Racetrack announces growth plan
Golden Gate Fields' proposal for an entertainment and retail complex
is already getting a reaction

By Kate Derby Rauch

ALBANY - The face of the venerable seaside Golden Gate Fields racetrack could change dramatically under a plan submitted to Berkeley and Albany by track officials this week.

Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns and operates the 61-year-old track, has proposed turning the facility into a major commercial and entertainment complex dubbed Rancho San Antonio, with luxury hotels, a conference or entertainment center, restaurants, and specialty shops.

The plan, which ends years of rumors of what track owners planned for prime property along San Francisco Bay, faces some significant political hurdles. Both Berkeley and Albany have voter-approved waterfront ordinances limiting development on their pieces of racetrack property.

Berkeley recently decided to ask voters in November to let the City Council revisit its ordinance and make it more restrictive if the council wants.

But Peter Tunney, Magna vice president for California, said he's optimistic a plan can be crafted to suit both cities.

The initial design was deliberately left broad and flexible, so it can evolve with public and city input, said Tunney.

"We're kind of easing into it, so we can get something that's compatible with the cities," he said, adding the project is expected to take two to three years.

However, Magna wanted to get its plans in the pipeline before Berkeley's vote, in case the outcome limits its options.

Magna, which operates 12 American tracks, is owned by Canadian auto parts magnate Frank Stronac. The company bought Golden Gate Fields in 1999 from Ladbrook Racing USA, as that company phased out of the industry.

It also runs Bay Meadows in San Mateo, although that track's land is separately owned and up for sale.

The desire to embellish Golden Gate Fields, with its panoramic Bay views, has been floating for years, as fewer and fewer people attend live races, Tunney said.

Racetracks increasingly make their profits from lucrative off-track betting, where people wager on televised races from around the country, he said.

The plans for Golden Gate Fields are Stronac's personal vision for boosting revenue from the track location, but also his dream for getting people excited about old-fashioned racing again, Tunney said.

The racetrack will stay, with a village of cafes, shops and hotels built around it, he said.

Magna wants to turn what is now mostly parking lots or stables around the racetrack into a vibrant commercial hub, like Berkeley's popular Fourth Street, and expose people to racing, Tunney said.

"We're hoping for a tasteful development that will be a destination. They'll be able to really see everyone's love of horses and how great the sport is."

The plan calls for keeping a stretch of open space along the water's edge for the San Francisco Bay Trail.

The racetrack land lies in the middle of the Eastshore State Park, stretching along the water from Oakland to Richmond.

The Bay will be an important feature of the development, Tunney said. Space for a ferry terminal is an option; a Berkeley-Albany ferry is in the early planning stage.

Officials in both cities have just begun sorting through the plan, and reaction is a mixed bag.

Albany Councilman Jon Ely said he's pleased Magna is taking a slow approach with an emphasis on public input.

The city can use the tax revenues of new businesses, but residents need to guide the design, he said.

In response to earlier interest in major waterfront development, Albany voters in 1990 overwhelmingly approved an ordinance limiting waterfront building to recreation, sports and commercial uses that support sports and recreation. Hotels aren't permitted. Magna's preferred plan -- the company has outlined several options -- calls for building hotels in Berkeley.

"We encourage the developer to work with the community and determine what the community wants and not have this be something that's driven by the council," Ely said.

Berkeley Councilwoman Polly Armstrong predicts it will be far from smooth sailing in her town.

The impetus to ask voters to revisit Berkeley's rather generous development limits on Magna land is to rope in those limits, she said.

"We're trying to establish a park setting. It sounds to me like they're proposing to put downtown San Jose on the waterfront," she said. "It will be tremendously controversial. If they think it can happen in three years they're living in a dream world."