Cowan’s last stand

Why did Ron Cowan’s scheme to demolish the Mif Albright par-3 golf course and turn the site into a housing development fail?

If you ask any veteran of the golf wars, you’ll get the same answer: Because the homeowners at Harbor Bay Isle rallied to oppose him.

If Cowan’s latest proposal to do the same thing to the Harbor Bay Club that he wanted to do to the Mif fails, it will be for the very same reason.

For years, Cowan has been struggling to find a way to build more houses at Harbor Bay Isle.  First, he applied to get the City to re-zone vacant scrubland in the Harbor Bay Business Park for residential use.  The Planning Board denied his request.  Then came the swap whereby Cowan promised to give the City the North Loop Road site – plus $5 million, later raised to $7.2 million, to be applied toward golf course “renovations” and a youth sports complex – in exchange for the Mif land on which he would build 130 houses.  Council voted him down. Now he’s back with a proposal to re-locate the Harbor Bay Club to North Loop Road and put 80 houses on the existing site of the Club.

In retrospect, the turning point in the battle against the swap occurred in October 2011.  That’s when Council was set to approve a memorandum of agreement embodying the deal cut by Cowan with staff.  The meeting got postponed after Council members found themselves inundated with emails from Harbor Bay residents opposing the plan. The primary objection was the traffic congestion that would result from turning the Mif into a housing development.  But the homeowners also expressed concerns about school overcrowding, harm to property values, and loss of open space.  A few weeks later, when City Planner Andrew Thomas pitched the swap before the Planning Board, an overflow crowd of opponents, including many from Harbor Bay, showed up to pillory it instead.

Cowan scrambled to save the scheme, even enlisting well-known advocates for athletic fields to take his side in an effort to split the youth sports community, and fought till the bitter end.  But the Harbor Bay homeowners remained solidly allied with the golfers.  When Council could not put off a meeting to make a decision any longer, Council members heard the president of the Harbor Bay master homeowners’ association tick off a host of reasons for rejecting the swap, ranging from air quality to quality of life.  He sat down to applause from another overflow crowd.  Shortly after midnight, Councilwoman Lena Tam declared that, having heard the speakers, she concluded that “the swap comes at too high a price for the community.”  With that the swap was dead.

This time around, the Harbor Bay homeowners have gotten themselves organized early.  Led by a securities analyst named Tim Coffey, they formed a grassroots organization called Harbor Bay Neighbors and sought support from homeowners’ associations throughout the development.  (Already, more than 700 Alamedans have signed up with the group and five homeowners’ associations have passed declarations opposing Cowan’s proposal).  They’ve also sent emails to Council, and, taking a page from Cowan’s playbook, met one-on-one with staff and Council members.

(The Merry-Go-Round knows about the meetings because we sent an email to Mr. Thomas, City Manager John Russo, and all five members of Council inquiring about any contacts with proponents or opponents of Cowan’s latest project.  Curiously, the only official who didn’t respond to our inquiry was Mayor Marie Gilmore.  The other six all confirmed meetings with representatives of both sides.  In fact, Councilman Tony Daysog reported that Cowan himself had taken the Councilman to dinner in San Francisco.  We hasten to add that we do not begrudge Mr. Daysog for cadging a free meal at Cowan’s expense).

The Harbor Bay Neighbors’ first opportunity to state their case publicly will come on October 28, when the Planning Board takes comments on the draft EIR.  On their Website, they have laid out eight reasons for opposing Cowan’s plan.  Like their predecessors during the golf wars, they have emphasized cars and kids.  Commuters from the new housing development would travel from Packet Landing Road to Robert Davey Jr. Drive and then Island Drive, which already is heavily congested in the morning and evening.  The increase in traffic, the opponents argue, would make things even worse.  More importantly, they say, the additional traffic will make crossing the street riskier for the children being dropped off or picked up by their parents from Amelia Earhart elementary school.

Rest assured, Cowan intends to fight for what may be his last chance to cram additional houses into Harbor Bay Isle.  But one argument he can’t make – at least with a straight face – is that his latest proposal promotes any of the City’s stated public policy goals.

For one thing, Cowan can’t claim that allowing him to build 80 houses on the site of the Harbor Bay Club is necessary to satisfy a pressing need for housing in Alameda.  The Housing Element adopted by Council in July 2012 already re-zoned sufficient parcels to meet the City’s RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) quota for 2007-14.  Moreover, as we have reported and Mr. Thomas has acknowledged, the City’s RHNA allotment for 2014-22 will actually go down and the City’s land inventory now contains – without any new houses built by Cowan – a surplus of available housing units.

Nor can Cowan contend that his plan would increase the amount of “affordable” housing in the City.  Indeed, it contains no affordable units whatsoever, since Cowan is relying on a settlement agreement that exempts him from the requirement that 15 per cent of the units in any new residential development be made available for affordable housing.  Somehow, we don’t see HOMES or Renewed Hope lining up behind Cowan.

Likewise, Cowan will be hard-pressed to argue that his proposed housing development will diminish dependence on automobiles.  Pursuant to the transportation element in the general plan, the City’s policy goal for new residential developments is to reduce peak-hour trips by 10 per cent.  Yet the “initial study” prepared for the City concludes that Cowan’s housing project – providing for up to 272 cars associated with the new houses– would “increase vehicle trips” on Harbor Bay Isle.  Nevertheless, the Harbor Bay Club Website counter-intuitively claims that “this project has the potential to reduce congestion on Island Drive.” (italics in original).  Of course, that’s what Cowan claimed about the Mif swap, too – and no one believed him then, either.

Bereft of any public-policy arguments for the development, Cowan’s strategy is to minimize the housing aspect of the plan and emphasize the benefits of a new Harbor Bay Club.  Indeed, to hear his supporters tell it, housing is simply a means to an end – and the end is not to enable Cowan to pay off his debts but to do a favor for existing Harbor Bay Club members.  The Club Website denounces the “rumor” that the project is “about the desire to build more houses, not the needs of the club” thusly:

This is fiction.  The plans to build a new club, at its core, is about the needs of the club, both in the club’s commitment to meeting the needs of its members and its long term sustainability as a business, needs that go hand-in-hand.

The current club has 2 threatening problems: a physically unsustainable facility, and the inability to meet the changing amenity needs of its members.  The club is taking responsibility, both as a business and in its commitment to its members, by planning ahead to preserve its long-term sustainability.  The housing element isn’t the driving force for this project but the financial means to building a new club.

And so every penny you make on the deal goes right back into the Club – right, Ron? We’ll buy that when we see the escrow agreement.

This tactic is similar to the one Cowan used to try to sell the swap.  Promise benefits to a specific community – there, youth sports advocates yearning for playing fields; here, Club members craving an up-to-date facility – and portray yourself as their selfless servant.  It almost worked during the golf wars.  But it remains to be seen whether Cowan can make it work here.  The Harbor Bay Club has 3,900 members, roughly half of whom are residents of Harbor Bay Isle.  According to the 2010 census, 13,600 people live in zip code 94502.  For most of them, the only change they’ll notice if Cowan gets his way is that they’ll have to fight more traffic to get off Bay Farm Island every morning.  We’ll see just how close Cowan can get to Lincoln’s famous dictum about how many people you can fool.

And what of the politicians?  Here’s the key number: 9,164.  That’s the number of registered voters on Bay Farm Island and Harbor Bay Isle in the 2012 election.  And 79% of them actually cast ballots.  In a city where it took only 7,682 votes to elect a member of Council in 2010, the Bay Farm/Harbor Bay electorate is definitely one worth cultivating.  Small wonder that during the 2012 campaign our current Vice Mayor told Harbor Bay homeowners – falsely — that she had “joined the rest of the Planning Board” in recommending that Council reject the swap.  Whichever group — Cowan or his opponents — can get the Harbor Bay voters on its side is sure to find a receptive audience at City Hall.

Thanks to Cowan’s hamhandedness, the Harbor Bay Neighbors may have an unexpected advantage in this endeavor.  Mr. Russo recently confirmed to Michele Ellson of The Alamedan that Cowan had sent him and Mayor Gilmore an email stating that both he and Willie Brown expected support from them for his project and threatening that “if we see any indication otherwise it’s going to be hell to pay.”  Staying within her cone of silence, the Mayor has chosen not to comment on the email.  But Mr. Russo told The Alamedan, “I’m telling you, there ain’t no fix in.”  It looks like Cowan picked the wrong guy to try to intimidate: Nobody bullies John Russo!

But if the golf wars taught us anything, it’s that Cowan never goes gentle into that good night.  Undoubtedly, he once again will try to enlist allies who have the politicians’ ear.  Willie Brown may not have been the right choice.  (Willie Brown? Isn’t he some guy they’re naming a bridge after?)   But did you hear that Cowan has offered free memberships in the new Harbor Bay Club to all current and retired Alameda firefighters and agreed to make former union president and current fire chief  Mike D’Orazi honorary commodore of the Club?  No? Well, keep it between us and we’ll split the political consulting fee.

Disclosure:  The author and his wife, former Alameda Golf Commission chair Jane Cosgriff Sullwold, are supporters of Harbor Bay Neighbors.


HBIA planning permit application: HBIA application to build housing development

Notice of Preparation of EIR: NOP

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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5 Responses to Cowan’s last stand

  1. Jon Spangler says:

    “In retrospect, the turning point in the battle against the swap occurred in October 2011.”

    As early as the spring of 2011, I heard from several council members and other sources at city hall that council members were extremely skeptical of Cowan’s swap proposal but felt legally obligated to conduct a thorough evaluation and “due diligence” to make sure that the City of Alameda would not be missing any financial opportunities if the swap were turned down. (As an early opponent of the Cowan swap proposal I took advantage of every opportunity to voice my disapproval to city officials and I asked lots of people what they and the members of the council were thinking. I was greatly relieved–but not terribly surprised–when i found out that most elected officials opposed the plan.)

    The strong showing at the October public hearings was a key consideration, of course, but the
    council members’ early and pre-existing skepticism was much stronger than many citizens realize.

    I am convinced that he Cowan swap was never even close to a “done deal,” despite widespread public misconceptions to the contrary. Cowan’s “ham-handedness,” I am sure, will help ensure his defeat this time around, too–with or without Willie Brown’s assistance.

  2. Bay Farmer says:

    Jon, you say you talked to all council members and none were for it? Then you didn’t talk to the CC members I talked with.The swap was blessed and or been ordered by the City for years. Talk to former City Manager Anne Marie Gallant. She will tell you that that was the deal. She was shocked when she heard from residents that this citizens group might be successfully fighting the swap.
    All council members were for it, except Doug deHahn, who was independent thinking and a devoted golfer. And please remember, that John Russo, very recently hired as City Manager, spoke at Mastick Center and said that he was going to be vigorously pursuing the swap, because it was for the City’s benefit. Do you really think, he would have said this if he did not have the blessing and backing and push from the City Council? Mr. Russo worked very hard to make the swap become a reality.
    However, eventually, as the opposition momentum from golfers and residents grew and became organized, some members of Council began to have their doubts, doubting whether or not the swap was advisable politically. And, then finally, the City Council voted unanimously against the swap.

  3. Kerry Kohler says:

    While I certainly commend our hard working Fire and Police officers, I question why Cowan hasn’t offered comped memberships at the current Club? Obviously it’s for his personal agenda. He offered comped or very low membership fees to owners at Centre Court in order to “Score Sales.”

  4. Marvin Wong says:

    These things always seem to come down to the will of the people v.s. the will of the “paid” politicians; it will be another testament on whether the people win out….this is a good example on the local level of government on whether our democracy works or not; of course, depending on how informed and involved the populace will become……Somehow, I am reminded of the expression, “We get the government we deserve….”

  5. Jan Walton says:

    Power to the People

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