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    Albany City Council votes to move forward with waterfront planning

    waterfrontArtwork was created out of trash by amateur artists at Albany Bulb, a former dump sprouting half-a-mile out into the Bay. To the south is Golden Gate Fields racetrack. The Albany waterfront has been the focus of a bitter community fight for years. Photo by Linjun Fan.

    Albany took another “baby step” toward planning its waterfront as the City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to start a public engagement process to figure out what to to with the land.

    The council is trying again after the 160-acre land, which is largely occupied by Gold Gate Fields racetrack, became the center of a bitter community fight in 2006 over commercial development proposed by Magna Entertainment Corp., owner of the racetrack.

    The company dropped its proposal after it was opposed by a large number of Albany residents. But the community is still deeply divided on what they want to see on the land.

    “What we are moving towards here is an Albany plan, and we are looking to have some kind of consensus and vision within the community, “said Albany Mayor Robert Lieber.

    The grounded visioning program, which costs several hundred thousand dollars, will include public opinion surveys, meetings and waterfront tours as described by consultant Don Neuwirth in a September report submitted to the city. Neuwirth also recommended a design competition, which was not endorsed by the council.

    Lieber wants to see “maximum open space” on the land. He said that Albany should start its own waterfront planning because he didn’t expect Magna to come up with a good plan.

    Three other councilmembers voted for the program, including Councilmember Farid Javandel who had been neutral on commercial development on the land.

    “If Magna comes forward with a plan, it will be very nice for us to have a vision in place to judge that plan, ” said Javandel.

    But pro-development Councilmember Jewel Okawachi voted staunchly against the motion.

    “I really truly believe that this visioning process is premature, and we should wait for some kind of commitment from the property owner, ” Okawachi said.

    More than 10 residents spoke at the council meeting, debating heatedly on whether it’s a good idea to spend several hundred thousand dollars to conduct the program.

    “It won’t work, it won’t resolve the controversy and it won’t generate any new ideas, “said Clay Larson, a member of Albany Waterfront Committee, referring to a point made in Neuwirth’s report.

    About half of speakers argued that it would be futile for Albany to conduct any planning work without participation of Magna, and the other half believed that the city should start planning work for the land.

    “We don’t really know the future (for the racetrack) in Albany, but we do know that this community deserves our plan for the waterfront, ” said Brian Parker, chairman of the Waterfront Committee. “And we don’t have to wait for anybody to do that.”

    The council directed Parker and the Waterfront Committee to look for a consultant and define the scope of work and budget for implementing the program in the upcoming months.

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