City, park district at odds over veterans' complex deal
City, park district at odds over veterans' complex deal
City and East Bay Regional Park District officials are at odds over a proposed deal that would move a planned veterans’ complex off property that has long served as a nesting area for the endangered California least tern and onto land where city officials had hoped to build a park, trails and a sports complex.
Park district officials are seeking a $1-a-year lease to develop and manage the property, while a city official working on the deal said the city has asked the park district to consider offering some seed money to help get the sports complex off the ground.
Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott said the deal would involve leasing 150 acres of potential parkland to the park district. “We want to see some money for the local sports fields from this deal,” she said.
She said the city isn’t asking for market value for the land, but they are looking for something that will help them build the sports complex, which Ott said would cost between $20 million and $40 million.
“We were in a negotiation to try to figure out what that was,” Ott said.
The park district’s general manager, Robert E. Doyle, said the district has estimated the cost for building a Veterans’ Memorial Park and regional shoreline park at $10 million to $20 million. The district has allocated $6.5 million in Measure WW money for Alameda Point, though it’s not clear if any of that could be used to help fund the sports complex.
“The Park District has a good track record of leveraging our money,” Doyle said. “We usually can get two dollars for every one of our dollars when all the parties are working together for the same concept and vision.”
The City Council is slated to discuss the deal in a closed-door session Tuesday.
It seemed as though the plans for the veterans’ facility at Alameda Point were moving full steam ahead. But last year, the project almost died until the park district stepped in to help.
The park district brokered a deal that would move the project away from a nesting area favored by the endangered least tern and onto land soon to be owned by the city, which would lease it to the Department of Veterans Affairs at almost no cost.
The $210 million veterans’ project includes an outpatient clinic, a columbarium, administrative space, and parking. It will provide primary and specialty care, including ancillary services, mental health, substance abuse, ambulatory surgery, and vocational rehab for over 7,000 veterans from Northern Alameda County.
It was to be built on part of the 549-acre wildlife refuge parcel at Alameda Point that the Navy was giving to the Department of Veterans Affairs for the project. As a condition of the land transfer, however, the department had to agree to take over the entire 549-acre parcel.
Because it was being built on Alameda’s wildlife refuge, the project ran into strong opposition from both the Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. As designed, the project’s buildings would encroach on a buffer zone that had been established to protect the endangered least terns’ nesting area.
After years of controversy, it seemed increasingly likely that the project might never get off the ground because of the least tern issue.
The Fish & Wildlife Service and the veterans’ department had independently approached the park district two years earlier to help manage the wildlife refuge, because neither agency had an interest in taking on the refuge portion of the property the department was set to acquire from the Navy.
Last year, with the project in doubt, the park district called the Navy, the veterans’ department, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the city together at district headquarters and presented a plan that includes moving the veterans’ proposed buildings north onto the Northwest Territories, away from the least tern nesting area. The district plan also would establish a Veterans’ Memorial Park around the facility, which would be part of a larger regional park and trail system on the remainder of the Northwest Territories.
At the meeting there was consensus that the city would lease the Northwest Territories parkland to the park district for $1 a year, according to the park district's general manager, Doyle, though Ott said that she was the only city official in the room and that she never offered that deal. Much of the former Navy base land is expected to be handed over to the city by the end of 2012, at no cost.
A Veterans Affairs official told city leaders in 2010 at a public hearing, in response to opposition to the project location, that if the project were to be moved elsewhere they would need to get congressional approval for a brand new project.
Under the 1996 base reuse plan, the property owner and the council, with public input, are responsible for developing a management plan and philosophy for the wildlife refuge.
The Golden Gate Audubon Society, which has opposed the veterans’ complex because it encroached on the least terns’ space, has issued an action alert to members asking them to attend Tuesday’s council meeting to speak in favor of a deal with the park district. The alert warned that "some city officials appear determined to extract payments from the park district - which would kill the deal.”
“This is the best opportunity we’ve seen in years to settle this in a way that not only allows the VA to build their complex and gives citizens of Alameda parkland, but also protects the endangered least tern colony,” executive director Mark Welther said.
But Ott, who accused the park district of using the press to gain a more favorable deal, said she’s not sure where things stand now.
“It’s a good project,” she said. “We want to see it move forward.”
A version of this piece originally appeared in the Alameda Sun. Editor Michele Ellson contributed to this story.