Two television news trucks were parked outside the community center. Reporters and cameramen were set up inside. More than 150 people filled the meeting room and others overflowed into the hall.
Monday's special City Council meeting caused quite a commotion in Albany, a dot on the map between Berkeley and El Cerrito, where 18,539 residents squeeze into 1.7 square miles.
At issue were development plans for a 20-acre parcel owned by the University of California that includes the Gill Tract, a plot surrounded by a cyclone fence, dotted with "no trespassing" signs and intended for agricultural research but more recently converted into a squatters garden by Occupy the Farm protesters.
UC appeared before the council seeking approval for a 175-unit senior housing complex and 55,000-square-foot Whole Foods store on acreage just south of the Gill Tract. It wasn't exactly a new idea. The project's been five years in the planning.
Opponents wanted, well, neither of those things. They wanted the Gill Tract converted into an urban-agro-ecology education center that will be the envy of the world -- and the university to keeps its mitts off everything else.
There was no middle ground. It was suits and ties vs. T-shirts and sandals. UC Property Development Director Kevin Hufferd talked about tax revenues and jobs. Opponents talked about the joy of harvesting summer squash.
They were two sides looking at the same object from
The battle waged on for six hours -- more than 60 people took turns at the microphone -- and quickly escaped the control of Mayor Farid Javandel. You knew he was in trouble when he stipulated a two-minute speaking limit and the first speaker droned on for 3 minutes, 45 seconds.
Give credit to UC's opponents: They brought dozens of voices to the fight -- none who favored brevity -- armed with every argument against the project this side of radiation poisoning.
More traffic would endanger students walking to Ocean View Elementary School. More car exhaust would be bad for the climate. Construction dust would trouble asthma victims. Population increase would overburden sewers. The environmental impact report was flawed.
The objections came from everywhere, even left field.
"The land you are debating over is actually ancestral land of the Ohlone nation," said a man representing United Native America. "Wouldn't it be nice to actually give back this plot?"
Well, sure, we can always use another casino.
One critic showed a film clip on global warming, somehow linking new construction to triple-digit heat. Apparently, if UC cared more about community and less about profit, the world would be a better (and cooler) place.
The most rational speaker came near the end. He identified himself as a 35-year Albany resident:
"The proposal before you right now is not for an educational center or to solve global warming or to resolve Native American issues, worthy as those causes may be. The proposal before you is for one single development project for a senior supermarket and senior living. Don't be distracted."
With the clock ticking past 1:30 a.m., after lengthy discussion, council members finally voted in favor of moving the project forward. They are expected to finalize approval when they meet Monday.
If they're smart, they won't ask for any more public comment.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.