Have it our way

Behavior modification is emerging as the preferred strategy for achieving the City’s goals for Alameda Point.

“We” – or, at least those of us who are right-thinkers — have decided that the Point should be – all together now – a “transit-oriented, bicycle-friendly” community.  Those who already share that “vision” are welcome; those who do not must learn to change their ways.

This theme runs through the planning process for the Point.  Most recently, it surfaced in something as seemingly prosaic as the “draft zoning code for off-street parking requirements,” which was presented to the Planning Board on November 13.

So it may be time to ask a few basic questions:

  • Is the goal of promoting public transportation economically realistic as well as socially desirable (and politically correct)?
  • How does the focus on this goal affect our other goals for the Point?
  • Is a strategy dependent upon behavior modification likely to succeed?
  • What do we do if people and companies don’t or won’t change their behavior?

The draft parking code unabashedly proclaims that its purpose is to encourage behavior characteristic of a “transit-oriented, bicycle-friendly” community.  Among other things, the code is intended to:

Attract a broad diversity of households including self-selective households—those who reside in transit-oriented communities as a lifestyle choice—and households with zero to very low automobile ownership. To attract businesses and employers whose culture and philosophy is supportive of transit-oriented communities and who are committed to implementing robust trip reduction programs for their employees.

During the presentation to the Planning Board, City Planner Andrew Thomas echoed this idea:

Businesses who want to find a place where their employees can get to their jobs by transit, that’s a business we want at Alameda Point.  The business that comes and says, Oh, my goodness, we have to pay for transit, we don’t want to use transit, well, you can still come, you’ll still have to pay whether you like it or not, but that may not be the best match for Alameda Point.

And the consultant who prepared the draft zoning code was even blunter:

I think we want to go into this transparently, what we’re trying to do.  We’re using pricing and parking supply as a means to change behavior, travel behavior, so that people use alternative modes [of transportation].  We’re not going to fudge our way through that.  That’s a fact.  That’s what we trying to do.  We’re going to use money to do it because it works.

Unlike what the consultant described as a “conventional” approach, the draft parking code does not require developers – either residential or commercial — to provide minimum amounts of parking spaces.  To the contrary, it sets maximum ratios of parking spaces to square feet.  And even then, it seeks to deter developers from making available the “maximum” number of spaces.  Any spaces above a so-called “allowed” parking ratio will be considered “flexible,” and restrictions will be placed on how the developer can use them.

Likewise, the draft code requires developers – and, presumably, their tenants and customers – to get used to the idea that, as the consultant put it, “parking will never be free again on Alameda Point.”  Public parking lots and garages will handle the “spillover” from the limited amount of parking developers are allowed to furnish.  These public facilities – whose construction would be funded by assessments against developers — will charge fees from day one.  And, according to Mr. Thomas, if people insist on driving anyway, the solution will be to “adjust” – by which we believe he meant “increase” – the fees.

If the draft parking code works as intended, developers, residents, and tenants will get the message that “free and ample” parking was a thing of the past.  If they want to live or work – or build places for people to live or work – at the Point, they’ll have to learn to take the bus or ride their bikes.  And if not?  Well, there’s always Walnut Creek.

Not surprisingly, the public transportation advocates on the Planning Board greeted the draft parking code with enthusiasm (although Board member John Knox White opined that it didn’t go far enough).  Only one Board member  – Lorre Zuppan – saw that there were pieces missing in the puzzle the planners were putting together.  As she put it,

One of the things that I noticed across all of these packets is that the economic aspects of these decisions don’t seem to be highlighted at all, or considered.  We haven’t talked at all about sales tax leakage and what kind of things we’re zoning for or attracting for.  We haven’t really talked about the kind of industries or jobs we might we looking for and how that might match to the zoning or what the gaps are in the Bay Area or what this might be primed for. . . It just seems to me that if I were a business considering coming here and I didn’t see mention of it in these documents, I wouldn’t feel that there was an emphasis on that, on the job creation and attraction.  It seems a little bit one-sided in terms of approach and not all that realistic.

Thank goodness Ms. Zuppan missed the meeting at which they handed out the scripts.

Less than two months ago, City Manager John Russo presented a “disposition and development” strategy to a joint meeting of Council and Planning Board (at which, incidentally, all Planning Board members were present).  To Mr. Russo, the major economic problem facing the City is sales tax “leakage” – i.e., the sales tax revenue lost to the general fund when Alamedans do their shopping somewhere other than Alameda.  One key remedy, he urged, is to “[a]ttract major retail and/or business-to-business sales tax generators to the Enterprise sub-district [at the Point] and possibly the portion of the Town Center sub-district south of W. Atlantic Avenue.”

Patronage by Alamedans alone won’t be sufficient to enable these new businesses to succeed.  Instead, they must draw customers from elsewhere around the Bay Area.  It stands to reason that at least some of these non-Alamedans actually will want to drive to the Point.  In their cars.  Which they’ll need to park while they shop.  As Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft put it at the joint meeting,

In fact, that’s been one of our big problems in attracting the kind of quality of retail that a lot of us leave town to get, or go online, is that you need a certain critical mass of population and disposable income and all those good things.  So we’re going to attract people and some of them will drive and I get we will mitigate traffic but let’s just keep that in mind, too.

And let’s not forget:  there may even be Alamedans who, out of necessity or preference, would come to the Point to spend their money only if they could get there by car.  As Ms. Zuppan was compelled to point out to her colleagues, “not everyone can ride a bike and public transportation isn’t always reliable.”  These potential customers will need a place to park, too.

What message does the draft parking code send to these heretics – or to the businesses who’d like to get them as customers?  Come to Alameda Point to shop if you wish – but only if you’re willing to play by our rules.  We’re happy to take your money — but leave your car at home.

As Ms. Zuppan pointed out, the presentation to the Planning Board contained little, if any, analysis of the impact of the draft parking code on economic development.  It’s not as if staff and its consultant were clueless.  Indeed, the consultant conceded that, at the beginning stages of development at the Point, it may be necessary to offer “deals” so as not to “scare away” developers.  Maybe we can put one of those public parking lots especially close to your business.  Maybe we can give you a long-term lease for surface parking in the vast runway areas.  Or maybe we can even “relax the code” a wee bit just for you.

Nevertheless, the assumption seems to be that, as time goes on, potential consumers will get with the program.  The shopper from Tiburon might decide that the retail stores at the Point are so attractive that taking the ferry to San Francisco, hopping on board BART to Oakland, and then catching a bus or shuttle to Alameda is worth it after all.  And if he she doesn’t?  Well, the retailers will just have to attract a more eco-friendly type of customer.  And if they don’t?  Well, Mr. Russo will have to find some other way to plug the sales tax leakage hole.

Alameda’s planners are not alone, of course, in preaching the politics of behavior modification.  Remember “Change we can believe in”?  The strategy behind Obamacare is to achieve a socially desirable result – expanding health insurance coverage – by getting people to change their behavior in response to mandates and penalties imposed by the government.   But what if the market fails to react as the government expects it to?  And what if people refuse to change their behavior in the way the government wants them to?  Then the goal, however noble, becomes unachievable.

But that can never happen in Alameda, can it?

Sources:

Staff report re disposition & development strategy: 2013-09-25 staff report re disposition strategy

Draft zoning code for Alameda Point parking: 2013-11-13 ex.3 to staff report (parking)

About Robert Sullwold

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

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