Council takes another big step toward developing Alameda Point

Council takes another big step toward developing Alameda Point

Michele Ellson

City leaders signed off on a pile of planning documents Tuesday night that will ease the way for development at Alameda Point.

“Tonight is an historic night for the City of Alameda,” said City Councilman Tony Daysog, who has been involved with efforts to plan for the future of the Point for nearly two decades.

After the City Council voted its second master developer, SunCal, off the Island in 2010, members decided to effectively assume the role those private entities usually fill, overseeing a nearly two-year planning process that produced zoning and general plan changes; a plan to phase in an estimated $650 million in new streets, sewers and sea level rise protections; and a study of the potential impacts of development at the Point.

Neither SunCal nor Alameda Point Community Partners, the first group hired to oversee development at the Point, were able to complete all of those steps.

City staff has said the advance planning effort will make Alameda Point more attractive to prospective developers who will now need to seek fewer approvals if they choose to build within the envelope of those plans. City Manager John Russo has said he expects the city will sell pieces of the Point to different developers; buildout of the Point is expected to take 20 years.

In order to win control of the former Naval Air Station without cost, city leaders agreed to hew to the original plan for the Point, which includes another 1,425 homes and up to 5.5 million square feet of commercial space. City leaders envision a waterfront town center with homes, cafes, a marina and a promenade surrounded by commercial uses in new and repurposed space, a residential neighborhood and 240 acres of parks and open space.

Both of the city’s former Point developers had sought to build more housing than envisioned in the original reuse plan, proposals that in part prompted the Navy to slap a $108.5 million price tag on property that had previously been offered for free. Residents vigorously opposed SunCal’s plan to build 4,800 homes, overwhelmingly rejecting a ballot initiative that would have permitted the developer to do so.

Council members said they were excited about the plans they approved unanimously on Tuesday, though some sought assurances that Alameda Point development would not burn a hole in the city’s budget. Stewart Chen said he was concerned the city could end up diverting funds from other parts of the Island to protect the Point from anticipated sea level rise.

Chen also asked city staffers what would happen if efforts to blunt the additional traffic the development is expected to generate by making Alameda Point pedestrian and bicycle friendly and boosting transit aren’t successful. That’s the city’s primary strategy for dealing with the traffic the development is expected to create.

“I have to ask this one question: What if it doesn’t work?” Chen asked.

Russo said the council can halt development if traffic reduction goals aren’t met. And while the city hasn’t yet drafted its traffic reduction plan – it’s hired a consultant to put one together – Mayor Marie Gilmore said the plans have been successful in other cities.

“We are not the test case,” Gilmore said. “I feel very confident the City of Alameda can deal with its traffic issues.”

Traffic has been the major sticking point for critics of the city’s development plans who have questioned a traffic model that shows cars fleeing a crowded Posey Tube and instead clogging intersections in the city’s East End.

But the city may be making some progress toward addressing one major traffic problem – fixing the Oakland arteries that lead to the I-880 freeway. Policymakers from both Alameda and Oakland are meeting through a new Alameda County Transportation Commission subcommittee to deal with the traffic and pedestrian safety issues development in both cities is expected to cause.

Gilmore said the group may be making progress toward a long-sought solution to the traffic snarl, and that leaders in Oakland’s Chinatown community – who have battled Point development in the past due to concerns about its potential impact to pedestrians there – have been involved in the process.

Residents – many of whom have also long been involved in efforts to shape the Point’s future – also expressed excitement about the plans and the possibility that the base, which has been closed since 1997 and makes up nearly a third of Alameda, could once again provide homes and economic opportunity for the city’s West End. But some questioned whether the city should consider permitting construction of more homes there.

“There’s not enough housing there. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time,” said Bill Smith, a board member with Renewed Hope, which successfully sued the city to require that 25 percent of the housing built at the Point be affordable to lower income residents.

Thomas said he wouldn’t recommend adding homes to the plans before the Navy gives the city control of the rest of Alameda Point. Alameda got the deeds to 510 acres last year, but another 368 acres – including the waterfront spot expected to serve as the Point’s town center – is still in the Navy’s hands.

The Navy would receive $50,000 for every market rate home built over the 1,425 permitted under its agreement with the city.

“Fourteen hundred homes is three Bayports. It’s a lot,” Thomas said.

Council members have been meeting behind closed doors to discuss a handful of development proposals; former Councilman Doug deHaan said those discussions should take place in public.

Daysog said evaluation criteria the council can use as a framework for considering proposals is pending.