess storm water enters the sewer system, sewage that has only undergone partial treatment may be dumped into the Bay. The EPA has been cracking down on this problem for years, and Albany is under a consent decree to reduce the inflow and infiltration (I/I) of storm water into our sewer pipes.

With climate change, large storms are predicted to dump more rain, making the I/I problem more severe. So it is good the city is being proactive.

 PROGRESS ON THE BULB

The city has entered into a contract with a social services agency, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, to begin evaluating the homeless population on the bulb. The organization has already begun to work with the homeless to understand their needs and resources. We will be hearing more in the coming weeks, but please keep in mind that the public’s desire for news needs to be balanced by the homeless population’s right to privacy.

 BUDGET

The council reviewed the 2013-14 Draft Proposed Operating Budget at the June 17 meeting and passed it at the July 1 meeting. Due mostly to the improving economy, the budget is in relatively good shape.

We have not yet started to fill open positions at the city–we are not that optimistic. But the staff did get a 2.4 percent raise, which is really more of an overdue cost of living allowance. But it’s good to be in a position to offer some salary increase. (Caveat: We have a mix of unionized and managerial/professional staff at the city, so wage and salary increases are subject to bargaining for some employees.)

The council received a presentation by the city’s independent auditors on their examination of our financial reports for fiscal year end June 30, 2012. We heard from the auditors that our books were in good shape. However, the report was about six months late do the mayhem caused by the economic crisis, loss of staff and the financial disaster created by the governor’s axing of the the state redevelopment program. We will work to see that the next audit is done on schedule.

Judy Liberman and Cordonices Creek

At the July 1 meeting, we took time to acknowledge the amazing restoration of Cordonices Creek, the creek that runs along the Berkeley/Albany border just south of University Village. The council authorized acceptance of a gift of funds from the Albany Community Foundation to install a plaque in recognition of Judy Lieberman’s leadership in the restoration of the creek.

Judy served the city at various times as the assistant city manager and as the project manager for the Cordonices Creek project, when she worked with both the city of Berkeley and the UC Berkeley campus. For the past few years Judy has been fighting cancer, so she could not attend the meeting, although she was watching via the city’s internet broadcast.

We saw pictures of what the creek looked liked at the start of the restoration and how it looks now. The transformation is spectacular—you almost expect to see Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn wander the banks, searching for crawdads. It’s a great asset for the kids in University Village.

So far, the creek has been restored from the railroad tracks (to the west) to 8th street (to the east). The area from 8th street to San Pablo Ave. is also scheduled to be restored. I got a private tour of the creek at that location from local wrought-iron artisan Dan Dole, who has had his shop next to the creek for about three decades.

The creek is its own little hidden world just a few hundred yards from the hustle and bustle of San Pablo Ave. Dan, like Judy, has an infectious devotion to the creek and its preservation. You will hear more about the creek restoration as plans for the senior housing project (part of UC’s mixed-use project) continue to take shape.

 ODDS AND ENDS

 Patrick O’Keeffe, former City Manager for Emeryville, has ben appointed our interim city manager. Good article from Damin Esper of CCTimes (here).

Planning and Zoning unanimously approved the new AT&T cell facility at 1495 Solano Ave. (Sunnyside Café building ) by a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Phillip Moss had to recuse himself because he lives within 500 feet of the project.

However, councilmember Marge Atkinson decided to appeal the P&Z decision. I am skeptical that Atkinson’s appeal is a wise use of the council’s time, especially given the unanimous P&Z vote, but I am hoping the council can resolve this quickly.

The 1495 Solano Ave. location will be the third new facility approved in the Albany area in the last several months. The site at 1035 San Pablo Ave., across from University Village, should be operational around the end of the year. With luck the Sunnyside Café site should be operational in spring of 2014.

There is also a new site on upper Solano Ave. in Berkeley, on the Oaks Theater, but I am not sure when it will it will start operating.

We should approve our new fire chief soon. See this Albany Patch article for more (here).

 And finally, Charles Adams, the city’s Finance Director, has announced his retirement. Charlie did an incredible job keeping the city solvent during the financial roller coaster of the last several years. We’ll miss him.

In the next several months, we will be searching for replacements both for our city manager and our finance director. In addition to resolving the homeless issue on the bulb, and moving forward with our general plan process. It will be a busy fall.

Several items

It’s been too long since I last blogged, May 20, my apologies. I was away for nine days on a bike tour through Central California, and getting both my camping gear and my legs ready for that trip took more time than I had anticipated. Then there was the clean up afterwards…

 But now that I am back, I want to discuss four items before the council gets embroiled in the nitty gritty of the budget, which is due by the beginning of the new fiscal year, July 1. I will discuss these four items from short to long, which is not quite the same thing as their order of importance. As always, what follows are the thoughts and impressions of just one city council member. I don’t speak for anyone but myself.

 1) Changes in city staff

2) Medium-range planning

3) Homelessness on the Albany bulb

4) CEQA lawsuits

 

CHANGES IN CITY STAFF

Our fire chief retired recently, and Beth Pollard, our city manager, has announced her retirement, scheduled for August. For now, I can report that a new permanent fire chief should be announced soon, and a decision on an interim city manager should also be made soon. A permanent city manager will not be in place until the end of the year, give or take a month or two.

 There are so many accolades that could be directed to Beth Pollard that I don’t even have room to begin right now. Luckily, she has given us plenty of notice. More to follow, I just wanted to give you a heads up.

 MEDIUM RANGE PLANNING

 At the city council meeting Monday night (June 17), the council will review the goals for its 2013-15 Strategic Plan. My personal take on this is that is has been a good thing, but in ways I did not expect.

 Local governments often devote too much of their time to playing whack-a-mole—dealing in a reactive way with the endless stream of short-term problems they must face. The state mandates that municipalities formulate a general plan to guide long-term (two decades or more) planning decisions. But medium-term planning, measure in years instead of decades, can fall through the cracks.

 I think a good way to approach this sort of planning would be to have brainstorming session over pizza and beer, where council members could relax and work out informally what they would like to accomplish during the 2-4 years that they are together.

 Unfortunately (as I mentioned in a city council meeting recently) this is illegal under the Brown Act. So instead we have to have formal, agendized meeting in which the public can participate, and in which the brainstorming can still take place, albeit a little more formally.

 I am usually pretty grumpy about what I call “feel-good” stuff, but I was surprised by this meeting, and I thought the planning session was reasonably successful. I was really pleased to see that in the big picture, the council members have similar views about Albany’s future. Of course, the devil is in the details, but there is a lot of overlap, and I think the council can be effective if it focuses on the areas where the goals are similar.

Some Albany residents have expressed dismay that we have ignored serious short-term issues during this process. That was the point—we needed to look a bit further ahead to more proactive steps we could begin to take. The process was never intended to be inclusive of all the city’s problems. We are wrapping up the strategic planning process for now at the June 17 meeting and switching to the budget process, so it’s back to the nitty gritty.

HOMELESSNESS IN ALBANY

Once again, let me state that I am presenting my personal view here, as just one member of the city council. I don’t speak for anyone else. The council has been formulating a plan for dealing with homelessness in Albany, especially on the bulb. This is controversial for a lot of reasons, but I think the council has moved wisely.

I am not a big user of the waterfront. I could probably count the number of times I have been at the bulb on the fingers of one hand. I don’t own a dog that needs to be walked there, and I prefer my views of the water either from a bicycle or (in the past) a surfboard. I did spend several hours at the waterfront when I taught my teenage son to drive on the Golden Gate Fields parking lot. That is a very important and little appreciated benefit of GGF.

I do understand that the waterfront has been a problematic issue for years. During my campaign last fall, I accepted an offer from an Albany resident who has been exploring the waterfront for decades, and I got a very detailed tour from him. I did note the homeless encampments then, which were obvious, but didn’t seem out of control.

Several weeks later, another Albany resident suggested we go down the bulb and take another look. I was surprised by how much it had changed over the course of 2-3 months. To me the bulb seems to be on its way to becoming a shantytown, not unlike some of the shantytowns I saw while traveling in SE Asia several years ago.

I was alarmed, and I discussed what I had seen with the mayor and the city manager, which is the extent of what I can do outside of a formal city council meeting. Other council members were obviously hearing from Albany residents as well, because when the interim report from the city’s task force on homelessness was presented to the council, we decided to take decisive action, and begin the process of hiring a social services organization to help relocate residents of the bulb (on the agenda for the June 17 meeting).

I thought the approach the council took was necessary. I was ready to move on this issue even before this date, but I felt it was a good idea to hear the information the task force had put together before we acted. Some members of the task force have said they felt “blind-sided” or that the council had colluded in a way that is a violation of the Brown Act. This was not the case. I was just as blind-sided as anyone by the proposals Council Member Wile put forward, although I was glad she did and I supported them once I heard them.

There has also been some talk that the council caved to pressure from the various waterfront advocates. Not true for me. In the past I have been extremely critical of the waterfront advocates’ Voices-to-Vision planning process, and I have never hesitated to say so. I don’t think the waterfront advocates think of me as an ally.

But like the waterfront advocates, I would like to see the bulb eventually become a regional park, if only because it has a regional user base, and I don’t think it’s right for one of the Bay Area’s smallest municipalities to have sole responsibility to provide park services on the bulb for a wide range of regional users.

However, turning the bulb over the park system may be years away, and even if it does take years, I think relocating the residents of the bulb is still the right thing to do. It is an end in itself for me, not just a means to an end.

Resolving the homelessness situation on the bulb isn’t going to make everyone happy. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Sometimes you have to go with the median voter model—as a council member, I’ll know we got it more-or-less right if half the city complains we spent too much money and took too much time, and the other half complains that we didn’t spend enough money, and didn’t give the process enough time.

A very important thing to remember is that we have already been down this road. The homeless population was relocated back in 1999, but the city’s ordinances were not enforced, and the population returned. We’re back to where we were 14 years ago, so this time around the city’s ordinances against camping on the bulb will have to be enforced.

CEQA lawsuits

Over the past month or so, both the CEQA lawsuits against the mixed-use project, the lawsuits that helped scuttle the Whole Foods grocery store, have been resolved. Often the point of CEQA lawsuits is to cause delay, not to win on the legal merits, so I suppose in that narrow sense the lawsuits were successful. One was filed by members of Albany Strollers and Rollers (AS&R) and Carbon Neutral Albany (C0A), and the other by Occupy the Farm members.

Let’s dispense with the OTF lawsuit first, which lost in court. That result comes as no surprise, and I would have been shocked if OTF has prevailed on legal grounds. The lawsuit was filed by Albany resident Eric Larsen, and later joined by OTF activist Stephanie Rawlings. I’ve always had very low expectations of OTF, and so far there have not been any pleasant surprises.

Well actually, there is one. The results of this weekend’s 200-mile Terrible Two double century were just posted a few hours ago (as I write this). This grueling event is sponsored by the Santa Rosa Cycling Club and travels over most of the coastal mountain ridges in Sonoma County. According to the preliminary results, Eric Larsen, 39, of Albany, CA, finished in 16 hours and 23 minutes. So congratulations are in order for Eric for that.

I have been more disappointed by AS&R and C0A, if only because I had higher expectations to start with. Their settlement with the University of California was costly. Fortunately, the City of Albany was indemnified under the mixed-use project agreements, so the city’s expenses have been limited. Sadly, the same is not true for UC students and their families, who are footing the bill for both sides of this lawsuit.

Those of us who had served on the school board when Cougar Field was being rebuilt recall there was a CEQA lawsuit by the neighbors against that project, too. That lawsuit was waste of time and money, but fortunately the school district and the community got a beautiful track and playing field in spite of it. Who bore the burden of those legal expenses? Our children.

After that debacle some very wise Albany residents warned AS&R and C0A that they were heading down the wrong path, but that warning wasn’t heeded. I have three main problems with the AS&R and C0A’s actions, which I’ll categorize like this:

1) The waste of money

2) Lack of democracy and transparency

3) The burden on students

These lawsuits are very costly both in terms of time and money, and better use could have been made of the resources that were wasted here. It’s hard to know what the total cost has been, because the city staff don’t typically count billable hours with the rigor of a law firm, but the city did take a big hit in terms of staff time. UC had to cover its own legal expenses, and ended up paying more than $20K of AS&R and C0A expenses. Hard to estimate, but the total cost of this lawsuit is perhaps in the neighborhood of $100K.

The cost would have been somewhat justified if the result was good, but the result was inferior to Albany’s own very open and thoughtful Complete Streets planning process, which provided ample opportunity for both community and expert input. At the closing meeting, the traffic engineers involved clearly stated that AS&R’s cycletrack along the mixed-use project site was not a workable idea.

But again AS&R had a hard time listening. Instead they used the CEQA process to bypass community involvement and make a backroom deal with UC, one that is turning out to be a real headache. One problem is that San Pablo Ave. is a state highway and falls under the jurisdiction of Caltrans. Any cycletrack along San Pablo that falls in Caltrans right-of-way will most likely not be approved, and the approval process may add further delays.

AC transit is another stakeholder that will look dimly on having bus riders, especially elderly residents of the senior housing project, running the gauntlet of crossing a cycletrack every time they get on or off a bus.

Meanwhile in our own planning and zoning process, the Sprouts grocery store has been rotated so that it now faces Monroe St., and a new traffic engineering study is underway to plan how to route semi trailer deliveries safely to the loading dock. A cycletrack north of Monroe St. will now travel along the side of the grocery store and can possibly create safety issues with large trucks entering the site.

I have no idea what the eventual outcome of this process will be, but it might be ugly, and could result in a boondoggle–a cycletrack to nowhere. This is a headache that simply didn’t have to happen.

My final objection to the AS&R/C0A lawsuit is not based so much on my experience as a city council member or even as a UC Berkeley employee, but as the parent of a UC Berkeley student.

At Berkeley, In-state tuition is running about $15K annually, and a dorm room with a meal plan is about the same cost. This does not include any tuition or living expenses during the summer, when many students now have to take classes that were full during the normal school year. Throw in school supplies and overpriced textbooks, and a four-year UC Berkeley undergraduate education now costs about $150K.

Due to years of budget cuts in Sacramento, Berkeley now only gets about 11 percent of its revenue from the state of California. Donation and research funding has risen, but those fund sources have to be carefully restricted to their designated uses. UC Berkeley has effectively been privatized, although it is struggling to maintain its public mission.

Berkeley is surviving because of its national and international reputation. It has increased the proportion of out-of-state and international students (not all of them wealthy), it charges them a ton of money for tuition and fees, and uses that revenue to cross-subsidize in-state students, especially those from low-income families.

So far it is all holding together. But it doesn’t help when groups like AS&R and C0A file dubious lawsuits and then negotiate to have UC pay their legal expenses. Guess whose pockets that money is coming from? Students like my son, and the pockets of the other hard-working Berkeley students that I interact with every day.

Enough said, this entry is already too long. I need to discuss the solar panels that were also part of the C0A lawsuit. As I homeowner with solar PV system, I have very mixed feelings about that aspect of the lawsuit as well. But this discussion will be relevant for our climate action plan and some other pending decisions, so it can wait. Thanks for your patience if you have gotten this far.

Recent planning and zoning meetings

I’m behind in blogging about the last city council meeting, but I want to talk about some other, non-city council meetings that have been happening in Albany. I’ll summarize some important stuff from the last three Planning and Zoning meetings.

 If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then our Planning and Zoning commission is the James Brown of our city government—the hardest working city commission in Albany. Although I think Traffic and Safety, Parks and Rec, and the other commissions work very hard, too. None of the folks on these commissions get paid the stipends that city council members get, which is about $300/month. So I just want to take a moment to say thanks to them.

There have been three P&Z meetings lately that I want to discuss, April 10, April 24 and May 8. I’ve attended all three either in person or I’ve watched over the KALB internet video link. Here is a quick summary of an important issue at each:

APRIL 10

P&Z approved the new retail/orthodonist office at 1600 Solano. This is a big deal because the office, which serves a lot of Albany families (including mine in the past), is currently in Berkeley, just a few blocks up on Ensenada St., and once they move, they will be able to better serve Albany patients and add to our tax base as well.

I kept a low profile on this one, because the office, Berkeley Orthodontics, was where my son did two rounds of braces. I liked the doctors there a lot, so I was hoping the move down the street would be successful and would go smoothly. Not quite.

The problem is that Albany has very generous requirements for parking spots, especially for medical offices. The assumption is that medical offices have a lot of quick turnover of patients, and so new construction along Solano Ave. for these offices requires even more parking spaces than standard retail development—even more than is recommended by professional traffic engineers.

The plans for the new Solano building basically had retail on the first floor and the orthodonist office upstairs, with several lifts for parking in an on-site garage that would allow two cars to fit one space. As much as the architect tried to shoehorn parking spots to meet Albany’s parking requirements, he couldn’t get the project to conform to our zoning code.

During the P&Z meeting, Anne Hersch, Albany city planner, began a lightening round of negotiations with the architect. She realized that if the architect moved an interior wall to shift 200 square feet of the downstairs space to reallocate it from medical to retail space, one less parking spot would required, and the project would conform. It was an impressive site to watch Anne negotiate all this on the spot, but she was successful, and the project was approved by P&Z.

But as commissioner Phillip Moss pointed out, Albany is in a catch-22 situation. Our generous parking requirements make it hard to build higher-density projects along the Solano Ave. commercial district, which means that businesses are spaced far enough apart that people are in turn encouraged to drive instead of bicycle or walk along Solano. If we are going to create a walkable city with denser commercial districts, our zoning requirements for parking will have to be modified.

APRIL 24

This meeting included discussion of the new AT&T proposed cell installation on the Sunnyside Café building at 1495 Solano. P&Z members like this unique building and want the antennas masked in a way that is aesthetically appropriate for its Mediterranean style. AT&T had suggested a dormer approach that was not really appropriate, so they will have to go back to drawing board.

But P&Z commissioners stated that they have no problem with the use, i.e. with cell antennas being placed there. After all, this use is consistent with our current code. So I am hopeful the design problems will be resolved and we’ll soon have better cell reception along that part of Solano Ave. and surrounding areas. As Allen Cain of the Solano Ave. Association mentioned during the meeting, younger folks in Albany say they avoid shopping on Solano and head to El Cerrito Plaza instead because smart phone reception is better there.

MAY 8

P&Z took their first look at the plans for the Sprouts Farmer’s Market, and they didn’t like what they saw. I did drive out to Walnut Creek to see their store there, and I agree it’s sort of a cross between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. I think the inside of the store is fine, and will be a good fit for the UC mixed-use project on San Pablo Ave.

The problem is the suburban design of the outside, especially the huge parking lot in front. This is not contemporary urban design, and it is not consistent with our zoning requirements. The proposed senior center is built right up to the sidewalk, with parking hidden inside the building. The older Whole Foods design was consistent with the senior housing project, with parking behind the store.

Sprouts stores have been more concentrated in suburban areas, and the company prefers to lure customers with a sea of available parking spots in front their stores. That doesn’t really work in this context. Here is Damin Esper of the Contra Costa Times:

http://www.contracostatimes.com/west-county-times/ci_23258110/albany-planners-take-first-look-at-new-uc

Fortunately, I think the design problems will be resolved soon, so I am hoping we’ll have a project P&Z and can approve within the next several weeks.

City council, Apr. 15, 2013

 

NEXT WEEK

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

THE STATE OF ALBANY’S INFRASTRUCTURE

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

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

NEW CONTRACT FOR ALBANY POLICE

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

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

FIRE DEPT. GETS FEMA GRANT FOR NEW AMBULANCE

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

CITY  HAS PURCHASED SITE FOR NEW MAINTENANCE CENTER

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

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

CELL TOWER BILL DEAD IN STATE ASSEMBLY

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

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

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

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