On Point: Ruined roads, failing utilities bedevil Point residents and businesses

On Point: Ruined roads, failing utilities bedevil Point residents and businesses

Michele Ellson

 

Last fall, a contractor doing work at Alameda Point accidentally shorted out the former Naval Air Station’s phone system, leaving all of the Point’s residents and businesses without phone or Internet service for three days.

“Imagine trying to run a business without phone service,” Bladium Sports & Fitness Club owner Brad Shook said. “Nobody could call. Nobody could do anything.”

Shook and other business owners who are frustrated about the Point’s bursting water mains, potholed roads, overflowing sewers and spotty phone and electric service have urged the City Council to approve a 68-acre waterfront development proposal there known as Site A, which they believe will start to fix the problems with an investment of more than $100 million in new infrastructure. The council is expected to vote on whether to move forward with development of Site A on June 16.

“We cannot continue to serve our clients with aging roads and failing Internet, phone and other utilities,” Shook wrote in a letter signed by other business owners. “Site A is the minimum needed to provide some economies of scale for the infrastructure development.”

Shook and other Alameda Point business owners who spoke with The Alamedan said they were drawn to the Point by its rare-in-the-Bay-Area quantities of raw space, cheap rents and sweeping bay views.

“I’ve always had a love for the Point,” said Sky Pace, who shot a zombie movie on the base while still in college and returned in 2014 with a business, Brix Beverage. “I came out here one day and was amazed at the vast amount of space and where it sits on the bay. It was just beautiful.”

But, they said, they’re frustrated with the slow pace of revitalization at the Point and the continuing deterioration of its infrastructure – conditions they said the city would never tolerate from another landlord. And while some have threatened to leave if the Site A proposal isn’t approved, others have invested too much in costly upgrades to their rented spaces to be able to move.

“We’re in a position where we really – the city can pretty much do what they want. We can’t just pick up and leave,” said Roger Rosenblum of Rock Wall Wine Company, who’s helping to spearhead a new merchants association on the Point to promote businesses there and to try to address some of these issues.

As executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative for 11 years, Doug Biggs has seen firsthand the impact the Point’s crumbling infrastructure has had on some of the Island’s most vulnerable residents. The Collaborative plans to rebuild new housing for its residents – work that will be cheaper and easier if development progresses.

The 100 pairs of copper wiring that once transmitted residents’ phone calls had all but degraded or been stolen, forcing the Collaborative to ante up money Biggs hadn’t planned to spend for fiber optic cabling. Frequent water main breaks have wasted untold gallons of water and caused water service to shut down for days at a time – sometimes for a block of apartment dwellers and others, for the entire base.

Heavy rains mean raw sewage flowing into the streets, Biggs said.

“The one good thing about the drought: This year, for the first time, we haven’t had sewer flooding,” he said. “It’s stuff we have to think about that you would never think about where you live.”

Shook said that while helping another new business owner get established on the Point, he and the business owner opened a utility vault that reeked of gas. “Obviously it was a leak that needed to be fixed immediately,” he said.

But Biggs said that when problems occur, it’s often tough to find someone who will take responsibility for them. Since the base was a single property, its buildings don’t have individual meters for water, gas or electricity, he said.

“Nobody knows who’s in charge,” Biggs said. “(For example), if there’s a water issue, you have to go to (the East Bay Municipal Utility District), public works and your own facility department depending on where in the line it happens. And everybody’s first response is to point the finger.”

City officials, who acknowledged that they’re responsible for maintaining much of the base, have said for years it’s deteriorating and needs costly, wholesale upgrades – some $650 million in upgrades the city can’t afford to make.

“The city maintains the infrastructure in working order so that we do not affect the operations of our existing businesses. We do not invest in major infrastructure upgrades and replacements because of limited funds,” Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott said.

The city takes in $11.8 million in annual lease revenues and spends $2 million a year maintaining roads, utilities and other infrastructure at the Point, Ott said. Another $2 million is left in reserve in case of disaster, she said; the city has spent $6.1 million on major improvements since 2010.

But the city also puts some of the lease money into its general fund, a fact that frustrated at least one business owner The Alamedan interviewed. Another $4.2 million was used to pay a legal settlement to former Point developer SunCal Companies.

The Site A development is expected to contribute $103 million toward infrastructure, street and park improvements – an amount that covers 17 percent of the cost of new backbone infrastructure to the site. That amount includes millions for flood protection, sewers, electricity lines and streets. Additional fixes will be made as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ clinic and columbarium project.

“These major, site-wide improvements will help make reuse of the adaptive reuse area and new construction within the enterprise area for job-generating uses much more feasible,” Ott said.

The Alameda Chamber of Commerce is also urging the council to sign off on Site A, saying that keeping existing businesses at the Point and drawing the new ones that city leaders want will depend on the base being fit to do business on.

“If we don’t take this opportunity to bring the developer in, how long will it be before there’s another plan to the table?” Chamber President Mike McDonough said. “By the time we do get that, even if it’s five years from now or 10 years, the infrastructure will be so deteriorated that these people can’t stay there, as bad as they would like to stay there.”

Merchants who are part of the new Alameda Point association are addressing one problem – they’ve bought lighting for their buildings to combat the darkness that engulfs them when the sun goes down. But they’d like to see the city demolish failing buildings, maintain and restripe roads and erect new stop signs to replace existing ones that are faded.

They said they understand the city’s challenges in addressing failing infrastructure at the Point, which include poor construction, years of neglect that occurred before the city owned most of the former Naval Air Station and a lack of record keeping regarding placement of infrastructure and fixes that were made along the way. But now that the city’s in charge, they said it’s time for conditions to improve.

“I understood that 15 years ago. I don’t understand it now, especially with the resources coming in,” Pace said. “It’s time for that to start to change.”

Comments

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Thu, Jun 4, 2015

The city of Alameda is a slumlord.

All the more shameful since the city doesn't pay property taxes or a mortgage, as other slumlords who receive rent but don't maintain their property do.

They're a hypocritical slumlord because enforce laws against slumlords, but excuse their own greed and incompetence.

Nice new signs though... lipstick on a pig.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Thu, Jun 4, 2015

The developments always look good on paper and in artist renderings. Unfortunately, there is no way to un-ring the bell on developments that do not deliver what is promised. The City needs to protect itself from projects that fail to live up to public benefit promises. Is this going to end up like another Alameda Landing with its traffic problems or the Shell Station on the corner of Webster and Lincoln that promised landscaping but yielded only a large collection of signs, banners and other schlock advertising? Once the development goes in, will the City be so busy with the next new development that it won't be able to remedy the problems at the previous one?

I am not speaking for or against this project as it appears on paper, but as for the City's ability, resources and desire to have what is in the artist renderings fully realized.