SEE VIDEO OF DIRECT ACTION AND INTERVIEWS WITH SENIOR ALBANY RESIDENTS AT: https://vimeo.com/152206901
Albany, CA—On Monday, January 11, contractors with the UC administration began construction work on the southern portion of the Gill Tract, a historical farm sold to the University of California in 1928 under the condition it would be used for agricultural research and education. Contractors Ghilotti Bros. laid surveying stakes on the ground, pulled down fencing with an excavator, and began trampling the land with a bulldozer.
The next day after working hours, about fifteen individuals entered the Gill Tract to remove surveying stakes marking the paths for the heavy machinery brought to pave over the last large-scale plot of high-quality urban farmland still available on the East Bay. The mobilization by the group Occupy the Farm was led by senior citizens from the community.
The UC is privatizing this section of the Gill Tract for the construction of a high-end senior assisted living facility by the Belmont Village corporation, alongside construction of a Sprouts supermarket and a parking lot.
On a separate location, senior residents of Albany gave interviews for a short film on the issue. “Strong popular opinion in favor of keeping this land for farming was consistently disregarded at City hearings,” explained Signe Mattson. “There has always been clear alternatives and strong opposition to paving over this land.” Ed Fields, another senior resident of Albany who has consistently challenged the project at public hearings explained: “I think the UC is being very short sighted in leasing this land to an assisted living facility and a supermarket… This land was set aside for agriculture and research. That’s needed now more than ever.”
Senior Albany resident Jackie Hermes-Fletcher explained that the monthly costs of the proposed assisted living facility far exceed the income of local residents. “Me as a retired teacher, I could never afford something like that… Its not about affordability, its about profitability.” When asked if he would consider living in the facility to be constructed, senior Albany resident Rafael Gonzalez stated: “No, I don’t want to be locked up in one of those things even if I could [afford it], that is not a wise use of the land.”
Then on Wednesday, January 13, Sprouts inaugurated a new store in Oakland. From 7am to 10pm, farmers and community members organized a meditation sit-in, held banners and distributed flyers calling for a boycott of Sprouts until they cancel construction over the Gill Tract. By early evening, over twenty five people had gathered to protest Sprouts. They set up a projector to screen the Occupy the Farm film, distributing popcorn and snacks, and informing Sprouts employees and community members about the history and struggle over the Gill Tract.
Protest at the new Sprouts store in Oakland continued daily. On Friday, January 15, store managers called Oakland Police Department to remove the protesters. A contingent of about 20 police officers who went to the location determined that the protesters were fully within the law, and even asked them to move their banners and sit-in further towards the entrance of the store in order to leave the sidewalk open.
Community members, students, and UC faculty have put forth an alternative proposal to use all twenty acres of the historic Gill Tract as a Center for Urban Agriculture and Food Justice, serving the University of California’s mission of research and education for the public good, while also operating as a productive urban farm that provides students, workers, and community members with access to affordable local produce. This proposal better aligns with UC President Napolitano’s Global Food Initiative as well as the sustainability and climate mitigation policies of the state of California.
“We have tried every formal and institutional route for a more democratic decision on the fate of this land,” explains Gustavo Oliveira, a spokesperson for Occupy the Farm. “But the UC administration and their corporate partners only reconsider their plans for privatization when opposed by organized direct action.”
This coming weekend, the Indigenous Land Access Committee along with Occupy the Farm and other groups are calling for a Walk on the Land on January 24 at 3pm on the Gill Tract (on the corner of San Pablo Ave. and Marin Ave. in Albany, CA).
The privatization and construction launched on the site has been contested by students, faculty, and members of the community for almost two decades. In 2004, the UC Regents approved commercial development despite years of campaigning by students, faculty, and community members for the preservation of the land for urban agriculture and food justice, and proceeded bulldozing greenhouses in 2008 and contracting with Whole Foods for development of the site.
In April 2012, Occupy the Farm reenergized this struggle by camping on the land and planting a publicly-accessible farm on the Gill Tract. Under pressure, Whole Foods pulled out of the proposed development, and the UC administration granted protection for a portion of the land, some of which is now the vibrant Gill Tract Community Farm.
However, the 7 acres of the southern portion of the Gill Tract remains slated for development with a shopping center anchored by Sprouts supermarket, a hihg-end senior housing complex, and a parking lot. UC Capital Projects now seeks to implement this project despite another occupation in May 2013 and other mobilizations on the land in 2014 and 2015, two lawsuits, an Albany City referendum effort, broad based and constant community participation at the Albany City Council in favor of preserving the farmland for agricultural use, and an ongoing campaign for Sprouts to drop its proposed construction project over the Gill Tract.