City council, Apr. 1, 2013

First of all, Ray Chan, the city’s public works director, will lead a study session on the state of the city’s infrastructure at 6:45 on Monday, April 15, just before the city council meeting. Sewers, streets, sidewalks, trees, parks and buildings. All that stuff we don’t think about until something goes wrong. It should be televised, and might be worth tuning-in early to watch on KALB. Directions are on the city website (here). I’ll post the powerpoint presentation after the meeting.

 As for the last city council meeting on April 1, there are two items that I’d like to discuss. First is the issue of whether individuals or members of organizations that are suing the city should be allowed to serve on city commissions. The second is the start of construction of Pierce St. Park.


This issue arose because a resident came to a city council meeting and spoke during the time allotted for items not on the agenda. He had heard that someone who was suing the city as part of the Strollers & Rollers CEQA lawsuit had been appointed to serve on one of the city’s commissions. He wondered if this was legal.

Craig Labadie, the city’s attorney, researched the issue and reported back to the council at the April 1 meeting. He stated that there were no laws or city policies that that prevented plaintiffs from serving, but that the council could make a policy decision to that effect.

As a council member, I did not appoint any residents who were involved in Strollers & Rollers lawsuit, and I was disappointed to see them serving on our commissions. But my personal disappointment is not sufficient grounds for a policy. There could be cases where a conflict of interest would arise, but this can be managed by having the plaintiff/commission members recuse themselves from voting.

Unless the council hears more from residents on this topic, there will not be further action. I’ll talk more about the Stroller & Rollers lawsuit once the settlement is made public.


The long-sought neighborhood park between Pierce St. and the freeway, just south of the Pierce St. condos, was partially funded at the April 1 council meeting. The council voted to begin the grading of the central portion of the site, create walkways, and to build a small playground. The portions of the site to the north and south will be completed as funds become available.

The park occupies land where a freeway off ramp was removed in the early 1990s. The central part of the park that will be developed under phase one is a trapezoid-shaped area that would fit inside a square of about 350 x 400 feet with an area of 110,000 square feet.

For more than 20 years the site was vacant. Residents of the area consistently encouraged the city to purchase the land from Caltrans. During the recent economic crisis, Governor Brown shut down the redevelopment programs with California cities and other local governments. Albany was able to purchase the Pierce St. site with slightly more than $1 million of redevelopment money that otherwise would have been returned to the state.

The Pierce St. area includes the condos and many houses on steep slopes. The population is relatively high, even by Albany standards, due to the density of the condos. Some residents of the condos complain that, given how much they contribute to city revenues via property taxes, they get very few services in return. I think they are correct.

All of Albany’s neighborhoods should have parks and other facilities within walking distance. For the residents of the condos, the de facto park has been the hallways of the 99 Ranch mall. The top of Albany hill does provide some walking and hiking possibilities, but the paths from the condos are much too steep for toddlers, grandparents, and anyone else who is not in good shape.

To design the park, a planning process was initiated by the city that was very public and very thorough. It involved site visits and many meetings among members of the public, city staff and consultants. Last fall, before I was on the council, I attended the meeting when the park plans were presented to the council. I was impressed with the diligence that went into the effort, but did raise some concerns about the steepness of the bike trail (which were addressed). To see what happens when you combine skateboards and long five percent grades, watch the first minute of this (here).

At the April 1 meeting, with the planning complete, I was looking forward to voting to funding the start of work on the park. I was disappointed by some of the concerns raised by fellow council members, many of which had already been addressed. I felt it was both inappropriate and much too late for council members to start imposing their personal visions for the park.

After a long and pointed discussion, the council did vote to approve phase one, but did not approve the widening of Pierce St. in front of the park. Instead, the council approved building the small playground as part of phase one.

Kudos to Recreation and Community Services Director Penelope Leach for calmly and precisely explaining to the council the extensive planning process, and to Vice Mayor Joanne Wile, who worked with Leach to forge a compromise and keep the process moving forward. (Wile was running the meeting in the absence of Mayor Peggy Thomsen, who recused herself because she lives within 500 feet of the project). Link to agenda and supporting items (here).



City council, Mar. 18, 2013

Before I discuss the March 18 meeting, I want to cover a few cell phone-related items:

First, as I have many times before, I took my inexpensive RF field strength meters and made several measurements around town. Basically, there are no locations where the field strength is more than one-half of one percent of the FCC standards for cell phone communications. I found that level near cell towers. The numbers just go down (way down) from there, depending upon distance and topography.

The city’s new wireless consultant, Peter Gruchawka, (Gru-chaw-ka) will make professional readings for the city, something I’ve advocated for years. We’ll see if he finds anything much different. He is far more knowledgeable about FCC measuring protocols, and he will have better equipment than me.

Second, The City of Berkeley approved a new AT&T cell base station on the Oaks Theater at the top of Solano Ave. I’ve heard it will mostly provide better service to the Berkeley hills, but locations near Solano Ave. should also get better coverage. I think the rising topography east of Colusa Ave. will block much of the signal to the north.

Third, an AT&T proposal for a new cell base station should go before the Albany Planning and Zoning commission in late April. The site is the Sunny Side Café building on Solano Ave. If this site is approved, between these two new locations and the recently approved site at 1035 San Pablo Ave. in Albany, AT&T cell phone reception locally should get much better in the next year or so.


The meeting covered a few important issues. We heard from our new wireless consultant, Peter Gruchawka, about the feasibility of wireless facilities on city property. There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that city staff found an excellent consultant in Gruchawka. He is very knowledgeable and competent, so I am looking forward to working with him. The bad news is that siting towers on city property doesn’t make much sense.


Three locations were considered–Albany Hill, City Hall and the Community Center. All three are problematic. City Hall has little space and already contains antennas for public safety radio communications. In the past the police and fire departments have balked at the idea of putting more antennas there due to the possibility of interference. I suspect they will again.

The Albany Hill park is in the early phases of a master plan process that will probably include CEQA review and approvals from other Bay Area public agencies. Getting a cell tower built there will take years, which I suspect is why our dwindling ranks of local cell tower opponents are pushing for that location.

The community center is located in a residential neighborhood and cell towers are not allowed there under our current ordinance. Nor are they allowed in parks, for that matter. So the community center location just seems like a red herring (as do the other sites).

During the meeting I made two points. The obvious location for new cell base stations will be the UC mixed use project, which is a better option than any of the city-owned sites in the long run. The odds are very good that the mixed-use project will get underway in the next year or two, but there could be further delays.

I also pointed out that under state law, cell providers cannot be compelled to use city-owned sites if they prefer privately-owned sites. So even if the city provided these locations, and spent money to build out the infrastructure, there is no guarantee that AT&T, Verizon and other cell providers would be interested.


Next on the agenda was revising our cell tower ordinance. At first, council members Atkinson and Wile stated that they were comfortable with the existing ordinance. However, Albany resident David Sanger reminded the council that in the Nov. 2012 election, the remaining council members (Barnes, Mass, Thomsen) had all pledged to revise the ordinance.

Thomsen and Wile deserve credit for working out the compromise that the Planning and Zoning commission will provide a report with pros and cons of revising the ordinance. I thought this was a reasonable start, even it part of the package deal was having our wireless consultant pursue city-owned sites (a waste of money, as explained above). But both motions passed unanimously.

See the Albany Journal’s Damin Esper for his take on the meeting (here).


City manager Beth Pollard provided the council with a report recommending we hire a full-time fire chief for Albany. Our previous chief, Edward Tubbs, was shared with Piedmont. Although he did a great job at managing both positions, Piedmont was not interested in continuing the sharing arrangement when Chief Tubbs announced his retirement.

The council endorsed the idea of seeking a full time chief. One of the benefits of maintaining our professional fire department is that our fire department emergency responders are top notch, and under regional agreements, they have the right to transport victims all the way to the hospital. Other local cities have handed off this responsibility to private ambulance companies. This can cause a disruption in the treatment of victims.

The council heard from Albany residents that maintaining our fire department’s transport rights was important, and urged the council not to jeopardize those rights by outsourcing fire dept. functions in an effort to save money. The fire chief warned that once transport rights are lost, they are almost impossible to reacquire.


It occurred to me after the meeting that although revising our cell ordinance and hiring a new fire chief seem like independent issues, they are not. One of our local doctors wrote council members to remind us that in an emergency like a stroke or a heart attack, every minute counts. He stressed that poor cell phone coverage was a public safely issue if it causes delays in emergency responders reaching victims.

Maintaining our first rate emergency responders in Albany does not do much good if residents cannot contact them on their cell phones. This has been a problem in the past. Improving cell phone coverage and maintaining our emergency response capability go hand in hand.