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    Quarrel on Albany’s waterfront subsides

    The Albany Waterfront is a paradise for off-leash dogs, but not for as many kids and families. The land’s future is being shaped, as Albany conducts a $600,000 project to abridge disagreements and develop a common vision for it. Photo by Linda (Linjun) Fan.

    Residents would often divide into two sides and fiercely attack each other when the waterfront planning issue was brought up on public meetings in Albany. But recently the quarrels seem to be subsiding, as a city-hired consultant began to engage residents to build consensus on the most controversial issue in town.

     The Albany waterfront is located on the western edge of the city and encompasses approximately 160 acres of land between Highway I-80 and the bay. A large portion of the land is occupied by Golden Gate Fields racetrack. And the rest was accumulated as a former landfill, which is now maintained minimally by the city and the state as a park and sparsely visited by residents.

    The company that owns the racetrack tried to develop part of the land in 2006, but later withdrew its plan under vehement opposition from a significant number of Albany residents. Two of the leading opponents, Marge Atkinson and Joanne Wile, were elected into the City Council that year.

    A majority of Albany’s current councilmembers are against extensive commercial development on the land, and wishes to see it developed as public recreational space as much as the city could afford it. They believe that the racetrack will be sold or closed in the foreseeable future, and the city should get prepared for the scenario. As a result, the Council passed a waterfront planning project last November, and hired a consultant in the spring to engage residents and develop a common vision for the land.

    But a considerable number of residents were skeptical of the project. Some believe that the racetrack will stay for years and it’s not the city’s business to plan for a privately-owned land. Some think it costly to spend $600,000 in city funds on the project. Some were worried that the majority of the Council would use the project as a tool to push for their own vision and ignore different voices.

    Fern Tiger, the consultant hired for the project, and her associates are well aware of the sensitivity of their task. Instead of giving clear-cut options, they started the engagement by interviewing about 70 residents who hold widely different views on the issue, asking them un-presuming questions, and carefully included diverse voices in their first work report, which was presented to the Council Monday.

    This approach impressed many residents, including those who were originally against the project.

    “I believe that this company here really listened, ” said Francesco Papalia, a resident who used to criticize the city’s waterfront initiatives.

    He said he had faith in Tiger’s ability to find an effective way to engage more residents.

    “She showed that by her ability to express the diversity of opinions that exist at this moment, ” he added at the council meeting.

    Papalia then called for all Albany residents to get involved in the planning process.

    His words obviously touched a chord with Councilmember Marge Atkinson, who praised him for “reaching across the aisle”. The two were campaign enemies in the 2006 council election and had always stood on different side of the waterfront controversy.

    “I appreciate Mr. Papalia’s comments. I hope we will get many different people in Albany to participate,” she said. “It’s a great statement.”

    Councilmember Jewel Okawachi and Farid Javandel, who voted against spending the city funds on the project in March, said they were encouraged by Tiger’s work and would support it.

    “This is one of the better discussions on the waterfront that we haven’t had for a while,” Javandel said. “I am hopeful that it’s just a start of us to work together.”

    But a few residents said they were still concerned with the cost of project. Resident Robert Outis said that the project had prompted the city to increase property transfer tax.

    “I think it’s unfortunate that no one on the Council or the candidates for the Council has recognized that this process is ill-advised in ill time, ” Outis said.

    The City intends to increase its property transfer tax from the current $11.5 per $1,000 value to $14.5 per value, and the Council approved the move in the summer to put the tax measure on the November ballot .

    City Administrator Beth Pollard responded that the tax measure was not related with the waterfront project, but to boost funding for general municipal services.

    Pollard mailed a letter to every household in Albany last month, introducing the waterfront planning process as “a critical issue to the city”, and calling for all residents to participate in it.

    “What happens on the waterfront is in the hands of each of us,” Pollard said in the letter.

    Click here to read the full text of the letter.

    Fern Tiger Associates will disseminate more information on the waterfront to Albany residents, and host discussions in each city block in the spring to engage hundreds of people into the planning process.

    Click here to read Fern Tiger Associates’ first report on the waterfront visioning process. Below is a slideshow made out of a dozen pictures I took at the waterfront in the springtime.

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