State court rules in favor of contentious UC development project in Albany

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Mitzi Perez/Staff

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In what may be the final legal hurdle in a long-running battle, a state court ruled in favor of a contentious land development project near the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany earlier this month.

The California Court of Appeal ruled that the project’s Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, sufficiently considers and analyzes development alternatives in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The development project was originally proposed as far back as 1985, according to UC Berkeley real estate division  spokesperson Christine Shaff. The project will include several retail outlets, senior housing and a Sprouts Farmers Market.

The site of the construction is a long-vacant lot adjacent to the University of California’s 10-acre agricultural research field. The field is operated by the campus’s College of Natural Resources, and a small portion of it, called the UC Gill Tract Community Farm, is given to local farmers to practice urban farming.

Development plans have attracted considerable criticism, particularly from protest group Occupy the Farm, which says the project “endangers the health of the local community” by increasing traffic and pollution in an already heavily polluted area with many young residents and high rates of asthma.

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof described the project as a “win-win-win” for all parties involved. According to Mogulof, the new developments, once completed, can provide the university with an annual revenue of about $1 million, which will help subsidize rent for low-income students and will also, in part, be used to support the research and farming efforts already in place on the adjacent field.

The latest battle came after Occupy the Farm member and UC Berkeley alumna Stefanie Rawlings filed a lawsuit against the city and the university alleging that the project’s EIR was inadequate. When she lost the suit, Rawlings filed an appeal alleging that the EIR did not list appropriate development alternatives and that it did not properly consider one of the listed alternatives.

In this month’s decision, the court disagreed with both of her complaints.

Rawlings said she was “very disappointed but not surprised” by the decision, given what she described as the vague and lenient nature of the state’s Environmental Quality Act.

Although the land has long been vacant, many tests have shown that the soil is still extremely fertile and remains a rare resource for urban farming in the Bay Area, according to Rawlings.

“Right now, the project is so unimaginative … and typical of an urban area,” Rawlings said. “I want to see something happen there that (harnesses) the unique characteristics of the land.”

Occupy the Farm has been active since 2012. The group occupied the lot twice, once in 2012 and again in 2013, when its occupation was evicted by the police. A film about the movement, “Occupy the Farm,” was released in November.

Beebo Turman, project director at the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative, also objected to the opening of a Sprouts Farmers Market, saying the name of the store is a misnomer because not all of Sprouts’ products are organic and because Sprouts’ products are shipped from different countries, rather than the store being a place where local farmers can sell their produce.

Sprouts spokesperson Donna Egan said that the store offers a combination of fresh, natural and organic foods and that most of the store’s products are organic or unprocessed. It does sell nonorganic products, however, and the store “never believed in a one-set-fits-all approach,” Egan said in an email.

Regarding itself as a farmers’ market, the store is “inspired by farmers’ markets,” Egan said.

Rawlings called Sprouts’ marketing “deceptive,” saying it is a “big-box retailer” that does not support the local community.

Albany city officials, however, have expressed support of the development.

“After a very extensive planning and vetting process, I was happy to hear that the last of the legal hurdles has been cleared,” said Albany Mayor Peter Maass in a city press release.

He added that the project’s “attention to walking and cycling access, creek restoration, green building standards and more … will have enduring benefits for the Albany Community.”

Although Albany City Council unanimously approved the project in 2014, Rawlings said there is much discontent among Albany residents. She recounted public meetings she attended where residents “overwhelmingly” said no to the project. More than 1,000 Albany residents signed a petition to ask for a referendum on an earlier version of the development project in 2012, but she said the signatures were “ignored.”

Mogulof said, however, that the project balances the interests of all stakeholders and comes after “nearly 10 years of concerted engagement, public participation and collaboration.”

Shaff said construction is expected to commence later this year when the developer obtains final approval.

Contact Natchapol Praditpetchara at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @natchapolp.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that construction would begin when UC Berkeley obtained final approval for the project. In fact, it would commence when the developer obtained final approval.

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