Parroting the party line

Last week the Alameda Sun published a letter sent to residents defending the City’s involvement in turning the beachfront property at Neptune Point over to a housing developer rather than to the East Bay Regional Park District (“EBRPD”).  Re-zoning the property for residential use, the letter argued, was simply “part of an attempt to comply with state laws,” particularly the Housing Element.  Had the City not re-zoned this parcel and other sites, the letter continued, “it would have incurred significant penalties from the state and also faced lawsuits from housing advocacy groups.”

These were familiar arguments.  Indeed, City staff has been saying the same thing, using virtually the same words, ever since it presented the first draft of the 2007-14 Housing Element to the Planning Board in March 2012.  But this time the argument carried special weight, because the letter was signed, not by a staff member, but by Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who chaired the Planning Board that approved the re-zoning proposal.  Surely we can rely on Ms. Ashcraft to give us the full story.

Or maybe not.

Others have shown why the re-zoning breached commitments made by the City to the voters who passed Measure WW and to EBRPD.  Our focus is on why the City saw fit to re-zone the Neptune Point property for residential use – specifically, for low-income housing — in the first place.  A review of the public record reveals a number of strange, and thus far unexplained, facts that poke holes in the party line parroted over the Vice Mayor’s signature.

First, the Neptune Point property was not one of the parcels originally proposed to be re-zoned for multi-family housing and counted toward the very low and low income quota set for the City in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (“RHNA”) for 2007-14.  Instead, it was to be zoned for single-family housing in the moderate to above-moderate income category.  At least initially, re-zoning Neptune Point was not deemed necessary to “comply with state laws.”

Second, between March and June 2012, the City’s unmet need for very low income housing somehow jumped by 162 units.  This was not the result of any revision to the RHNA.  Instead, it occurred because, after the March 2012 Planning Board meeting, staff reduced the stated number of very low income units built or approved between 1999 and 2006 – which would seem like a matter of historical fact — from 401 to 239.  No explanation was given how 162 already built or approved units vanished in three months.

Third, when staff presented the revised Housing Element to the Planning Board in June 2012, it re-did the land inventory contained in the original proposal.  Not surprisingly, in light of the goal to meet the new, higher need for very low income housing, staff re-categorized six parcels from “moderate/above moderate” to “very low/low.”  At the same time, however, staff also re-categorized three parcels that previously had been designated for very low/low income housing to moderate/above-moderate.  This made it more, not less, difficult to meet the higher quota for very low/low income housing.  Indeed, had any one of these parcels retained its original designation, there would have been no reason to consider re-categorizing Neptune Point.  No explanation was given why these three parcels – totaling 656 units –had moved from very low/low to moderate/above moderate between March and June.

The Neptune Point property was one of the six parcels re-categorized from moderate/above moderate to very low.  In addition, staff proposed re-zoning the parcel to permit multi-family housing, which would allow 95 units to be built there.  The only reason cited in the staff report for re-categorizing and re-zoning the Neptune Point property was that it and two other parcels were added to the list of multi-family housing sites “in response to comments from HCD [the state Department of Housing and Community Development] and housing advocates.”  The report provided no further details, and the minutes of the Planning Board and Council do not reflect any public discussion about the reasons for the change.

And a peculiar change it was.

The General Services Administration had put the Neptune Point property up for auction in June 2011.  Tim Lewis Communities, a Sacramento-based housing developer, submitted the high bid — $1.8 million – and later raised it to $3.075 million in exchange for an 18-month delay in closing.  In October 2011 Tim Lewis wrote to City Planning Services Director Andrew Thomas requesting that the City re-zone the Neptune Point parcel to R-4 (medium density residential) so that Tim Lewis could pursue its plan to “make Neptune Pointe [sic] a very special place to live.”

Thus, when staff submitted the original proposal for a new Housing Element to the Planning Board in March 2012, it knew who the new owner was and what it wanted to do with the Neptune Point property.  And staff acted accordingly:  It slated the Neptune Point parcel for 66 units of single-family housing in the moderate to above-moderate income category.  Given the known, intended use, it is not readily apparent how HCD or “housing advocates” convinced staff to re-designate the property for 95 units of multi-family housing in the very low/low income category.  Did staff really think this was the project Tim Lewis was going to build on the site?  Did the Planning Board think that?  Did Council? If not, why did staff re-categorize and propose re-zoning the Neptune Point property? Why did the Planning Board approve the idea? Why did Council?

One would hate to think it’s all a numbers game, where a designation is slapped on a parcel just to make it count toward a particular RHNA quota rather than to reflect an actual intended use.  True, the designation in the Housing Element does not bind a developer to the specified use.  But it does seem just a little disingenuous to count a parcel toward the “very low/low income” quota when you know for a fact that isn’t the kind of development the new owner intends to build there.

Perhaps Vice Mayor Ashcraft or other well-connected insiders really do know the full story behind the re-zoning of the Neptune Point property.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, the next time one of them trots out the “We were only complying with state law” argument, they are more forthcoming about what actually happened?  Surely, it can’t be that they don’t want the rest of us to know.

And here’s the coda.  As we discussed in an earlier post, ABAG now has released a new RHNA covering the 2014-22 period that reduces the City’s need to make land available for housing, both overall and in the very low/low income category, during the next eight-year cycle.  Specifically, the City is required to accommodate 444 very-low and 248 low-income units – i.e., a total of 692 units — during that period.  But the 2007-14 Housing Element already designates parcels in these two categories totaling 1,245 units.  Take away the 95 units attributed to the Neptune Point property and you still have 1,150 units – almost 50 per cent more than you need through 2022.

Which can only cause one to wonder:  Why is the City fighting so hard to preserve a land use designation that is no longer necessary?  Maybe the insiders can share their insights on that issue as well.


March 12, 2012 draft Housing Element: 2012-03-12 PB – Attachment 2 (proposed H.E. amendments)

June 11, 2012 draft Housing Element: 2012-06-11 PB – Exhibit 2a (draft H.E. amendments)

October 21, 2012 TLC letter to Thomas: 2011-10-21 TLC letter to City

October 3, 2012 GSA letter to Stark: 2011-10-03 GSA letters to Stark & Lee

2014-2022 RHNA: Final RHNA (2014-2022)

About Robert Sullwold

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

2 Responses to Parroting the party line

  1. Boxscore says:

    One wonders if the City staff knew the RHNA requirement would be reduced significantly, and hence their rush to adopt a housing element with more than needed.

  2. Meysha says:

    Boxscore: Their developer friends may have noticed it first.
    Thank you Robert.

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