ALBANY -- Two appeals challenging approval of a University of California mixed use development along San Pablo Avenue were unanimously rejected March 5 by the City Council.

The vote came after a contentious special meeting at which the council limited public comment. Mayor Peggy Thomsen also ordered police to remove an opponent of the project for disrupting the meeting.

Opponents said after the meeting that they were not sure what their next move would be. Several held a sit-in in the lobby of City Hall to discuss their options. One of the suggestions made was for "direct action" to try to stop the project. Another meeting to plan strategy was scheduled this week.

Artist’s rendering of the UC Village project.
Artist's rendering of the UC Village project.

The proposed development includes a Sprouts Farmers Market and senior housing, as well as other retail. The property once housed barracks constructed during World War II that the university converted into student housing.

The project has been a battleground between backers of new development to bolster the city's economic base and housing needs versus open space advocates, including many who want the land preserved for urban agriculture uses.

In July, 2012, the City Council approved a prior version of the plan, which included Whole Foods Market as an anchor tenant. A referendum and two lawsuits were filed against the project, which led to Whole Foods pulling out.

Last week's meeting started off poorly when the council decided to limit public comment to one minute per speaker rather than the standard three minutes or the two minutes that is sometimes used on items where large numbers of people want to speak.

The chambers were filled to overflowing, with every seat filled and people lining the walls. Opponents vastly outnumbered supporters and as the meeting wore on, they became more and more frustrated with the public comment limitations.

Speaker after speaker fumbled at the dais as they tried vainly to get their points in within the 60-second time limit. Most had to finish up with an extra sentence or two and Thomsen admonished speaker after speaker to finish up, cutting the microphone on several occasions.

Krystof Lopaur pointed out that with nine resolutions before the council, one minute divided up to 6.6 seconds per resolution. Lopaur was later ordered removed when he cited the Americans with Disabilities Act after Thomsen ordered everybody to sit down after a recess. Five Albany police officers escorted Lopaur out of the chambers.

One appeal challenging the project was filed by Albany Housing Advocates, a group suing the city on behalf of residents of the Albany Bulb.

The city is in the process of removing the homeless encampment at the Bulb so the land can be turned over to the East Bay Regional Park District as part of the Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. The appeal centered on the fact that the city had not yet completed its housing element for the 2007-14 cycle, which is required by state law. The council finally approved the housing element at its March 3 meeting -- two days before the special meeting -- making the appeal moot, according to the council.

The other appeal was filed by Albany resident Ed Fields. He had several legal points and was originally limited to five minutes to present his case. The council granted him a second five-minute period to finish up.

Fields claimed that the Planned Unit Development in the agreement was flawed. PUDs are used to give developers flexibility from normal zoning requirements. Specifically, Fields cited the lack of usable open space. Fields also said the plans included indoor space (a recreation area in the senior housing) as part of the open space requirement, which he said is prohibited by city code.

Another point Fields raised was whether or not the project with Sprouts as the anchor tenant constituted a new application. The city has argued that the application is a continuation of the project originally approved in 2012. Fields also stated the removal of several mature trees on the property violates the city's general plan regarding tree preservation. Finally, he argued that the project exceeded the city's parking requirements.

Multiple speakers questioned the role of Albany Community Development Director Jeff Bond in the project. Bond formerly worked as the UC capital projects planner, and as such, worked on the university's plans to develop the property.