Council abandons moratorium proposal

Council abandons moratorium proposal

Michele Ellson

City Council members voted Tuesday to abandon a proposed moratorium on development applications that seek a break on Measure A and other development standards to help facilitate construction of affordable housing.

Instead, city staffers will work to clarify the city’s rules for granting the waivers – and will also begin looking at ways to make sure developers don’t build more homes than the land set aside to accommodate housing development can realistically handle.

Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese proposed a moratorium on the applications at a January 6 meeting where council members reconsidered approvals for a 380-unit development in and around the Island’s former Del Monte warehouse. But he said Tuesday that he didn’t think the city should move forward with it.

“One of the things I’ve heard loud and clear is, a moratorium is not a viable option. But that question had to be asked,” Matarrese said.

Matarrese, who voted in 2009 to approve the city ordinance that allows developers to seek the waivers, said he was concerned the council didn’t follow it when they granted affordable housing waivers to Tim Lewis Communities, the developer building the Del Monte project. He said the city didn’t get financial information on the project that would demonstrate the need for the waivers until after they were approved.

But city staffers said that they didn’t think the city could legally justify such a moratorium, which could only be put in place if the city could show additional development would pose a health and safety risk to its existing residents. Traffic doesn't qualify as a health or safety risk, they said.

They said state laws that seek to increase the production of affordable housing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by focusing development in and around city centers trump local rules seeking to freeze housing development, and that the state has sought in recent years to better enforce the rules by tying parks and transportation funding to compliance.

City Planner Andrew Thomas said that if the city hadn’t played by the rules, it would not have been eligible for the $210,000 state grant it received to start fixing up Estuary Park.

The 2009 ordinance mirrors a state law that requires cities to consider waiving certain development standards to make it easier for developers to build affordable housing. So far, four developers have asked the city to waive Measure A in order to build more affordable housing than the city requires, and plans to build up to 800 new homes at a fifth – the planned Alameda Point town center – would require a similar waiver.

Passage of the ordinance was one of several steps council members took over the past several years in order to comply with a state law that requires cities to prove they have enough land available and properly zoned to accommodate their fair share of the new housing California will need as its population grows.

In 2012 the City Council voted to permit multifamily housing on 10 sites where development is anticipated, a move that violated Measure A but one that council members and city staff said they needed to make in order to comply with state law and to avoid a lawsuit from housing advocates that they anticipated they would lose. The change was part of a housing blueprint that’s part of the city’s general plan that has to be approved by the state.

Measure A effectively banned the development of apartments and other multifamily housing in Alameda – a ban city leaders adhered to for four decades.

City Councilman Jim Oddie, one of three lawyers on the City Council, said he feared the city would lose Measure A entirely if the city sought to restrict housing development and was sued as a result. City staffers said that if the council had not acted to win state approval of the housing blueprint, Alameda could be forced to ask a court for even minor development approvals.

“We will cede control over the destiny of our Island to the state. And I don’t want that to happen on my watch, while I’m sitting in this chair,” Oddie said.

The development debate has taken on a new urgency over the past few years, as a booming economy and a series of development approvals put some long-stalled projects on the path to possibility. If all the projects that are now proposed, approved or under construction are completed by 2023, Alameda will have 1,841 new homes – about the same number built here between 1990 and 2010, U.S. Census figures show.

But with two new council members – Matarrese and Mayor Trish Spencer – who are seeking to put the brakes on housing development, it’s possible that some of the projects in the pipeline won’t get approved.

Matarrese said Tuesday he just wants to make sure the city doesn’t jam development sites with more housing than they can hold; the city’s estimate for the amount of housing the Del Monte site could handle was less than 300 units. But one housing advocate, Lynette Lee, said that other sites under development will hold fewer homes than city staffers said they could accommodate.

Affordable housing advocates have cheered the development, saying the housing is desperately needed to help Island residents struggling with high housing costs and a dwindling supply stay here. And an advocate for renters – a new voice in the housing development discussion – said development is needed to take pressure off the rental market, which has been impacted by families who want to purchase homes here but can’t find anything to buy.

But residents who oppose housing development fear new homes will bring too much additional traffic. Some questioned whether the city could simply focus on building affordable housing instead of market rate, though housing advocates said it would be tough to piece together the funding needed to build affordable units without a for-profit developer’s help.

City Planner Andrew Thomas said he agrees with residents who say that the amount of time Alameda’s commuters spend trying to get off the Island has increased. But he said greater congestion on Bay Area freeways, and not development on the Island, is the cause.

“Traffic is worse, not because there are more cars (leaving the Island), but because they are traveling into a more congested regional network,” Thomas said.

He said the fix is not to stop housing development but to boost Alameda’s transit network – something new development can help fund.

“Let’s look at these new projects as the solution, not the problem,” Thomas said.

Council members held off on a separate discussion on a proposed Island-wide transportation management plan, postponing it to a to-be-announced date. The city's sunshine ordinance requires the council to add meetings if its deliberations last until 11 p.m. or later for three meetings in a row - an unwanted milestone council members said they feared they'd hit Tuesday if the discussion continued.


Submitted by David (not verified) on Wed, Mar 11, 2015

Mr. Thomas, as did ex-Mayor Marie Gilmore, makes a distinction without a difference when pointing to regional congestion versus Alameda congestion.

Alameda is locked-in behind the regional network that Thomas blames. Creating additional traffic sourced from Alameda is only going to add to the congestion - and localized pollution - that residents face.

The regional transportation network has an extensive public transit component, yet, as Thomas points out, look at the congestion in the regional network. How exactly will transit solve the problem in Alameda?

Al Wright's picture
Submitted by Al Wright on Wed, Mar 11, 2015

The article says the moratorium was voted down, and that Matarrese voted against it, but you didn't report what the final vote was. 5-0, 4-1, 3-2? Who voted against, if anyone?

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Wed, Mar 11, 2015

Where to even start with this news?

How about: “Traffic is worse, not because there are more cars (leaving the Island), but because they are traveling into a more congested regional network,” Thomas said.

Are you kidding me? So, when I am stuck in traffic in the tube to go to Alameda or sitting in traffic in Alameda, that is because there is more traffic in some other parts of the greater region?

Or how about: “Let’s look at these new projects as the solution, not the problem,” Thomas said.

It's an island! There may never be more ways on and off and even if there were it would be "traveling into a more congested regional network." How does making traffic in Alameda impossible help make less traffic in Alameda? Truly Orwellian.

Also, if things have really changed for the worse in the "regional network," what does that say about the BS EIR generated to show that traffic from development at Alameda Point won't be a problem?

Suppose the dim citizens of Alameda, like confused children, are totally wrong about what a fabulous "solution" all of this development is. Doesn't the will of the citizens count for anything? Or, is it just trumped by an unelected city planner and some other bureaucrats and ambitious politicians dreaming of higher office?

Maybe it's time for another ballot proposition.

City planners aren't elected, but they can be fired, right?

Submitted by A Neighbor (not verified) on Wed, Mar 11, 2015

It was unanimous.

Submitted by frank on Wed, Mar 11, 2015

It is all a bit like "The Wizard of Oz".

Submitted by nora (not verified) on Wed, Mar 11, 2015

SB 743 (2014) was written specifically for the City of Sacramento, not an island like Alameda, and some analyses find it problematic. It doesn't sound as much like settled law as Andrew Thomas would have us believe. [read it yourself, I say]
Perhaps we need a 2nd legal opinion.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Thu, Mar 12, 2015

UCLA policy wonks criticized SB375 as well, for focusing so much on VMT to the exclusion of other important points, namely, that VMT reflects economic activity.

Also, reducing VMT often means traffic congestion, which increases local pollutant emissions.

Submitted by marvie (not verified) on Sat, Mar 14, 2015

What bugs me about these developments which might/will exacerbate and contribute to the traffic jams in Alameda may be pushed forward by people who are not affected by them; or perhaps they are somehow gaining materially so much that they don't care.