You can’t blame the Sierra Club if it feels these days like it got taken for a ride.
Last November, the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Club voted to endorse Stewart Chen, D.C., and Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft for the two vacant seats on Alameda City Council. Both won; indeed, Ms. Ashcraft was the top vote-getter.
Now we doubt that the Sierra Club is arrogant enough to believe that its endorsement carried the day for Dr. Chen or Ms. Ashcraft. (If it is, Jeff delBono of IAFF Local 689 might point to 10,000 or more reasons for giving credit instead to the firefighters’ union). And we suspect that the Club doesn’t require its endorsees to promise to favor the environmentalist side on every issue if elected.
But the Sierra Club has to be, well, disappointed at the stance Dr. Chen and Ms. Ashcraft are taking on the very first issue confronting them as Council members that implicates the Club’s “core values”: whether Neptune Point should be used for the public purpose of expanding Crown Beach State Park or the private purpose of building 48 single-family homes.
In recent pieces published under their names in the Alameda Sun, Dr. Chen and Ms. Ashcraft indeed toed the party line – but it’s the one laid down by City Manager John Russo and the Inner Ring at City Hall: A real estate developer simply outbid the East Bay Regional Park District for “surplus” land owned by the federal government at Neptune Point. The City of Alameda played no role in the transaction. All it did was put together the Housing Element required by state law and then process the paperwork submitted by the developer.
Last Friday, Olga Bolotina and Norman LaForce of the Sierra Club eloquently made the case in an article in the Alameda Journal for public use of public property. Their piece also did what the article published under Dr. Chen’s name promised, but failed, to do: “set the record straight on some of the misguided perceptions about the McKay Avenue/Neptune Pointe property.” To wit:
- Approved by 71% of Alameda voters, Measure WW specifically allocated funds for the Park District to expand Crown Beach State Park by acquiring the 3.89-acre Neptune Point parcel from the federal government. (Dr. Chen never mentions Measure WW; Ms. Ashcraft refers to it as a source of funds for the Park District to use to buy out the developer).
- The Park District’s intention was to improve the park by “adding picnic sites and play areas, enhancing wildlife habitat, and improving access for all park users.” (Dr. Chen does not discuss the Park District’s intended use; Ms. Ashcraft tries to make it appear that the Park District wants to use the land primarily for bigger parking lots).
- The Park District offered to buy the parcel from the federal General Services Administration (“GSA”) for “fair market value,” but GSA insisted on a higher price and decided to put the property up for auction. (Neither Dr. Chen nor Ms. Ashcraft mentions the Park District’s offer).
- Before the auction occurred, the Park District informed GSA – as well as the City – that the State of California owned the access street, McKay Avenue, and that only limited street easement rights were available to private developers. (Neither Dr. Chen nor Ms. Ashcraft mentions the easement).
- Tim Lewis Communities, a Sacramento-based housing developer, submitted the high bid at the auction. But the sale still has not closed because the State will not grant the easements essential for private residential development. (Neither Dr. Chen nor Ms. Ashcraft discusses the delay in closing or the reason for it, although Dr. Chen sympathizes with the GSA’s “frustration” with “actions taken by EBRPD that are interfering with its sale of the property to” Tim Lewis).
- After the auction, the City “compounded matters” by re-zoning the parcel to residential rather than open space even though Neptune Point was not necessary to comply with the state Housing Element law and the site is not likely to be included in the new Housing Element. (Dr. Chen claims that the City “has nothing to do” with the use of the property and then insists that the City is doing no more than “performing ts legal obligation” by processing the developer’s application; Ms. Ashcraft boldly – but incorrectly – asserts that re-zoning Neptune Beach was necessary to comply with state law. And neither acknowledges that Alameda already has far more than enough housing units available to satisfy its RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) quota for 2014-22. See “Parroting the party line”).
On the Housing Element point, lest there be any doubt that the City did not need to include Neptune Point to satisfy state housing law, take a look at the chart below based on the data shown in Chapter 5 of the 2007-14 Housing Element: By staff’s calculations, the City was required to zone sufficient parcels for residential use to provide 2,420 housing units. In fact, the City designated enough sites to provide 2,547 units – an excess capacity of 127 units. (Yes, we know the Housing Element says the total is 2,525, but add up the units column yourself). Of this total the Neptune Point parcel contributed 95 units. Take out Neptune Point, and you still meet the requirement with 32 units to spare.
We will resist the temptation to speculate about why Dr. Chen and Ms. Ashcraft have chosen to stand with City staff and the developer and not their Sierra Club endorsers. Maybe it is a matter of principle. If so, they should say so. Ms. Ashcraft, for one, has a long track record of promoting housing development in Alameda. If any elected official can make the case that the City and its residents are better served by building single-family homes at Neptune Point than by expanding Crown Beach State Park, it is she. It would be enlightening to hear her – or Dr. Chen — address the merits instead of simply regurgitating Russonian rhetoric.
Sierra Club article: 2013-09-13 Sierra Club article
Chen article: 2013-09-12 Chen article
Ashcraft letter: 2013-08-01 Ashcraft letter
October 4, 2012 EBRPD letter to City: 2012-10-04 letter EBRPD to Russo (with attached email)
April 9, 2013 EBPRD letter to City: 2013-04-09 EBRPD Letter to City
October 3, 2012 GSA letters to Reps. Stark & Lee: 2012-10-03 letters GSA to Stark & Lee
2007-14 Housing Element: 2007-14 Housing Element (as adopted)
Disclosure: The author’s wife, Jane Cosgriff Sullwold, is an advocate for Alameda parks and a Friend of Crown Beach. She was a candidate for City Council in 2012.