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Gill Tract Occupiers, UC Vie for Hearts and Minds of Community

The urban farm activists who took over the UC-owned Gill Tract a week ago are holding public events this weekend as UC and the occupiers engage in competing efforts to win the support of the community.

The "Occupy the Farm" take-over of the UC-owned Gill Tract is entering its second week today, Sunday, with both sides appealing to reason and justice in a continuing stand-off of warring principles and property rights.

The 10-acre tract is owned by UC Berkeley, and most of it has been cultivated for decades for crop and pest-control studies by researchers from campus and the nearby regional office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In an action that had been planned for months, dozens of advocates of community urban farming took over the site on Earth Day, April 22, and have established a camp with several tents and planted about two acres of broccoli, tomatoes, squash and other crops.

Compounding the conflict are a long-range UC plan to convert the agricultural tract to recreational and open space and a more immediate UC proposal to install a Whole Foods store and senior housing next door on UC Village property.

This weekend, the Occupy the Farm group is hosting several events and activities for the public. (A schedule is attached.)

On Friday, the university issued an open letter, offering to talk to the protestors but also calling on them to dismantle their camp in time for the annual research planting.

"We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights," said the letter from UC Berkeley's Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, George Breslauer, and the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, John Wilton. "By their logic they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it."

The activists on their "Take Back the Tract" Web site said Thursday, "The UC has consistently acted in bad faith, disregarding community input. For decades, students, faculty, and local residents have tried to engage the UC in dialogue, articulating their desire to transform the Gill Tract into a center for sustainable urban agriculture."

"Farmland is for farming," their statement said, "and we cannot allow the UC to destroy one of the best resources for urban agriculture in the Bay Area."

In a Wednesday statement, UC said it too represented sustainable urban agriculture:

"The faculty and students at Berkeley are leaders in advocating for sustainable practices and food systems, and have been doing so for decades. Many of us are passionate advocates of efforts to develop a new metropolitan agriculture paradigm focused on improved nutrition and safe, cost effective, collaborative approaches to food security and access."

Patch has requested additional information from UC on its long-term plans for the Gill Tract.

Below is the UC letter issued Friday and the Thursday statement from the "Take Back the Tract" Web site. And since the activists' statement is considerably shorter, we have added their "Why This Farm?" statement for the sake of balance and additional information about their motives.

"An Open Letter from UC Berkeley to Our Neighbors About the Gill Tract"

Dear Neighbors,

It is apparent that the occupation protest currently unfolding on the Gill Tract adjacent to the University Village has created some degree of confusion and concern about future plans and present facts. So, in the same spirit of collaboration and constructive dialogue that has characterized our relationship with the Albany community for many years, we want to provide you with some essential information about how the land is currently being used, plans for the future and the process we have been engaged in with the City of Albany and its residents since 2007.

  • The agricultural fields on the Gill Tract that are now being occupied are not the site of a proposed assisted living center for senior citizens and a grocery store. The proposed development parcel is to the south, straddling the intersection of Monroe Street and San Pablo Avenue, and has not been farmed since WWII. 
  • The existing agricultural fields on the Gill Tract are currently, and for the foreseeable future, being used as an open-air laboratory by the students and faculty of our College of Natural Resources for agricultural research. Their work encompasses basic plant biology, alternative cropping systems, plant-insect interactions and tree pests and pathogens. These endeavors are part of the larger quest to provide a hungry planet with more abundant food, and will be impeded if the protest continues. And, they are categorically not growing genetically modified crops. We have an obligation to support their education and research, and an obligation to the American taxpayers who are funding these federally funded projects.
  • The university has been actively participating in a collaborative, five-year long community engagement process about our proposed development project with hundreds of hours of meetings, hearings and dialogue. We have a great deal of respect for all those who have been involved and regret that “Occupy the Farm” appears to have little regard for the process or the people who have participated in it.
  • We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights. By their logic they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it.
  • We remain committed to moving forward, together with the Albany City Council and Planning Commission, with the commercial development of the parcel straddling the intersection of Monroe Street and San Pablo Avenue, where WWII barracks stood until recently. Our request to postpone the Planning Commission meeting was born in part of our sensitivity to the needs and interests of community members, many of whom are studying the details of the project for the first time as the result of media interest in the protest.
  • The 2004 University Village Master Plan describes a proposal to eventually convert the 10-plus acre agricultural research parcel between Marin Avenue and Village Creek  to open and recreational space for the community. As of now research projects are continuing and the university has not taken any steps to implement the Master Plan on the parcel. We have welcomed community workshops to explore the future use of this land and we continue to be open to further discussions with the community about implementation of the Master Plan on this portion of the property.
  • We are passionate advocates of metropolitan agriculture projects that are well planned, sustainable and considerate of all members of our community. Representatives of the university are more than willing to meet with any interested community members to discuss proposals for metropolitan, sustainable agriculture.
  • The university will continue the dialogue and discussions with the protesters as we seek a peaceful resolution. However, our researchers need to begin planting in the very near future and we cannot allow their work to be impeded. For that reason we are calling on the occupiers to dismantle their encampment immediately and establish a representative group to meet with UC Berkeley representatives to discuss opportunities for a metropolitan agriculture program affiliated with the campus.

If you are interested in additional, detailed information here is a list of useful web sites:

The 2004 Master Plan:
http://www.cp.berkeley.edu/CP/Projects/UVA/MasterPlan_061804.pdf

A university FAQ on the proposed mixed-use commercial development:
http://office.chancellor.berkeley.edu/gcr/docs/2010/FAQ-UniversityVillageSeniorLivingAndMarketplace-Nov2010.pdf

City of Albany “mixed use retail” website
http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=521

City of Albany website on the Gill Tract:
http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=18&recordid=1641&returnURL=%2findex.aspx

 

Together with Albany’s residents and elected officials, we have come a long way. Our collaborative efforts have produced a plan which we believe addresses significant community needs for open and recreational space, housing for senior citizens and a quality grocery store in an area that has been under-served to date. It should also be noted that revenue from the commercial development will be directed to lowering rent paid by low-income Berkeley students and their families living in Albany Village, while the city will benefit from the jobs created and additional tax revenue. These are just some of the reasons we believe that our combined planning process has produced the quintessential “win-win” proposal worthy of support.

Sincerely,
George Breslauer
Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost
John Wilton
Vice Chancellor, Administration and Finance

Statement from "Take Back the Tract" Web site

April 26, 2012

The coalition of local residents, farmers, students, and activists occupying the Gill Tract is currently in direct discussion with UC Berkeley Gill Tract researchers, contrary to claims put forth in the UC’s latest public statement. The UCB administration has not taken part in conversations between Occupy the Farm and researchers.

The UC has consistently acted in bad faith, disregarding community input. For decades, students, faculty, and local residents have tried to engage the UC in dialogue, articulating their desire to transform the Gill Tract into a center for sustainable urban agriculture.

Instead, the UC transferred administration of the Gill Tract from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, the arm of the university responsible for managing development. The UC Village Master Plan would replace the current agricultural land with ambiguously-termed commercial, recreational, and “open” space. Farmland is for farming, and we cannot allow the UC to destroy one of the best resources for urban agriculture in the Bay Area.

Major Community Events Planned for Weekend

From 10 AM to sundown on Saturday and Sunday, April 28th and 29th, Occupy the Farm will host a weekend of workshops, farming and family fun! Events will including a special teach-in by Dr. Miguel Altieri, who has been conducting agroecological research at the Gill Tract since 1981. The workshop will begin at 12pm on Saturday, and Dr. Altieri will field questions from the media at 1pm.

Below is a full list of events to occur at the farm throughout the weekend.
[Please see attached schedule.] 

Why This Farm?

We are reclaiming this land to grow healthy food to meet the needs of local communities. We envision a future of food sovereignty, in which our East Bay communities make use of available land - occupying it where necessary - for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs. This particular plot of land is very special:

  • These are the last acres of Class One soil left in the urbanized East Bay. Ninety percent of the original land has been paved over and developed, irreverisibly contaminating the land.
  • Students, professors, and community have fought for decades to save this amazing land from development and use it for sustainable agriculture.
  • UCB capital projects currently administors this land and has slated it for rezoning and redevelopment in 2013 (i.e. supermarkets, parking lots, and apartments).
  • The University uses the land to research corn genetics. This research can be conducted anywhere as opposed to this unique site.

Albany Patch has extensive coverage of the Gill Tract occupation. For past El Cerrito Patch articles on the occupation, click "Gill Tract" next to Related Topics below. For alerts to future El Cerrito Patch articles on the topic, click the Keep me posted button below.

Milan Moravec April 29, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Cal Provost Breslauer displaces qualified instate Californians for affluent foreign and affluent out of state applicants.

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