We’ve come a long way, baby

Close your eyes and imagine, if you will, a village:

  • Populated by young adults, with no cars and no kids, living in multi-story apartment buildings;
  • Filled with “destination retail” stores catering to sophisticated consumers, together with a few shops satisfying quotidian needs;
  • Playing host to major commercial enterprises whose employees take public transportation to and from work; and
  • Barren of parking lots for retail customers, residents or workers.

Now open your eyes and what do you see?

Why, Alameda Point, of course.

At least that’s the impression one gets from listening to the presentations by the City’s staff and consultants, and follow-up comments by our elected and appointed officials, at public meetings held to discuss the development of the former Naval Air Station.  Let’s take each piece of the picture separately.

For more than a year, City staff has planned to put high-density, multi-family housing at the heart of Alameda Point: the so-called Town Center surrounding the Seaplane Lagoon.  Under the draft zoning ordinance, single-family housing is not even allowed in this area.  No one on the Planning Board or Council has objected to this proposal.  Indeed, the only debate involves whether to cram all 1,425 housing units permitted under the City’s no-cost conveyance agreement with the Navy into the Town Center district.

At the joint Planning Board/Council meeting on September 25, Planning Director Andrew Thomas made clear that, as far as staff was concerned, the defining characteristic of potential renters for these apartments is passion for public transportation and antipathy toward the automobile:

We have to attract families and residents to Alameda who go, “Oh my goodness, this home or this rental apartment comes with shuttle service.  That’s fantastic.  I can get rid of one of my cars.  I work near a BART station.  That’s awesome.  I can get there, I don’t need a car.”  If we can bring those kind of families to Alameda Point we’ll have gone a long way.

Later in the meeting, Councilman Tony Daysog, himself an urban planner, elaborated on the attributes of the people whom he foresaw living in the multi-family units planned for the Point:

The demographics of a multi-family is going to be either single income, no kids or double income, no kids, who at some point in time are going to life-cycle into maybe a larger house in historic Alameda.  But at least you get these younger adults, late 20’s, 30-somethings, whose spending habits are a little bit different from either someone who’s in his late 40’s or 50’s or . . . from families who are so in debt because they have to pay the mortgages that they don’t have discretionary income. . . .

To Mr. Daysog, such a populace promoted his “vision” for the Point:

I hope to see the Town Center as a place of higher density housing because I think you’ll bring the type of demographics that will lend itself to a funky, eclectic type of environment that appreciates things like the antiques by the fair [sic] and appreciates St. George’s winery but also wants retail like Talbots or Ann Taylor for women.

Obviously, a handful of small businesses will be needed to supply the day-to-day wants of the new residents (as well as workers from any new commercial enterprises).   But the City’s strategy goes beyond sushi restaurants and craft breweries.  Indeed, City Manager John Russo has made it staff’s No. 1 priority to draw retail stores and so-called business-to-business sellers to the Point.  His rationale is that the sales tax revenue generated by such outfits will end the “leakage” – i.e., the loss of revenue resulting from Alamedans going off-island to  shop — that he previously identified as “a major cause of the City’s financial crisis.”  To Mr. Russo’s way of thinking, increasing sales tax revenue rather than, say, reining in public safety labor costs is the way to ensure the City’s fiscal health.  Hence the focus on sales-tax generators like retailers and business-to-business sellers.

And it’s not just any retailers whom staff wants to bring to Alameda Point.  Attention, Walmart shoppers, you’d better find someplace else to go, because so-called “big box” stores will not be welcome.  Instead, the City Manager has in mind what he called “destination retail,” which would capitalize on the “world-class views” available at the Point.  Such a preference surely pleased those members of the Planning Board who previously had made clear their disdain for “formula retail.”  In Board member Mike Henneberry’s pithy phrase, “We don’t want an Old Navy at the old naval air station.”

In addition to attracting upscale retailers to the Town Center, staff also wants to entice commercial businesses to the so-called “Enterprise Zone” located on the southeast corner of the former NAS.  This is the area where the City tried to lure Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and it remains the site for which staff will be pursuing a “major campus user” or other large employer.  But not, it turns out, just any large employer.

According to Mr. Thomas, the City intends to assess an annual fee against employers (and homeowners) to pay for bus and shuttle services at the Point.  And what if a company is interested in moving there but balks at paying the fee? We’ll let Mr. Thomas tell it:

The other piece of that strategy, which is absolutely essential, is not only are we going to create a funding source for supplemental transit to hook with BART and hook with AC Transit and supplement their services but if somebody comes to Alameda Point to buy a home or a business comes and they’re saying, “We don’t want to pay that fee, we’re not going to use that service, that’s just extra money for us, we’re going to drive, we need to drive,” well, you know what, they’re probably not a good household for us to be attracting to Alameda Point.

Or, to put it less politely, if you don’t want to pay our transit fee, you can take your jobs and shove ‘em.

Paying an annual fee to provide shuttles and the like isn’t the only thing that employers will be required to do under the so-called “Transportation Demand Management” (“TDM”) being drafted for the Point.  According to a presentation by the City’s TDM consultant, employers also will be expected to provide “financial incentives” – like on-site dry cleaning – to get their employees to use public transportation.  And City Hall will be watching.  According to the consultant, “old style” TDM plans relied on the “good faith” of employers.  The modern approach – which he recommended – is to impose monetary penalties on employers who don’t get with the program.  (Obamacare, anyone?).

In addition to public transportation, another key element of a TDM plan is what the consultant called “parking management.”  This benign-sounding phrase refers to actions taken to discourage driving by making parking as inconvenient and as expensive as possible.  The method includes limiting the availability of parking spaces —  indeed, such limitations often are written right into the zoning ordinance —  and imposing a hefty fee for the privilege of using one of them.  That would seem to be fine with the contingent on the Planning Board who recoil at any proposal to provide parking at the Point.  “We need to basically say, we’re not going to have stores with large parking lots in our Town Center,” Board member John Knox White commented during a hearing on the draft zoning ordinance.  “We’re not going to have seas of parking.”

So there you have it: Alameda Point as our planners and consultants see it.  One might describe the concept – and the politicians surely will describe it – as “vibrant,” or, if that word at last has become passé, “robust.”  Indeed, if it gets built out, New York and Seattle – or even Sydney, Australia — will have nothing on Alameda.  But there remain a few issues that, as Messrs. Thomas and Knox White would say, might be worth “having a conversation about.”

First, we cannot help but note that the Alameda Point contemplated by the City planners would be a very homogenous place:  Young, well-paid workers taking employer-provided shuttles or buses to their jobs and spending their disposable income at trendy shops and high-end stores.  True, any housing development must include 25 per cent “affordable” units, and perhaps the people renting these apartments will be the minimum-wage earners who, as Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft explained to her dais-mates, work at upscale retailers like Gucci.  But where is the middle class?  If Councilman Daysog is right, they’re somewhere else on the island raising a family and paying a mortgage (and maybe even driving their cars to the grocery store – or to Walmart).

Other demographic categories are missing from the picture, too.  The Alameda Point of the planners’ dreams doesn’t seem to have much of a place for families or older people.  Planning Board member Lori Zuppan hardly fits into the latter group, but even she was compelled to note that forcing families – especially those with kids or pets – to take buses to get to the Point, or to pay through the nose to park there, might keep them away.  Likewise, any new housing presumably will be required to accommodate the disabled.  But what about the frail or the merely less than sprightly?  No one has been talking about designing “Smart Streets” for them.

Enough on diversity, lest it seem like we’re bucking to argue the latest college admissions case before the Supreme Court.  Let’s turn to economics, in particular the issue of how the focus on retail fits with other aspects of planning for the Point.

First, by current estimates, it will cost $566 million to build the backbone infrastructure – e.g., sewers, water mains, power lines, etc. – needed at the Point.  The City intends to look to developers to shell out part of this cost upfront and to service the debt incurred by the City to finance the rest.  Having heard Mr. Russo exalt the importance of retail to the staff’s strategy, Councilwoman Lena Tam was moved to ask, Is it realistic to expect that retailers can or will pick up the entire expense of building the backbone infrastructure?  In response, Mr. Russo conceded that retailers couldn’t carry the ball by themselves.  Somewhere, someone was muttering under his or her breath, That’s why we’ve got to build more housing!

In addition, the “destination retail” stores of the type favored by staff likely will draw customers from off the island.  Indeed, their proprietors will insist upon it.  But the standard means for reducing traffic congestion may turn off the target clientele. The Cartier crowd may cringe at the prospect of taking BART to downtown Oakland and then picking up a shuttle to the Point.  And if the customer lives in the North Bay, even that option is unavailable.  Inevitably, some of these free-spending auslanders will want to drive.  But if the TDM plan for the Point is to limit parking and make it expensive, they may head to Walnut Creek or Palo Alto instead of Alameda.

The paint isn’t yet dry on the picture the City’s staff and consultants have painted of Alameda Point.  Shapes and colors undoubtedly will change as the process goes forward.  But one thing is clear:  We’ve come a long way, baby, from the days in which development at Alameda Point was supposed simply to replace the 14,000 jobs lost when the Navy left town.  Or even from the days in which development at the Point was supposed to replicate the look and feel of the rest of the Island.

Sources:

September 25, 2013 staff report: 2013-09-25 staff report re disposition strategy

September 30 2013 TDM presentation: 2013-09-30 (revised) Alameda Point TDM Plan Overview

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.

2 Responses to We’ve come a long way, baby

  1. nyborn2013 says:

    Bob. Well written blog here. My concern is with the parking discussion. The plan calls for 250 acres of park and recreation and open space. If a fair portion of that is used for active sports (soccer, softball, etc.), than parking will be a must. If you have ever observed a father or mother with three kids, each playing a different sport, at different locations each Saturday, parking . . . accessible parking will be critical.

  2. 2wheelsmith says:

    As NYBorn notes, colorful and informative description of a vision for the Town Center at Alameda Point. The description, though, is incomplete as it focuses only on the Town Center and leaves out the rest of Alameda Point. With housing jobs, and retail concentrated in the Town Center, there will be room for the single family housing, parking for recreational and other civic facilities elswhere on the Point.

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