A “Plan” for Alameda Point

Want to know how many housing units should be planned for Alameda Point?

You can ask City staff and you’ll get one answer:  the 1,425 units contemplated by the Community Reuse Plan (at least for now).

You can ask housing advocates like Helen Sause of HOMES or Laura Thomas of Renewed Hope and you’ll get another answer:   A minimum of 4,500 units.

But why not ask the experts?  And, no, we don’t mean the distinguished members of the Planning Board.  We refer instead to the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (“MTC”).  These are the agencies responsible for preparing the “Sustainable Communities Strategy” mandated by the State Legislature.

This spring, ABAG and MTC released a draft “Plan Bay Area,” which, among other things, describes where – and how many — housing units should be built in the region between 2010 and 2040.  It also recommends how transportation funds should be spent to enable those goals to be met.  At the same time, ABAG and MTC released a study assessing the “readiness” of the Bay Area to achieve the Plan’s objectives.

We’ll leave for another day the issue of how it is that the regional planners know best.  But it is instructive to see what they say about Alameda in general and Alameda Point in particular.  In a nutshell,

  • The draft Plan Bay Area provides for 5,890 new housing units to be built in Alameda between 2010 and 2040, of which 4,010 are slated for the Naval Air Station “transit town center” (which includes Alameda Landing and the former Coast Guard North Housing as well as Alameda Point)  and 760 for the northern waterfront “transit neighborhood”;
  • Nevertheless, primarily as the result of the “constraint” imposed by infrastructure costs, the Naval Air Station transit town center is expected to accommodate only 1,959 (of the planned 4,010) housing units by 2040.
  • And even if “redevelopment-type powers are re-established” to fund infrastructure costs, the projected new residential development at the Naval Air Station transit town center will rise only to 3,483 housing units by 2040, still well short of the Plan.

Where do these numbers come from?  Neither the draft Plan Bay Area nor its accompanying reports explains how ABAG and MTC calculated the precise numbers for Alameda.  And City Planner Andrew Thomas told the Merry-Go-Round that they didn’t provide him with the calculations, either.  But the published reports do reveal the thinking behind the targets for housing (and employment) growth.

It all goes back to global warming.

ABAG and MTC are charged with the mission of devising a housing and transportation plan for the Bay Area that reduces greenhouse gases.  Toward that end, they looked for a way to get people to stop driving long distances in their cars to get to work.  And the solution they came up with was to house as many workers as possible in places close to jobs and then to encourage them to commute on foot, by bike, or by public transportation.

This conclusion led ABAG and MTC to propose a plan that focuses residential development in areas – which the regional planners call “Priority Development Areas,” or PDAs for short – that provide multi-family housing and access to public transportation.  And that’s what the draft Plan Bay Area does:  it puts 80 per cent of the region’s projected housing growth in the nearly 200 PDAs located around the Bay Area.

As it happens, Alameda is already home to two of these animals:  the aforementioned Naval Air Station transit town center and the northern waterfront transit neighborhood.  Both are intended to be just the sort of “transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods” – to use the phrase of which local politicians are so fond – that the draft Plan Bay Area favors.  By concentrating new residential development in these two areas, it is hoped, Alameda will be doing its part to reduce global warming.

According to the draft Plan Bay Area, ABAG and MTC are willing to spend money – or, as they put it, “make investments” – to bring their housing plan to fruition.  No city, we are assured, will be forced to build the type of housing the regional planners want to see in locations where they want to see it.  But to “expand  incentives and opportunities” to get on board with the Plan, the regional planners are dangling in front of Bay Area cities grants from the new One Bay Area Grant program totaling $320 million over the next four years (and $14.6 billion over the life of the Plan).

Will this scheme work for Alameda in general and Alameda Point in particular?  Two problems come quickly to mind.

One is infrastructure.  The City has retained consultants to prepare an updated estimate of the cost of constructing streets, utility lines, and the like at Alameda Point, but the estimate of infrastructure costs presented last year pegged the amount at $774 million.  Of all the PDAs in the Bay Area, the Naval Air Station transit town center may be the only one requiring three-quarters of a billion dollars to be spent on infrastructure to make development even possible.

Alamedans, of course, are well aware of this problem.  And so, too, are the consultants hired by ABAG and MTC to assess the “readiness” of a sample of PDAs to meet the targets set by the Plan Bay Area.  Their study regards the cost of infrastructure as such a “constraint” at the Naval Air Station PDA that less than half the planned 4,010 housing units are expected to be built by 2040.  And even under the best-case – what the consultants call the “amended” – scenario, finding a source of funds to replace redevelopment money won’t be enough to carry out the plan in full.

The second problem is traffic.  No man may be an island, but Alameda is.  We have one tunnel and three bridges and no one is offering to spend billions to build us any more.  Unless you assume that all of the people for whom new housing is planned in the two Alameda PDAs are going to find work on the island, it will take more than just a few bike paths across the estuary to get them to and from their jobs without causing gridlock.

This, too, is an issue our own City staff knows well.  City Planner Thomas prepared a staff report on the draft Plan Bay Area in which he stressed – no fewer than three times – that state and regional financing would be essential to enable Alameda to meet the Plan’s housing goals.  He even identified seven Alameda-specific transportation projects that should be on the regional planners’ list.

A cynic might conclude that, as applied to Alameda, the Plan Bay Area exercise simply shows the folly of trying to fit a precisely engineered round peg into an idiosyncratically square hole.  But where the cynic sees obstacles, the optimist may see challenges and opportunities.  Mr. Thomas is scheduled to present a report on the draft Plan Bay Area to Council on July 2.  If Council truly wants to take charge of directing the development of Alameda Point, one hopes that his presentation will prompt more than a series of polite thank-yous from the dais.

Sources:

Draft Plan Bay Area: Draft_Plan_Bay_Area_3-22-13

Draft Forecast of Jobs, Population and Housing: Draft_PBA_Forecast_of_Jobs_Population_and_Housing

PDA Development Feasibility and Readiness Assessment: Draft_PBA_PDA_Development_Feasibility_and_Readiness

Naval Air Station PDA Application: Application for NAS PDA

Northern Waterfront PDA Application: Application for NWT PDA

Staff memo re draft Plan Bay Area: 2013-06-04 staff report re draft Bay Area Plan

About Robert Sullwold

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

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