The Story of the Albany Waterfront...
a Simplified History of a Complex Place
At the end of Buchanan Street, just west of Interstate 80, lies the Albany waterfront. The contradictions and complexities of the site are easily apparent. Breathtaking views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay bridges, Alcatraz, and Angel Island can all be seen from a shoreline that has changed little since its days as a landfill site for construction debris. The southern portion includes Golden Gate Fields Racetrack and its vast parking area – often empty as a result of changes in attendance over recent decades and the increased popularity of off-track betting. The land to the north is called the “Plateau.” This large, flat, open area looks somewhat like the “overflow” parking lot it once was, but a portion is now fenced off to protect a recently-created habitat for burrowing owls. To the west is land, known as the “Bulb,” which belongs to the city of Albany, but is planned to be incorporated into the Eastshore State Park – a park that includes, and protects, most of the undeveloped land on the Bay shoreline between the foot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge in Oakland and Richmond’s Marina Bay neighborhood. On the Bulb, foot paths wind their way between large slabs of broken concrete. Volunteer plants are mixed in with fanciful anonymous art and homemade structures created by a small, dedicated community that loves this “wild,” little peninsula.
Despite numerous efforts over more than four decades by both private and public owners to address the potential of this expansive and unique acreage, there have been only two transformative changes to the Albany waterfront since the 1960s: in 1983 when the Bay fill and dumping operation was closed down, and in 2002 when the Eastshore State Park was created. The latter action further protected the public lands (e.g., Plateau and northern part of the Albany shoreline) from development. Tensions – between commercial and recreational uses, between public and private interests, and perhaps most important, between ambitious aspirations and limited resources – have led to what many call a community “stalemate” that has blocked attempts to remake the Albany waterfront. Each of the three recent owners of the Golden Gate Fields property (Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corporation, Ladbroke Land Holdings, and Magna Entertainment Corporation) have advanced ideas that would require re-zoning in order to build large-scale commercial developments on the property, and each time Albany residents have resisted, and ultimately those proposals were withdrawn. Now, for the first time, the city of Albany has decided to stop reacting to private proposals, and instead to develop an independent vision for the kind of waterfront that residents will be proud to call their own – one vision created by many voices.
Early History:The Waterfront Takes Shape
The Albany waterfront is the result of a colorful history. It was first settled by members of an Ohlone Indian tribe - the Huchiun - who left behind shell mounds and grindstones by Cerrito Creek at the base of Albany Hill. The Native American population was displaced by Mexican and Spanish settlers in the early 1800s when a large area of the East Bay, including what is now the Albany waterfront – consisting mostly of a large salt marsh and an island called El Cerrito del Sur – was granted to Luís Maria Peralta in 1820 by the Spanish governor who controlled the region at the time. The Peralta family sold the island (which is now the site of the Golden Gate Fields grandstand) to John Fleming and what is left of that parcel is known today as Fleming Point. In 1879, the Giant Powder Company, suppliers of dynamite to the gold miners of the Sierra, selected Fleming Point as the company’s location after frequent accidental explosions made the company unwelcome in San Francisco. Dynamite factories dominated the Albany waterfront until 1905 when they were replaced with less explosive chemical factories.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake brought thousands of displaced San Franciscans to the East Bay. In those years, Berkeley residents used the edge of the marsh at Fleming Point as a garbage dump. History tells us that Albany was incorporated as a city to stop Berkeley from dumping its garbage there, making protection of the waterfront critical to the founding of the city (originally incorporated as Ocean View in 1908, and renamed Albany, in 1909.) Over time, the area between the shore and the island fused, eliminating El Cerrito del Sur, and creating what we know today as the Albany waterfront.
Golden Gate Fields: Horse Racing Comes to Albany
In 1939, Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation, which owned most of Albany’s waterfront, leased about 130 acres to the Golden Gate Turf Club to create the Golden Gate Fields Racetrack (100 acres in Albany; 30 in Berkeley). The track has dominated the Albany waterfront and been an important part of the city for the past 70 years. To create Golden Gate Fields, the top portion of Fleming Point was removed and used as fill to build the track and parking area. The grandstand and clubhouse were built on the remaining part of Fleming Point. In 1944, the racetrack was taken over by the U.S. Navy and used as a site to repair amphibious vehicles and to house as many as 3,000 service men. The Navy re-engineered the track area to support its repair work, and when the land was returned to Golden Gate Turf Club, a new track was constructed. Golden Gate Fields re-opened in 1947, and has been in continuous operation as one of California’s premier thoroughbred horse racing venues ever since.
Development vs. Preservation:
The Tug-of-War over the Albany Waterfront
In the early 1960s, environmental groups, led by the newly-formed Save the Bay Association, were trying to stop fill operations that had already drained and filled thirty percent of the Bay and threatened another forty percent. In the face of this opposition, in 1963, the city of Albany granted a license to a landfill operator that permitted dumping construction debris and garden waste into the Bay at the end of Buchanan Street, north of the racetrack. In 1965, Save the Bay led the effort to create the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency that regulates fill and development on the San Francisco Bay shoreline. BCDC sued the city of Albany in 1966 to stop the landfill operation, but they were unsuccessful and the fill continued until 1983. (Ironically, it is the landfill that created most of what has become the 88 acres of public park at the waterfront, including the areas we know as the Plateau, Neck, and Bulb.)
In 1985, the Sierra Club, Save the Bay, and others created Citizens for the Eastshore State Park, later renamed Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) – a group dedicated to the preservation of waterfront land and to the creation of a state park, along the shore from Oakland to Richmond. In the same year, Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp. (Santa Fe), then owners of Golden Gate Fields, authorized the preparation of a “program EIR” with six scenarios, ranging from a park to 3.7 million square feet of hotel, office, commercial, and residential development, and 61 acres of parks and open space (including what we now call the Plateau and part of the Neck.) Throughout this period, support for a state park was building and money was allocated from several agencies for this purpose. In 1985, Albany secured a lease agreement to incorporate the Bulb into the future Eastshore State Park. Santa Fe – in its efforts at commercial development – was fighting an uphill battle.
In 1988, the movement to create Eastshore State Park got a major boost with the passage of bond measures for land acquisition along the shoreline, sponsored by California Department of Parks and Recreation (CDPR) and East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). Funding was now available to bring to reality the long-standing dream of a shoreline park. During the four years (1985 to 1989) that Santa Fe’s development proposal was under formal environmental review, it became obvious to the company that it didn’t have the community support it needed to complete the development. Santa Fe withdrew its proposal in 1989 and sold Golden Gate Fields to Ladbroke Land Holdings (Ladbroke), a British-based company.
Soon after the sale, Albany citizens passed Measure C (see sidebar story) which created the additional step of voter approval to any decisions about waterfront zoning. With the enactment of Measure C in 1990 (and still in place today), any change to waterfront land use regulations requires direct approval by a majority of Albany voters. In 1996, the city of Albany built the Albany Waterfront Trail (a segment of the Bay Trail) with a grant from the Coastal Conservancy. The Trail parallels Buchanan Street and provides wheelchair-accessible bird watching platforms that overlook the Albany State Marine Reserve to the north. Two years later, the potential for an Eastshore State Park at the waterfront greatly increased when California Department of Parks and Recreation acquired the 30-acre Plateau property. A year later, in 1999, Ladbroke sold Golden Gate Fields to Magna Entertainment Corporation (MEC), a horse racing group
founded by Canadian auto parts entrepreneur Frank Stronach.
In 2002, after almost 40 years of citizen activism, Eastshore State Park was formally established - extending 8.5 miles along the shoreline from Oakland to Richmond. The park designation protects most of the undeveloped shoreline land, including 260 acres of dry land and 2,002 acres of tidelands.
Beginning in 2002, MEC attempted to develop the Golden Gate Fields property, while preserving the racetrack. The first proposal was called Rancho San Antonio – 650,000 sq. ft. of new retail, commercial, and entertainment development on the north and west sides of Fleming Point and additional development on the portion of its property that lies in Berkeley. MEC withdrew the proposal in 2004 when it failed to get a positive reception.
In 2005, working with southern California developer Caruso Affiliated, MEC advanced a conceptual plan to develop a constellation of upscale retail establishments and related mixed-use development, totaling up to 800,000 sq. ft. on 45 acres, primarily on the northern parking lot of the Golden Gate Fields property. MEC and Caruso impressed some Albany residents with their willingness to engage the community and incorporate open space and community service facilities into their plans, but others were critical and skeptical. After more than a year of concerted efforts, during which time several Albany waterfront-focused groups emerged, MEC and Caruso withdrew the plan.
The MEC/Caruso process left bitter feelings in its wake – with supporters and opponents of MEC’s plans, each accusing the other of rigidity and misinformation. In 2006, a slate of city council candidates, opposed to the type and density of development that MEC had proposed, won a hotly-contested election in which the future of the waterfront was a significant issue.
Voices to Vision: Shaping the Future of the Waterfront
In 2007, Albany decided to engage residents in a process that it hoped would help heal the divisions that have emerged over site development issues in recent years, and also engage a broad cross-section of residents to come together to develop a shared vision for the waterfront. To create this vision, in the Spring of 2008 the city of Albany, through its Waterfront Committee, selected Fern Tiger Associates to design and implement a program to involve the broad Albany community in a participatory process through which the voices of Albany residents will formulate a clear and strategic vision for the future of the city’s shoreline.