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UC Plan for Sprouts Market, Senior Housing Wins Key Vote

After nearly two hours of public comment, largely from opponents, a major UC Berkeley-sponsored plan for a Sprouts Farmers Market and senior housing in Albany won key approvals from the city's planning commission Wednesday night.

UC Plan for Sprouts Market, Senior Housing Wins Key Vote
Despite a last-minute turn-out by East Bay urban farming advocates opposed to the project, a long-debated UC-sponsored plan for a Sprouts Farmers Market and senior housing project next to University Village in Albany easily won a key victory Wednesday night from the Albany Planning & Zoning Commission.

The commission's 4-0 vote approved the tentative parcel maps and design review for the proposal, which began six years ago when the university submitted an application to the city for commercial development of UC-owned land at San Pablo Avenue and Monroe Street next to the University Village student-housing complex.

The vote came after nearly two hours of public comment by 45 speakers, most of whom opposed the plan, saying that Sprouts represents unhealthy industrial agriculture and corporate greed and that the currently vacant land should be used instead for urban farming and agricultural education.

Supporters said the project has been intensively reviewed, debated and ultimately embraced by the majority of the community and that it's time for it be approved.

An environmental impact report on UC commercial development of the site received City Council approval in July 2012. The plan at that time did not include Sprouts. Whole Foods had been the chosen anchor, but it pulled out in September last year following long delays and legal challenges.

The meeting room – the City Council chamber at City Hall – was filled with about 75 people, with others milling in the hallway.

The large opposition turn-out didn't seem to sway the commission discussion or thinking on the project.

When the comments were finished, commissioner Doug Donaldson said the commission has held four meetings on the current version of the UC proposal and that the Wednesday night meeting was a continuation of the previous commission meeting, when the item was held over to clear up some relatively minor issues of wording.

Commissioner Phillip Moss said he appreciated all the input from the speakers, but added that the commission must deal with the specific application presented to it, not "what-ifs." He said the opponents should address their energy toward the source of the proposal – UC Berkeley officials.

"I would like to encourage you, even if the vote doesn't go in your direction, not to give up," he said. "There are spaces out there still that can be developed into community gardens." He mentioned the community garden area on west side of University Village, which he said is not fully utilized.

"We're not turning our back on you," Moss said. "...The process here is not set up for this. The application is by UC for Sprouts and for senior housing, Belmont Village. These issues that you have should be taken up at a more core basis at UC."

Although the commission vote was a major step in approving the project, there's a 14-day appeal period of the decision. The proposal also still needs to have the final parcel maps approved and building permits.

Commissioner David Arkin recused himself from the discussion and vote because he lives close to the project site.

At several points in the meeting, commission chair Stacy Eisenmann asked unruly opponents in the audience to show respect and not shout out or interrupt the recognized speaker.

Several of those who spoke against the UC plan were also participants in the three brief "Occupy the Farm" takeovers of the plot earlier this year when they planted crops that were plowed under by UC Berkeley. Several of them also have been activists involved in the opposition to the City of Albany's planned eviction of illegal encampments on the Albany Bulb.

Some Albany residents who spoke said that most of the opponents who spoke do not live in Albany. Caryl O'Keefe, one of the city residents who spoke in favor of the plan at the meeting, later posted a comment Patch saying she counted 13 Albany speakers at the meeting, with five against the plan.

Albany resident Lisa Kleinbub, who said the project's senior housing component is not affordable to all who need it, also said the debate is not solely an internal concern of Albany. "Our community impacts and is impacted by every other city in the Bay Area," she said.

Ellen Davis-Zapata, an Albany resident since 1965, said she supports community gardening, including the garden that the residents of her apartment building maintain, but that Albany needs the senior housing project. "I've worked all over Europe, the world, and everywhere I've been, they have places for senior citizens to live in their communities, and in this town, we do not have that."

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly reported that commissioner Moss referred to the previous City Council election as evidence of community support for the project. He did not make that statement.

Published Dec. 12, 2013, 12:34 a.m., updated 7:02 p.m.
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