On the Road to Nowhere 

Albany planners want to revamp their retail corridor, but wary locals are raising the middle finger.

The devil is in the details, and if Albany's Planning and Zoning Commission has its way, residents fear those details will turn their strip of San Pablo Avenue into the fourth circle of Hell.

"Your plan, as far as I can interpret it, is only going to make things worse," resident Maureen Crowley told the commissioners at a public hearing last week. "You get more traffic, you get more noise, you get more pollution -- it's a health problem. Along with all this, you get all these people -- the outsiders. You get more trash, more disrespect, more crime, basically. ... We don't need any more garbage."

Pity San Pablo, aka state Highway 123, a road Albany planners have never quite known what to do with. Over the summer, commissioners thought they had a plan for their eight-block helping of the beleaguered avenue, which runs all the way from downtown Oakland to Solano County. Instead of the parking lots, empty storefronts, and auto-parts stores that now populate their little stretch of highway, city planners figured they'd rezone the place, ditch the largely residential designation for neighboring Kains Avenue and Adams Street, and turn all three into a sort of Solano Stroll on steroids.

For good measure, they'd throw in a couple of mixed-use "commercial nodes" at key intersections along San Pablo and lower Solano Avenue -- the city's current retail jewel. Just think! It would be pedestrian-friendly. It would build community. There'd be cute boutiques. Businesses down low, apartments up high. Oh! And think of the sales-tax revenue! It also happened to be something concrete the commission could present to the city council.

Or so commissioners thought, until a few civic-minded residents caught wind of their intentions. Now, the planners and Community Development Director Ann Chaney are being forced to rethink their plan, which at last week's hearing went over about as well as a sexist joke at Mills College.

"Could a fast-food restaurant be approved?" asked Ed Fields, a community organizer with a sharp nose, glasses, and a mere dusting of hair up top. "The business would extend all the way to Kains Avenue. There'd be a drive-through ... the exit would be out onto Kains Avenue. It would be open 24 hours. Could that McDonald's or Burger King be built?"

It was a hypothetical question the zoners wanted to dodge, so they deferred to their consultant-for-hire, Ed Phillips. "We looked at that," he said, hesitating at the mic. "It's very challenging, and I'm afraid you are correct. There really aren't sufficient protections built into what we've so far drafted."

It was an answer the audience of 130 or so locals most feared. But Fields wasn't finished. Looking those devilish details in the face, he took another swing: "Could a gas station be built with a car wash in the back? Again, the entrance would be on San Pablo and the exit would be onto Kains?"

Phillips looked like a man found out. "It's more or less the same," he said. Then, perking up a bit, he added: "Except in the case of the car wash there would be a noise component."

This wasn't exactly winning over the crowd. Though any plan would have to get past the city council, visions of Best Buys, gridlock, and a dearth of parking spaces crowded the room. What the hell was this? Emeryville?

Commissioner Doug Donaldson tried to assuage their fears. "The San Pablo vision plan is not talking about increasing commercial on San Pablo," he said. "It's talking about increasing residential on both sides of San Pablo Avenue -- mixed use, mixed use -- more residential, more apartments."

The masses remained skeptical. "I want to know who, precisely who, of the developers has contacted you?" resident Crowley demanded. "I believe you have been approached by some developer. I want to know who, how many, and what it is they're up to."

Her response drew cheers from the crowd and a rush of blood to the commissioners' faces. At least until commissioner Evan Flavell -- with slicked hair, dapper sideburns, and a beard cut into a rakish Vandyke -- took over the microphone. "Suspicions of some nefarious developer being involved in this are totally unfounded," Flavell retorted. "The basic motivation for it is that ... San Pablo Avenue is crap. It has always been crap, and the city is trying to figure out ways to fix that situation."


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