Hopes aplenty for former Island High site

Hopes aplenty for former Island High site

Michele Ellson
Island High

The 0.83-acre site that occupies the corner of Eagle Avenue and Everett Street started its developed life as a farm plot tended by a squatter, in the 1800s. And if Melanie Wartenberg and hundreds of her other Alameda neighbors had their way, the site would become an urban farm once again, home to a learning garden, chickens and bees.

Instead the site in the heart of Alameda’s Wedge neighborhood sits vacant, an abandoned shell of a former continuation high school that has been used by the school district and others as a dumping ground and by vagrants seeking refuge in the aging portable classroom buildings that cover much of the cracked, faded asphalt.

“It’s a little bit like a scab on the neighborhood. It makes the neighborhood look and feel neglected,” said Joseph Yon, who has been living kitty-corner from the site for two decades.

The district moved Island High in 2006 and in 2008, a developer proposed putting 36 units of low-income housing on the site, infuriating neighbors. Wartenberg sat on the school district commission that declared the property surplus in January 2011, but the school board has yet to decide what it wants to do with it, a district official confirmed.

“Basically, the district hasn’t done anything with the property, and we haven’t heard them discuss anything about future use,” Wartenberg said.

Despite the slow progress, interest in finding a new use for the site – and soon – is high. Alameda Unified’s chief business officer, Robert Shemwell, said the district sees the site as a potential revenue source that could provide funding for basic school services, an attractive proposition at a time of extreme funding uncertainty. The district needs to sell the property by 2016, though, in order to spend the money without restrictions that typically limit the use of the money to capital expenditures.

City leaders, meanwhile, are set to rezone the property for housing and have listed it in a housing inventory to be approved by the City Council and submitted for state approval in order to be eligible for transportation and other funding. (A separate parks master plan offers a host of potential sites for urban farming activities, but the Island High site is not among them.)

The Alameda Housing Authority is interested in developing the site and is waiting for the school board to decide whether they wish to sell it, Executive Director Michael T. Pucci said.

“We are also trying to identify funds to acquire it but we don't have anything definite right now,” Pucci said.

Wartenberg said neighbors met with Superintendent Kirsten Vital after Island High’s move to discuss their interest in greening efforts at the site and the types of housing they would support there, “and then (the district) just sort of never did anything.” Efforts to get the city to do something with the property were similarly unsuccessful, she said.

Meanwhile, holes appeared in the chain link fence surrounding the property, while thieves stripped it of copper. And the district began using the site as a dump, Wartenberg and other neighbors said, piling up old furniture and other items slated for disposal.

Wartenberg and one of her neighbors, Kristoffer Köster, formed Project LEAF (which stands for Local Edible Alameda Farm) in December 2010. Their goal was to create green space in a neighborhood that has precious little of it. The state standard for community green space is three acres per thousand residents; according to the Project LEAF website, the Wedge neighborhood has access to just 0.14 acres of green space per 1,000 residents.

“We have no access to green space at all other than going across major thoroughfares to Edison or McKinley (parks),” Wartenberg said. “That’s our interest in developing green space there.”

She said the green space would offset the impact of commercial properties that include a towing business and an auto repair shop.

“That is the central property within a very small triangle,” Wartenberg said. “Improving that property as a neighborhood, we feel, would really help to offset some of the challenges of sharing with our commercial neighbors.”

She said the project’s leaders – who engaged in a massive community planning effort for an urban farm at the site – approached the city’s recreation and parks department in 2011 about working together, but the department wasn’t interested in taking on anything new. Former Recreation and Park Department director Dale Lillard said the Housing Authority had expressed an interest in the site while his department lacked the money to purchase and develop it.

The city’s parks department has first dibs on the property based on a priority list established for its disposal; its Housing Authority and nonprofits like Project LEAF are on the second tier of that list, though school district could require any potential purchaser to pay market rate for it.

The project’s leaders put forward a grant application seeking $2 million to buy the site, but learned in June they didn’t get the grant. They said they’re hopeful the school district and the city, which controls property uses, will consider letting them set up a garden on the site temporarily until development takes place.

“I think it would just be great for them to say, ‘Listen, we’re donating this for now, we’ll take it back later.’ If not, it would be great to see the site at least maintained for the interim,” said Köster, who has since been appointed to the city’s Planning Board but stressed that his remarks were being made as a private citizen and not in his official capacity.

He said urban farms have been set up under similar circumstances in San Francisco in an effort to bring life to blighted properties.

“Since we know the school board is pressed to sell and we didn't get the grant, perhaps someone else could buy it now, provide us with a temporary use permit, and then plan to do something with the site later on. That way everyone benefits,” Köster added.

Shemwell said the district has stopped the practice of dumping on the site, though a reporter noticed a copier sitting in the middle of it on a recent visit. He said last week that the district is planning to take bids for removal of the portables on the site in “the next week or so.”

“When those are removed, it should be a fenced-in, empty lot,” Shemwell said. “I think within a matter of weeks, having that stuff cleared out of there will be one step forward as far as the look of blight in that area.”

The city’s Public Works department has also been through in recent weeks to clean up trash and weeds surrounding the site, Köster said, though he said it’s not their job to do that.

Yon, for one, said he is open to housing development on the site, depending on its impact on the neighborhood.

“Reasonably planned and appropriately scaled housing there, I would not have a big problem with,” he said. “I have no objection to the school district doing well by it. But they shouldn’t stomp on the quality of life of the neighborhood to do it.”


Submitted by Karen Bey on Tue, Jul 17, 2012

I love the idea of an urban farm. I think any home developer would see this as a plus and try and work with Project Leaf to incorporate the farm into their plans. Great work Kris!

I might also consult with Ploughshares to get some ideas for your farm --- they're a great community resource.

Submitted by Kristen Hanlon on Tue, Jul 17, 2012

This sounds great, however... why not combine the best of both worlds-- housing *and* park space. The east end lacks affordable housing, and I believe the Island High site is the *only* site available east of Park St. that is zoned for housing. Couldn't the neighbors accept, say, 10 units plus an adjoining "commons" to be used by everyone in the neighborhood? That would be the neighborly, un-NIMBY thing to do. I don't quite buy the argument that the Wedge is too far away from Edison school/McKinley-- busy streets or not. My kids have to cross busy Central Ave. to get to Washington Park. Lots of people in Alameda don't have parks right in their own backyard, but pretty much everyone is in reasonable walking distance to one.
If Alameda really wants an urban farm, a larger site would accommodate this better-- for instance, a section of the Belt Line property might be ideal for this.