Beware the plume

The Planning Board was treated last week to a presentation by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (“SOM”), the internationally known architectural firm hired to prepare a “specific plan” for the “Town Center” proposed for Alameda Point.  Describing the 125-acre Town Center as the “front door” to the Point, Keith Orlesky of SOM gave the Board a slideshow of potential “experiences” that the Town Center might eventually offer to residents and visitors.

The presentation was indeed intriguing.  But, as Mr. Orlesky acknowledged, the hard part is just beginning.  And in moving from overall “vision” to specific “plan,” SOM and City staff will face a challenge that, to date, has received little attention from either the Planning Board or City Council:  How to design, and get developers to invest in, a Town Center project where:

  • 33 acres – i.e., more than a quarter of the land — won’t become available for sale to developers any earlier than 2019;
  • Only commercial and industrial uses will be permitted in these 33 acres for years after they are sold.  No residential uses will be allowed — i.e., no housing units may be built — on the ground floor of new buildings.  And even residential uses above the ground floor will be OK only if a vapor barrier and venting system is installed underneath the building.

This situation arises because the groundwater underlying the 33 acres is so contaminated that it will take until at least 2019 and possibly 2020 to clean it up enough so that the land is safe for even commercial use.  Until the clean-up is complete, the Navy can’t issue a Finding of Suitability for Transfer (“FOST”) certifying that the 33 acres are environmentally suitable for transfer.  Without a FOST, the Navy can’t convey the land to the City.  Without owning the land, the City can’t sell it to a developer.  And if and when the City sells the land to a developer, the deeds must contain covenants imposing restrictions intended to minimize the risk to human health.

To understand the interaction between development and clean-up at the Town Center, let’s start with a couple of charts.  (Unfortunately, no overlays are available).  The chart below, taken from the Alameda Point Planning Guide recently published by the City, shows the current proposed location of the Town Center (in orange):

Town Center map

The recent conveyance by the Navy transferred most of the property comprising the Town Center to the City, and an additional chunk is scheduled to be transferred in 2014.  But focus on the rectangle east of the Seaplane Lagoon and immediately south of Atlantic.  As the chart below (an edited version of the conveyance map posted on the City’s Website) shows, this parcel (in red) is not scheduled to be transferred until 2019:

Conveyance map - enlarged legend

Now let’s see how the land scheduled for transfer in 2019 — we’ll call it “Town Center-East Gate” — fits into the clean-up scheme.  The Navy has divided the Point into 34 “Installation Restoration” sites, and Town Center-East Gate includes three of them:  sites 4, 11 and 21.  Together, these three sites contain 33 acres.  When the naval base was operating, this area was used for overhauling aircraft and ship engines, which led to contamination of the groundwater with trichloroethene and vinyl chloride.  These are chemicals that, if they migrate to the surface in a high enough concentration and are released into the air inside of buildings, pose risks to human health.

The Google Earth image below, prepared by Richard Bangert and posted on the Alameda Point Environmental Report (http://alamedapointenvironmentalreport/,  shows the location of these three sites:


The Navy, which is responsible for cleaning up the former Naval Air Station before transferring it to the City, commissioned tests to determine the levels of contaminants in the soil and groundwater in the three sites comprising Town Center-East Gate.  It found that underlying the land is a lake — the cognoscenti call it a “plume” — containing unsafe levels of trichloroethene and vinyl chloride.  Below is a chart taken from the Navy’s proposed clean-up plan showing what the “plume” (in green) looks like:

OU-2B Plume

This April, the Navy published a proposed plan for cleaning up the soil and groundwater in “Operating Unit 2B” (“OU-2B),” of which the three sites comprising Town Center-East Gate are a part.  The groundwater clean-up plan for the plume calls for what is known as “bioremediation,” which relies on bacteria to degrade the offending chemicals.  Think of Pac-men gobbling up the white dots.  Bioremediation may involve injecting new bacteria into the plume as well as injecting oxygen to spur the growth of existing bacteria.

The Navy’s proposed plan states that the “remediation goal” is to reduce the concentration of contaminants in the groundwater to levels that would permit commercial use of the land above the plume.  The plan itself does not contain a time schedule, but the clean-up will take about five years.  The conveyance map posted on the City Website gives 2019 as the conveyance date, but the Navy’s “draft final site management plan” issued in October 2012 projects that “remedial actions” for all of OU-2B will not be complete until May 11, 2020.  Whichever date is right, it isn’t anytime soon.

Once the “remediation goal” is met, the area will still be subject to what the Navy’s proposed plan calls “institutional controls.”  These include restricting development to commercial and industrial uses until the concentration of contaminants falls — thanks to continuing natural bioremediation — to levels that would allow ground-floor residential use.  Such levels will not be reached for a long while.  (The microbes can only eat so fast).  But until they are, housing units may be built only above the ground floor of commercial buildings underneath which an approved vapor barrier and venting system has been installed.

So what does this all mean for the Town Center development?  A couple of questions occur to us:

  • Should the City carve out the 92 acres of the Town Center property that will be available for transfer by 2014 and market that parcel to developers as a separate package?
  • What should the City plan to do with the remaining 33 acres — what we’ve called Town Center-East Gate — between now and 2019 and then thereafter?
  • Would a developer find the Town Center project more or less attractive if the plan provided for devoting Town Center-East Gate — until 2019 or permanently — to open space?
  • Given the restrictions on residential uses in Town Center-East Gate, should the plan provide for housing units to be built only on the 92 acres that are outside the plume?
  • If so, how many many housing units should be built on those 92 acres? What kind of structures?  High-rise apartment buildings?  And where will they go?
  • Given the requirement for installing vapor barriers and venting systems, how eager will a developer be to build housing units in Town Center-East Gate?  How many housing units should the plan allow?
  • What kind of development should the plan provide for the Atlantic Avenue corridor extending from Main Street to the Seaplane Lagoon, only the north side of which will be available for transfer any earlier than 2019 and the south side of which will be subject to continuing restrictions?

The City has retained an “A list” architectural firm to assist its veteran Alameda Point planning team led by Andrew Thomas and Jennifer Ott in preparing the Town Center specific plan.  One can be sure that SOM, Mr. Thomas, and Ms. Ott are well aware of the challenges presented by the interaction between development and clean-up discussed above.  It will be intriguing — perhaps as intriguing as the “vision” presented by SOM to the Planning Board last week — to find out what answers they come up with.


“Cleanup at future Town Center — Alameda Point East Gate area,” Alameda Point Environmental Report (May 19, 2013): http://alamedapointenvironmentalreport/

Proposed OU-2B clean-up plan: Alameda_OU-2B_ProposedPlan_FINAL

Proposed 2013 clean-up plans: 2013 clean-up plan

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in Alameda Point, Development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Beware the plume

  1. kpetstuff says:

    Good Job. Thanks

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