Illegal occupation of Albany open space infringes on research

A group of about 200 people broke into a lot near UC Berkeley’s University Village to, as they put it, “Occupy the Farm to Take Back the Gill Tract.” After illegally cutting the gate locks yesterday, the group entered the Albany site, roto-tilled part of the ground, planted seedlings and set up a small tent encampment, which it continues to occupy.

Aerial view of Gill Tract and University Village master plan area

Aerial view of Gill Tract and University Village master-plan area

According to the 2004 Master Plan for the University Village area, site plans called for a little-league field and open space on the Gill Tract. These plans have been on hold for a number of years while the university uses the field for agricultural research. There are no immediate plans to pursue building on this site, according to the university.

“The Gill Tract is used for agricultural research by faculty and students of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, which was just a month away from using the space for this season’s research,” said J. Keith Gilless, dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. “We were just waiting to do our tilling till the soil moisture conditions were right.”

The college uses the area for a number of research projects focused on basic plant biology, alternative cropping systems, plant-insect interactions and tree pests and pathogens.

“I am very supportive of urban agriculture as it contributes to food access and security, nutrition, and environmental education, but the research we have been doing at the site supports agriculture as well,” said Gilless.

The protesters are in violation of campus regulations — sections 321(m) and (n) — and  state law — sections 602(k)(l) and (m). If the occupation continues, “those policies and laws will be enforced when we determine it can be done safely and effectively,” said Claire Holmes, university spokesperson. “There is also concern that the lack of appropriate sanitation will result in contamination of the site with human waste.”

Both the Gill Tract and the proposed mixed-use development are adjacent to University Village, a housing complex for UC scholars and their families. UC plans to replace outmoded Village housing units with modern units. Supported in part by revenue from the mixed-use development, low-income students and their families at the Village would see their rents reduced as part of a commitment extended by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

A proposed commercial development for university-owned property south of the Gill Tract, along San Pablo Avenue, awaits approval from the Albany city council and planning commission. The project would include a senior-housing facility with independent-living residential apartments, assisted living units and memory-care services.

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