THE DEVELOPMENT REPORT: With plan in place, city works to bring more affordable housing

THE DEVELOPMENT REPORT: With plan in place, city works to bring more affordable housing

Michele Ellson

To a casual observer, the scene that played out during at the Alameda City Council’s January 2 discussion about the Marina Cove housing development may have held some surprises. The city’s top planner, Andrew Thomas, was detailing his efforts to prod developer Trident Partners to build more homes on the 7.14 acre Marina Cove II site, which now holds a warehouse. The developer’s representative had insisted that the company only wanted to build the 69 homes originally approved for the site.

“This is very unusual when the planner for the city is telling a developer, ‘We want more units,’” Thomas told the council. “But it’s something that’s going to be happening much more often.”

Alameda’s six-month-old housing plan – which for the first time in four decades permits the development of apartments and other multifamily housing on the Island – is enduring some of its first tests as new housing development begins to awaken from a recession-induced coma. The Marina Cove development, one of several restarted in recent months after years of relative inactivity, was seen by city leaders as an historic marker because it will include the first privately funded and managed multifamily housing built here in two decades (an earlier plan had included townhomes, but it isn't clear what will ultimately be built).

But some of the local housing advocates who fought for the approval of the housing plan spoke out against the Marina Cove proposal, which includes 52 single family homes and 37 multifamily units. The advocates, who may see this approval as a test of the city’s willingness to require developers to build the housing allowed in the plan, wanted city staffers to push the developer to build more on the site.

“There are several flaws in this project, and though staff has worked really hard to modify them, there are some that are so fundamental that they can’t really be addressed by just rearranging the elements,” said Helen Sause of HOMES, a local group that advocates for more housing on the Island. “Please consider this development carefully and the lost opportunity if we don’t step back and look at it carefully.”

State law requires cities to draft seven-year plans – known as the housing element of a city’s general plan – that demonstrate their ability to accommodate the housing state officials determine they’ll need for future residents. Cities that fail to draft, and win state approval, of their plans may be penalized with a bigger number of homes to accommodate during the planning round that follows.

Alameda, which has a voter-approved ban on building apartments and lot size restrictions, hadn’t had a state-approved plan since 1990. But staffers’ efforts to draft one to the state’s liking – spurred by a lawsuit threat from housing advocates and new state laws that would bar the city from receiving some grant funding – led to a new plan this past July.

The plans don’t require the city to make sure all the housing they say sites can hold gets built, Thomas said in an interview this week, though he said state law obligates cities to try. He said that if developers consistently failed to build the amount of housing the city’s plan says may be built on the sites it lists, that city’s next plan could come under increased state scrutiny when it comes up for approval.

“If housing’s not built because of the economy, that’s not our problem. I think where it gets touchy is where projects do get built on sites,” Thomas said this week.

One of the big issues, he said, is that most developers focus on building specific types of homes – single family, condominiums or apartments – and are reluctant to stray into other areas where they lack expertise, legal know-how and lenders on speed dial.

“For Marina Cove I, I was pushing (that developer) for duplexes, and they were like, ‘No. Over my dead body,’” Thomas said. Trident Partners is also primarily a single family home developer, he said.

Since multifamily development was largely prohibited in Alameda – save for a few complexes built by either the city or nonprofit developers under an exception hammered out in a lawsuit settlement – the companies that specialize in it “have just written Alameda off,” Thomas said.

“We have to get the word out to the multifamily housing developers that Alameda does have sites. Because we want quality developers to develop those sites,” he said.

The Marina Cove site on Buena Vista Avenue – which was expected to hold 69 homes when it was originally approved, over a decade ago – had room for more than twice the 89 homes that are now going through the city approval process, according to the city’s plan. And Thomas said a developer seeking to build homes on federal property across the street from Crab Cove has expressed interest in building just 50 of the 95 homes the site has space for, according to the city’s plan.

Even so, Thomas said that the same developer – who may also purchase the Encinal Terminals property adjacent to the site where Marina Cove II is to be built – has said they’d like to construct more than the 234 homes the city’s plan says it can hold. And Boatworks developer Francis Collins is again seeking the city’s permission to build 240 homes on his Clement Avenue property, though this time around, the development would feature more apartments than the 29-unit building recently approved.

Developers building the Alameda Landing project near the Posey Tube are asking the city to permit 275 homes there, more than the 180 envisioned in the city’s plan.

“We have to be very aware as a city that the sites that were zoned for multifamily – we really need to do multifamily,” Thomas said.

While some housing advocates expressed concerns about the Marina Cove development, another said she’s pleased with what she sees as a sea change in the city’s thinking around housing.

“The city’s attitude has completely changed from being, ‘We’re about Measure A and keeping people out of Alameda and Measure A was sacrosanct’ to a much more broad-minded, open, not so de facto provincial point of view,” Laura Thomas of Renewed Hope said.

While Thomas believes the state’s housing laws have weaknesses that limit what cities must do to produce affordable housing, she said city leaders and staff have shown they are willing to try to get some built here, noting that a committee of the Planning Board worked with Trident Partners to convince them to allow more multifamily housing to be built on their site.

“They made great strides in that one development,” she said.