Work crews cleared trees and greenery from part of a plot of University of California-owned land Thursday, marking the first step in the planned construction of a grocery store and senior center.
The mixed-use project, which will involve the construction of a Sprouts Farmers Market, a senior living facility and other retail, was green-lit by Albany officials last year. Development of the property, often called the Gill Tract, has been criticized by students and activists, and the land was left previously undeveloped for more than 20 years.
Currently, approximately 10 acres of the Gill Tract is used for agricultural research overseen by the campus’s College of Natural Resources, as well as by the Gill Tract Community Farm. That 10-acre section will not be cleared as part of the mixed-use project.
According to campus real estate spokesperson Christine Shaff, the project will raise nearly $1 million per year in lease revenues for the university — funding that helps to subsidize student housing in the nearby University Village and support the College of Natural Resources, including its urban farming program.
After workers began clearing trees Thursday morning, members of Occupy the Farm, a food sovereignty group that farms the tract, gathered and made signs decrying the development. About 60 trees were removed Thursday from the areas slated for development, though Shaff said in an email that plans for the mixed-use project call for planting 154 new trees.
Dea Oganesian, a UC Berkeley junior who attended the meeting, said she was very sad to see the trees go and felt that the clearing of forested area as part of the development process would make Sprouts — whose stores are “inspired by farmers markets,” according to the company website — look bad.
“This is part of the larger issue — privatization of a public university, public land treated like private land,” she said.
Camille Fassett, a campus freshman and another attendee of the Occupy the Farm meeting, said that while the group had no firm next steps in mind, it has had a clear and consistent opposition to the project.
Shaff said construction could begin within the next few months.