The sudden announcement of Golden Gate Fields’ impending closure could set off the most dramatic showdown yet between developers and open space advocates who have long coveted the 140-acre waterfront site that straddles the Berkeley-Albany border.
With sweeping views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate and Mt. Tamalpais, the property has alternatively been envisioned as a park that would restore a large piece of the East Bay shoreline or the site of a bustling center of homes and offices that would boost tax revenue for the two cities.
The former Bay Meadows race track in San Mateo, which closed in 2008, offers one example of what could replace Golden Gate Fields’ grandstand, oval track, stables and expansive parking lots. More than 1,000 homes have sprung up on that site, part of a major redevelopment that also included corporate offices, restaurants, a school and parks built around a new Caltrain station.
But former Albany mayor Robert Cheasty contends inspiration for the future of Golden Gate Fields should come instead from the bayside parks that border it to the north and south.
“This presents a great opportunity to take the Golden Gate Fields property and incorporate it into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park,” said Cheasty, a co-founder of the group Citizens for East Shore Parks. “It’s not a great site for a lot of development — it’s a great site for a park.”
Whether developers agree with Cheasty remains to be seen. It’s also not yet clear how the track’s owner, the Stronach Group, will handle the property or any potential sale once its final racing season wraps up. Asked by email about those plans, spokesman Stefan Friedman referred a reporter back to the company’s press release about the closure, which did not address that topic.
Still, tight zoning rules for the site give supporters of park space an early advantage.
As it stands now, a Bay Meadows-style redevelopment is off the table: Zoning codes in both Berkeley and Albany prohibit new housing on the property and allow for only a few types of commercial uses, such as restaurants. The city border runs just south of the racetrack, putting about 40 acres in Berkeley and 100 in Albany.
Loosening those limits wouldn’t be a simple process.
In Berkeley, Planning Director Jordan Klein said the city would likely need to update a master plan for the area that dates to 1986 before it could change zoning for the property. Berkeley is in the midst of a multi-year process to update its Waterfront Specific Plan, but Golden Gate Fields wasn’t included in the effort.
The process would be even tougher in Albany, where a 1990 ballot measure championed by Cheasty and other development opponents requires approval from voters to make any changes to Golden Gate Fields’ zoning.
The prospect of development at the track, which represents a major source of tax revenue for Albany’s schools and local government, has long been one of the small city’s most contentious debates. While several would-be builders have put forward visions for projects at Golden Gate Fields as horse racing’s popularity waned over the decades, none of the projects made it far enough to test voters’ appetites.
Cheasty said he believes residents share his group’s opposition to redeveloping the site.
“We’ve had a pretty consistent run of support for having open space and parkland on the waterfront,” he said.
More than a decade ago, Albany undertook a lengthy public process meant to gauge residents’ desires for what could one day replace Golden Gate Fields. That outreach led to a report adopted by the City Council in 2010 that called for reserving three-quarters of the property as open space, while allowing limited commercial development — with no housing — on no more than 27 of its acres. A survey conducted as part of the process found two-thirds of respondents were opposed to new housing at the site.
Cheasty said he is optimistic that the restrictive zoning rules will help limit the property’s price, making it easier for park supporters to pull together funding from various sources to acquire and restore it.
While it’s unclear what the property might fetch on the open market, Alameda County assessed the two parcels and facilities that make up Golden Gate Fields at just over $68 million in total this year.
Berkeley Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the property, said she is open to the idea of development on the city’s portion of the site, noting plans for a large new life sciences campus are in the works just across the Eastshore Freeway at the former home of Pacific Steel Castings.
“Given our city’s growing pension and infrastructure liabilities, I believe we do have an obligation to explore changes that can yield greater revenue for the city’s coffers — and do so in a way that is sensitive to” the property’s waterfront setting, Kesarwani said in an interview. But, she added, “I need to take more time to understand the nature of the site and have greater dialogue with stakeholders and members of our community.”
In a written statement, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Golden Gate Fields’ closure “presents exciting opportunities” for the site, though he said it was too soon to speculate about what could replace it.
Klein, the Berkeley planning director, said the city expects to work closely with Albany officials in the future to shape what happens next at Golden Gate Fields.
“We care about responsible planning that is good for the region, so I’m sure there will be joint efforts to engage with our neighbors around the future of that site,” Klein said, “but they haven’t started yet.”