Op-ed: A tale of two waterfronts — why Albany is on verge of making a mistake

Ask anyone around the Marina if they think the City of Berkeley made the right decision, back in the early ’60s, when they planned the waterfront for mixed-use development.

“Should all the marina landfill have been reserved for open space, parkland and protected habitat, with no commercial, recreational or maritime facilities?”

“Of course not,” is the universal response. “That would have been a huge mistake.”

Albany is about to make that mistake.


The Berkeley and Albany waterfronts are similar in many ways. Berkeley’s landfill dump closed in 1974, Albany’s closed in 1986. If we consider all lands west of the freeway, the two waterfronts are not very different in size and scale.

Historically, Berkeley had a pier and a landing in the late 19th century. Albany had a pier and a landing in the early 20th century. Both waterfronts have been dramatically extended and reconfigured by landfill garbage dumps. Prior to the advent of modern land use planning and effective regulatory control of tidelands, Albany had acquired a racetrack and Berkeley had developed a small commercial harbor and ferry pier.

Now let’s compare what the two waterfronts have become, and what each one has to offer:

Berkeley Waterfront

4 upscale restaurants (Skates, Hs. Lordships, Hana Japan, Hotel restaurant).

2 low-cost cafes (Seabreeze, Bait Shop) + mobile vendors.

375-room hotel.

100 BCDC-permitted residential units on live-aboard boats.

13 BCDC-permitted houseboats.

1,000 private boat berths.

1 very low-cost sailing & windsurfing club (Cal Sailing Club).

2 commercial sailing schools (Cal Adventures, OCSC).

1 very low-cost paddling club (Berkeley Racing Canoe Center, dragon boats + kayaks).

1 yacht club, with a summer youth program and free access to sailing as crew.

1 middle-school kayak polo club (Realm Charter School).

5 venues for indoor public events and meetings (hotel, restaurants, yacht club, conference rooms).

Shorebird Nature Center, with a year-round youth environmental education program.

Pegasus Foundation year-round sailing youth program.

Recreational beach.

Off-leash dog park.

Protected burrowing owl habitat (that actually has burrowing owls).

Host to Berkeley Bay Festival, Kite Festival, July 4 Festival.

Public Fishing Pier (as a municipal pier, no state fishing license required).

Multiple parks and scenic vista points.

Hiking trails.

Protected meadow habitat.

Easy non-auto access via bicycle and pedestrian overpass.

Isolated breakwater with bird habitat (nesting pair of black oystercatchers).

Fish boat fleet (about 10 “T-boat” party fishing boats).

Excursion boat terminal (4 Hornblower dinner cruise boats).

Bait and tackle store.

Public launch ramp.

Public boat hoists.

Dry storage yard for trailer boats.

Full service Boatyard.

Commercial office Space (a few thousand square feet near Marina Office).

Soccer and baseball fields.

Financial:

The Berkeley Waterfront is an Enterprise Zone, financially independent from the City. Hotel room tax revenue goes to the City general fund. Playing fields are subsidized via a Joint Powers Agreement with nearby jurisdictions.

Public Safety:

375 hotel guests plus 100 live-aboards plus 13 houseboats provide a high level of supervision and round-the-clock legitimate use.

Private security service at night, paid for from within the Marina Fund.

After-hours non-residential activity at restaurants, hotel and yacht club.

Fishing pier is generally considered safe to use after dark.

Albany Waterfront

1 Racetrack.

1 Restaurant (in racetrack).

Off-leash dog beach (with efforts underway to eliminate it).

1 venue for indoor public meetings (in racetrack).

Unregulated art displays.

Hiking trails.

Failed owl habitat (with damage to other species due to regular mowing).

Scenic vista points.

Financial:

Current grant is for $168,000, just for planning the Bulb handover (from Coastal Conservancy).

City spent $570,000 from reserve fund to remove residents from Bulb and provide transitional housing.

City supports 3-5 police patrols per day to prevent residential use, cost burden to city will continue even after handover to Park District.

Multi-million $ clean-up required before handover to Park District.

Revenue to City from racetrack (based largely on gambling addiction).

Public Safety:

3-5 police patrols per day.

The Bulb is not considered safe at night.

Take-way questions

  • Was it a mistake to plan the Berkeley Waterfront as mixed commercial/recreational/maritime/open space/protected habitat?
  • Does the proximity of built space increase the public value of open space?
  • Does the proximity of open space increase the public value of built space?
  • Would it have been a mistake to designate the Berkeley Waterfront as all open space and protected habitat?
  • Would it be a mistake to plan the Albany Bulb, Neck and Plateau as all open space and protected habitat?
  • What is the potential economic, cultural and social value of the Bulb, Neck and Plateau as mixed-use developments?
  • How much will it cost the City of Albany to turn the bulb over to the Park District? And what are the continuing costs of police patrols?

Options lost forever

The City of Albany is currently engaged in a planning process to determine how to make the Bulb suitable for handover to the East Bay Regional Park District, after which it can become an official part of the McGlaughlin Eastshore State Park. But the process is constrained by generationally obsolete park plans and local statutory and jurisdictional limitations. The only space left for debate seems to be how much of the Bulb trail system ends up designated off-leash. That’s not trivial, but it should not be the central planning issue.

Nothing really creative, innovative or interesting seems to be possible under the terms of the handover. And the new fact that Albany does not wash its hands of the enforcement and security burden, even after the handover, makes the handover deal a lot less attractive.

Wallace Roberts Todd (consultants for planning the handover) note that there is an “irrelevant” contractual agreement in place between Albany and the State of California to develop the landfill along much the same lines as the Berkeley Marina. They believe this will be summarily dismissed after an agreeable meeting among lawyers from all parties. This contract might not be as “irrelevant” as it may seem.

The Bulb handover to the Park District represents a huge wasted potential. Even within the all-park context, there have been some intriguing suggestions: “User-definable environments” (as proposed by Susan Moffat of U.C. Berkeley) might retain some of the positives of off-leash art and off-leash artists, without most of the negatives. Another proposal is to include low-impact, reserved, short-term, environmental walk-in campsites on the Bulb – a feature that would vastly improve after-hours security and provide a revenue stream for park ranger supervision. But neither idea is likely to fit within the prevailing notion of the park, and neither is allowed under the obsolete park plan.

There is no room for even a little bit of hardscape along with the landscape. No possibility to mix up the uses and serve a wider variety of recreational modes, especially water-related. Albany only retains control as long as the land belongs to Albany. When it is turned over the Park District, the potential for a reasonable mix of open space and built space, active and passive recreation, water access and habitat preservation, is lost forever.

Nothing can happen under the Park Plan except park, and it’s a generic park for passive day-use only. With a property worth probably $30-50 million on the open market, it’s ironic that Albany has to spend millions just to give it away.

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Paul Kamen, a naval architect, runs the website for CDAWGS -- Coalition for Diverse Activities on Water, Grass and Sand.