An RFP for the WTC?

Now that the key planning documents for Alameda Point are nearly finished and subject only to final approval by the Planning Board and Council, the time may arrived to consider issuing a request for proposals for developing the “central hub” of the Point, the Waterfront Town Center.

As City Planner Andrew Thomas often has stated, “getting the Town Center right” is crucial to the success of the City-led effort to redevelop the former Naval Air Station.  This area, comprising 125 acres, is intended to contain a mix of residential and commercial uses and open space.  It is where both the high-rise apartment buildings so beloved by certain members of the Planning Board and the high-end retail stores so coveted by City Manager John Russo will go.  And it is where the “vision” that falls so trippingly off the politicians’ tongues – a “transit-oriented, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly” community — is supposed to become reality.

With so much riding on the outcome, the Merry-Go-Round casts no aspersions on the talents of City staff by suggesting that the decision-makers think seriously about using the RFP process to find a developer for the Waterfront Town Center.

Yes, we know all about the City’s unpleasant experiences with master developers for Alameda Point.  But we’re not talking about turning the entire Point over to a single developer, just letting one firm take the lead in building out the Waterfront Town Center.

And, yes, we know all too well, from our experiences during the golf wars, of the dangers of sending out a vaguely worded RFP that will only confuse bidders about the project they’re being asked to undertake.  But the RFP for the Waterfront Town Center would be written to solicit specific proposals for implementing the detailed plans already drafted by City staff and its consultants.

To us, issuing an RFP for the Waterfront Town Center would represent the logical culmination of the planning process that has taken place during the past two years.  And it would offer advantages over the current practice of relying on staff to select developers with whom to explore deals on a piece-by-piece basis.

This round of planning began in mid-2012, when staff proposed that the City itself prepare not only all of the “basewide entitlement” documents for the Point but also detailed plans for various areas at the site.  Having the City draft the key planning documents, the staff report argued, “maximizes entitlement certainty, which can result in enhanced land value or amenities, and a clearer ‘business deal’ when engaging future developer partners.”

Then Council members Beverly Johnson and Doug deHaan liked the idea, but they were outvoted by Mayor Marie Gilmore and Council members Lena Tam and Rob Bonta, who balked at spending the necessary funds.  Nevertheless, Council authorized staff to go ahead with putting together the basewide entitlement documents.

And so, with the assistance of various consultants, they did.  This Monday staff will present final versions of zoning ordinance and general plan amendments, a master infrastructure plan, and an environmental impact report to the Planning Board (with presentation to Council to follow in February).

Staff also found a way around the Council majority’s reluctance to spend money on more detailed plans.  They applied to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for a $160,000 grant to fund preparation of a “precise plan” for a  “Waterfront Town Center.”  The MTC not only approved the grant application but bumped the award to $200,000.  The City then hired the international architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill for the job.  SOM has made two presentations to the Planning Board, and a “review draft” of the precise plan is due next month.

By the end of February, the City thus will have available:

  • An approved zoning ordinance that establishes site planning and building design requirements for the Point as a whole and contains regulations restricting off-street parking in each sub-district, including the Waterfront Town Center;
  • A draft precise plan that not only divides the Waterfront Town Center into 10 “micro-districts,” each with its own set of permitted uses, but also specifies such details as the location and configuration of streets and the height and mass of buildings; and
  • An approved master infrastructure plan that sets out the “baseline infrastructure”—i.e., streets and utilities —  needed for the Point as a whole and for the area encompassing the Waterfront Town Center in particular and even provides a cost estimate — $67.5 million – for building the latter.

Why not put together an RFP that incorporates all of these documents and asks for a proposal that will comply with requirements they impose and carry out the preferences they express?  Here’s what we want, the RFP would say to developers.  Now tell us how you propose we get there.  Give us not just a set of conceptual drawings but also a financing plan and a schedule.  And, last but hardly least, tell us how much you’re willing to pay the City for the land.

If the Waterfront Town Center concept truly makes economic sense, the RFP process should lead to competing bids from developers.  (On the other hand, if no one submits a bid, it will be time to re-think the viability of a Waterfront Town Center in the first place).  Because the proposals will be based on the same planning documents they should be readily comparable.  But because those planning documents are not, to use one of Mr. Russo’s favorite words, “prescriptive,” there should be room for creativity in devising the finished product.

Moreover, the RFP process would facilitate a comprehensive rather than a piecemeal approach to building out the Waterfront Town Center.  Since October, staff has been talking to developers about individual proposals for the Point.  Unfortunately, both the type and the location of the specific projects being discussed remain, for now, a secret.  (By the way, it would be useful if City Attorney Janet Kern could see fit to allow staff to include such basic information in the agendas made available to the public.  It hardly would compromise confidentiality).  But one project inevitably affects every other project.  We surely don’t want the Waterfront Town Center to end up as a hodgepodge of independent projects lacking a coherent theme.

There may be one major obstacle standing in the way of using the RFP process for the Waterfront Town Center: the City Manager.  Mr. Russo has made clear that he doesn’t like RFPs.  They’re nothing more than “beauty contests.”  What’s worse, they lead to unrealistic proposals.  “I think what folks don’t understand is that when you do an RFP you’re not going to get innovation that’s implementable,” Mr. Russo told Council at one meeting. “You’re going to get gondolas to west Oakland and other stuff that is not implementable, that looks really fun and visionary but that is economically not implementable.”

Now we can’t help but suspect that Mr. Russo viscerally recoils at the prospect of surrendering control over any aspect of development at the Point to a third party.  But his substantive concerns may be lessened if an RFP for the Waterfront Town Center incorporated the planning documents prepared by staff and required bidders to submit proposals for implementing those plans rather than dreaming up their own.  The City will have drawn the puzzle and described the pieces; the developer’s job will be to put it all together.

Both Mayor Gilmore and Councilwoman Tam have made negative comments about RFPs, but neither seems irrevocably opposed to the idea under any circumstances.  If Mr. Russo gets on board with an RFP for the Waterfront Town Center, Ms. Gilmore and Ms. Tam may follow and, if so, Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilman Stewart Chen, D.C., will be right behind.  In any event, using the RFP process for the Waterfront Town Center is something, to use the vernacular, worth having a conversation about.


SOM presentations re WTC: 2013-05-29 SOM PPT re Town Center presented to PB2013-08-21 draft WTC precise plan2013-10-14 Ex. 1 to staff report to PB re WTC (update)

Staff reports re WTC: 2013-05-29 staff report to PB re Town Center2013-08-21 staff report to PB re WTC2013-10-14 staff report to PB re WTC

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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