The magic number

At Wednesday night’s joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Board, we might finally get a definitive answer to the perennial question:  How many housing units should be built at Alameda Point?

Ever since City Manager John Russo negotiated an amendment to the conveyance agreement between the City and the Navy, staff has planned for 1,425 housing units at the Point.  That is the net number derived from the 1996 Community Reuse Plan.  It is the net number specified in the conveyance agreement.  And it is the number upon which the “base case” for planning documents such as the base-wide Environmental Impact Report is premised.

But 1,425 is not a number that makes everyone happy.

In fact, the most adamant opponents of planning for 1,425 housing units at the Point are current and former members of the Planning Board, who presumably will attend Wednesday’s joint meeting.  This faction, led by Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, John Knox White and David Burton, objected from the very beginning to capping residential development at 1,425 units.  Such an action, Ms. Ashcraft told the Planning Board last March, would “tie developers’ hands.”  Later, after Ms. Ashcraft moved to Council, Messrs. Knox White and Burton took up the cudgel.  They insisted that the EIR include consideration of scenarios involving more than 1,425 housing units.  And they have asserted time and again that 1,425 units are far too few to fulfill their “vision” for Alameda Point.

Mr. Knox White, of course, was a leading proponent of the SunCal proposal to build 4,346 new housing units at the Point, and a familiar roster of former SunCal supporters has appeared at various public meetings to speak in favor of planning for more than 1,425 units this time around.  In response, City staff has been polite but resolute.  Both City Planner Andrew Thomas and Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott have made clear that the situation may change in the future – but, as for now, we’re sticking with 1,425.

Wednesday evening, City Manager Russo will get his chance to speak directly to the issue of the housing cap.  And, somehow, we don’t expect that he will mince words.  The Merry-Go-Round is not so presumptuous – or so foolish – to suggest what Mr. Russo should say.  But he has a number of solid arguments on his side.

We hope he doesn’t begin by going down the path so often trod by City leaders – including himself – and claiming that the City is “legally required” to permit only 1,425 housing units and so it’s just “complying with the law.”  In fact, the conveyance agreement with the Navy expressly recognizes that the City may want to authorize more than 1,425 units, and it expressly permits the City to do so – as long as it (or, more likely, the developer) pays a penalty of $50,000 per market-rate unit for every unit exceeding the cap.  It’s like your utility bill:  Alameda Municipal Power doesn’t limit you to using 317 kwh of electricity per month during the summer; it just makes you pay a higher rate if you choose to keep the lights on longer.

This is not to say that Mr. Russo should shy away from an argument based on the conveyance agreement.  There may be no magic to the 1,425 number, but neither is it arbitrary, since it was intended to represent the quantity of housing necessary to support projected employment at the Point.  According to City staff, the number also is realistic:  “Staff anticipates that to build and occupy 1,425 housing units will take between 10 and 15 years assuming a strong housing market over the course of the next 10 to 15 years.”

Reliance on the conveyance agreement alone, however, won’t make the case for the 1,425-unit cap.  If we were in Mr. Russo’s shoes, we’d focus on two issues:

  • Does the City need to permit construction of more than 1,425 housing units at the Point?
  • Even if not, would the City and its residents benefit from increased housing?

Perhaps the most authoritative source for answering the first question is the Association of Bay Area Governments (“ABAG”), which allocates to each city in the Bay Area its share of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (“RHNA”) determined by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.  The RHNA allocation is supposed to reflect projected growth in employment and population over an eight-year cycle.  This time, the methodology also included “sustainability” and “fair share” components.

Under state law, a city must make available for residential development parcels with sufficient capacity to satisfy its RHNA allotment.  As City Planner Thomas has acknowledged, and we have previously reported, the City of Alameda will be able to meet its RHNA quota for 2014-2022 just from parcels located on the main island – it won’t be necessary to construct even a single housing unit at Alameda Point.  (The numbers keep changing, but we know that the City’s RHNA quota for 2014-2022 is 1,723 units and that, after adopting the Housing Element last July, the City had parcels with a total capacity of 2,547 units in its land inventory).

Yet if the City can meet the quota established by ABAG without Alameda Point, it’s hard to argue that the City “needs” to plan for more than 1,425 housing units at the base.  Indeed, if anything, that number seems generous.

It would be ironic if the same people who relied on ABAG’s projections when they lobbied for the Housing Element now disavow ABAG’s determination of need when they rail against the housing cap.  In any event, the opponents can be expected to argue that, regardless of need, permitting more than 1,425 housing units is desirable for other reasons.

We’ll skip over the contention that housing is per se good and therefore that more housing must be better.  This is the refrain repeated at public meetings by representatives of organizations such as HOMES and Renewed Hope, and it appears to have gained adherents like former Planning Board member and current Vice Mayor Ashcraft, who is fond of quoting from the Planning Commissioners’ Handbook: “Housing is a critical community asset and a necessity for a healthy and well-balanced community.”  Since it is presented as an article of faith rather than an argument from facts, we are reluctant to challenge a statement like that because doing so would be akin to attacking another person’s religion.

More prosaic arguments in favor of permitting more than 1,425 housing units at the Point focus on the relationship between housing and other policy objectives.  For example, it has been argued that building houses is the key to attracting employers and thereby producing jobs.  We’ve not seen the empirical evidence for this proposition, and it seems more logical to believe that jobs create demand for housing rather than the other way around.  Nor is it reasonable to assume that, for every job created, there must be a housing unit built for the worker and her family.  Like it or not, not everyone who goes to work at the Point will choose to live in Alameda.

Ample housing also is deemed to be the key to making the Point a “transit-oriented” community.  This argument does have some logic behind it:  a significant customer base is essential to support public transportation, since AC Transit isn’t going to begin running shuttles from the Point to downtown Oakland if only a handful of commuters are likely to avail themselves of the service.  But, although increased housing may mean more people, not all of them will become public transportation users.  And building apartments in order to fill buses seems, well, inefficient.  Call us politically incorrect – it won’t be the first time – but we see no reason why Alameda Point should strive to become the poster child for the “Smart Growth” movement.

We leave the most familiar argument for last.  The cost of infrastructure at Alameda Point will be enormous ($566,580,000, according to the draft master infrastructure plan).  The City of Alameda can’t beg, borrow, or steal the money; it’s got to raise the cash by selling off land at the Point.  And — so the argument goes — it is the housing developers who will be willing and able to pay top dollar.  Now we haven’t checked with Ron Cowan, or even the Inner Ring’s new favorite, Tim Lewis Communities, to verify that this is so.  But even selling land sufficient to accomodate a 4,000-unit housing development might not generate a large enough infrastructure kitty.  Until we see the revenue per unit from land sales to housing developers, we remain skeptical.

We’ll stop here.  We may very well have overlooked other bases for poking holes in staff’s arguments for the 1,425-unit cap.  But we’re confident that Ms. Ashcraft, Mr. Knox White, Mr. Burton and their allies can put together a well-reasoned case for planning for more than 1,425 housing units and that Mr. Russo will respond with his customary verve.  He already deserves credit for submitting a staff report that is short on rhetorical flourishes and long on specific recommendations.  (And they say we never say anything nice about the City Manager).

Every officeholder in the City has demonstrated the ability to spout off a “vision” for Alameda Point that includes the words “vibrant,” “robust,” and “sustainable.”  If all that comes out of Wednesday’s meeting are speeches filled with this kind of pablum and palaver, the politicians will have let us down — again.


Minutes of March 12, 2012 Planning Board meeting: 2012-03-12 PB Minutes

Staff report for February 25, 2013 Planning Board meeting; 2013-02-25 staff report to PB re EIR

Minutes of April 18, 2013 Planning Board meeting: 2013-04-08 PB minutes

Amendment No. 2 to conveyance agreement: EDC MOA Amendment 2

July 10, 2012 ABAG staff report: 2012-07-10 ABAG staff memo re RHNA methodology

2014-22 RHNA: Final RHNA (2014-2022)

2007-14 Housing Element land inventory table: 2007-14 Housing Element comparison V2

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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