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.