The “community vision” for Alameda Point’s Town Center

Want to find out the “community vision” for the Waterfront Town Center at the heart of Alameda Point?

Try out this formulation:

The primary goal of redevelopment within the Town Center and Waterfront Precise Plan is to create a compact, transit-oriented, mixed-use urban core and vibrant waterfront experience that will leverage the unique character and existing assets of the area, through incremental intervention, to catalyze transformation of the wider Alameda Point area.

You’ll find this statement under heading “Plan Vision” in the Precise Plan presented to the Planning Board on April 28.  This Plan, drafted with input from staff and a select group of Planning Board members, purports to reflect more than just the preferences of its proponents.  Instead, the Plan proclaims that it embodies the “goals” of the Alameda “community” for development of the Town Center.

Now, we confess that we’re not sure exactly what the Plan Vision statement means.  We still have trouble with “vibrant,” a word that appears 15 times in the Precise Plan and that politicians apply to everything from soup to nuts.  And the phrase “incremental intervention” sounds to us like Vladimir Putin’s strategy for taking over the Ukraine.

So we tried to dig a little deeper into the narrative and come up with a picture of what the Town Center will look like if the Precise Plan is implemented.

Imagine you’re standing at the corner of Main St. and Ralph Appezzato Parkway (nee Atlantic Avenue) and walking – not driving; cars are discouraged, remember – west.  You’ll pass two-to-three story townhomes and walk-up flats, then three-to-five story apartment buildings and “live-work” structures, together with grocery stores, day-care centers, and the like.

When you get to the Seaplane Lagoon, you’ve reached the “core” of the Town Center.   You’ll be surrounded by even taller – five- to six-story – apartment buildings (with retail on the ground floor), offices, restaurants, and maybe even a hotel.

Straight ahead of you will be a 200-foot-wide strip of open space running along the north side of the Lagoon; to its right, new commercial and maritime buildings in front of the existing hangars and warehouses.

Now look to your left.  You’ll see a “promenade” extending down the east side of the Lagoon with stores and restaurants lining the waterfront; more stores, restaurants, offices, and apartment buildings on the other side of the street, and a new ferry terminal at the southeast corner.

Finally, look across the Lagoon to the southwest and you’ll glimpse the “De-Pave Park,” a barren area left after removal of the existing concrete slab.

Got the picture?

We’re fairly certain that the MTC and ABAG planners who prepared the Plan Bay Area – billed as the regional solution to global warming – and paid for the Precise Plan will like what they see.

And we’re pretty confident that Planning Board members like David Burton and John Knox White and City staffers like City Planner Andrew Thomas will be happy with it, too.

But will development of a Town Center in line with the “Plan Vision” really achieve the goals of the “community”?  Does the picture that emerges from the Precise Plan really depict what all, or even most, Alamedans have in mind for this district?

Of that we’re not so sure.

The diehard band of Measure A defenders definitely won’t be delighted with the Precise Plan.

To refresh your recollection, the City Charter amendment known as Measure A prohibits multi-family housing and a density of more than 21 dwelling units per acre.  But the zoning ordinance adopted by Council this January permits only multi-family housing in the Town Center, and the Precise Plan “recommends a minimum density of 35 dwelling units/acre overall and higher densities in the Core area.”

As we’ve previously pointed out, staff believes that the Density Bonus Ordinance provides a way around Measure A.  Alamedans like Nancy Hird, identified by the Chronicle as a “community activist” in a story published Friday, sense a scam.  “Measure A has become archaic.  That’s unfortunate, because that’s what’s saved this city,” Ms. Hird was quoted as saying.  “This housing plan totally violates what local people want, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  I think that’s crummy.”

Former Councilman Frank Matarrese, who enjoyed sufficient public support to get elected twice to Council, doesn’t share the “Plan Vision,” either.

In an op-ed published in the Alameda Sun Thursday, Mr. Matarrese argued that the City should abandon its efforts to find developers to implement the Precise Plan for the Town Center.  A “bold step is needed,” he wrote.  “Consider discarding this old approach and adopt a policy which has no new residential units for Alameda Point, and putting some focus on job creation and open space.”

Surely, Ms. Hird and Mr. Matarrese speak for at least a portion of the community whose goals the Precise Plan purports to reflect.  And before you dismiss the Measure A defenders as troglodytes, or accuse Mr. Matarrese of pandering to them, consider this:

Back in 2010, after the City ended its rocky relationship with SunCal, staff embarked upon a process it labeled “Going Forward” to solicit input from Alamedans on six major topics that needed to be addressed in any future plan for the Point, including land use and building types.

The process included four community workshops, an online workbook, discussions with various boards and commissions, and a forum with commercial tenants.  Staff then summarized its findings about the community’s goals for Alameda Point in a report presented to Council in March 2011.

The report divided the Point into six areas, one of which – Plan Area E – is essentially coterminous with what will become the Town Center.  According to the report, this was the “vision” for that area:

Plan Area E lands should be dedicated to waterfront open space and recreation, maritime-related uses, visitor-serving retail and services, cultural uses and entertainment, and lodging.  Some felt that office and workplace uses, and even some multi-family housing, could be accommodated in the areas that are not restricted to State Lands limitations, as State Lands may not be used for residential purposes.

If anything, this summary overstated the extent to which the public wanted to see multi-family housing in this district.  The report included an appendix tabulating the responses when participants were asked to “select the land use you think should be included” in each area.  Here’s the table for Plan Area E:

March 2011 Community Forums Summary Report

Yes, you’re reading it right:  Only 28.2% of respondents stated that “multi-family residential” – the only residential use permitted in the Town Center under the zoning ordinance and the key to the “transit-oriented” development envisioned by the Precise Plan – was appropriate for Plan Area E.  And the survey participants weren’t talking about five- and six-story apartment buildings, either.  Instead, according to the summary, “New multifamily housing should be designed to look like similar apartment buildings in Alameda and not too tall.  The community is less comfortable with row houses as a building type at Alameda Point.”

The community members who participated in the survey also weren’t enamored of the idea of relocating the existing ferry terminal on Main Street to the southeast corner of the Seaplane Lagoon, as the Precise Plan proposes.  According to the summary, relocating the terminal

did not receive strong support. While the concept of a consolidated transit center was acceptable, responders were uncertain that including the ferry terminal as part of the center would result in a significant additional reduction in commute trips to/from Alameda Point.  In addition, concerns about the need to offset the loss in Oakland ridership with the Alameda Point/San Francisco service, as well as to ensure a financially viable and separate Oakland/San Francisco ferry service were raised.

We couldn’t find any reference to the “Going Forward” report in the text of the Precise Plan presented to the Planning Board.  A cynic might suspect that the Plan’s authors and their sponsors chose not to mention the lack of public support for multi-family housing or a new ferry terminal because it undermined the claim that the “community” shared their own “vision” for a Town Center that included those features.

The Merry-Go-Round takes a more charitable approach.  To us, it appears that the advocates for the Precise Plan suffer from the curse of the true believer.  They are well aware that not everyone agrees with them.  But, to them, anyone who disagrees is simply wrong, and contrary opinions carry no weight.  It’s only a short step from there to behaving as if those opinions don’t exist at all.  Voila!  Consensus achieved.

But let not those of us on the outside be fooled.  Any claim that the Precise Plan represents the “community vision” for the Town Center distorts the truth.  It would be fair to say that the Plan reflects the views held by a handful of Alamedans, albeit those who consider themselves the most enlightened and most progressive among us.  But, as the comments by Ms. Hird and Mr. Matarrese – and, more importantly, the responses given by ordinary people to the staff-run survey – show, those views do not constitute a consensus of the citizenry.

Don’t let anybody tell you differently.


March 2011 Community Forums Summary Report: March 2011 Community Forums Summary Report

April 2014 Draft Precise Plan: 2014-04-28 Ex. 1 to staff report to PB (draft WTC precise plan)




About Robert Sullwold

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

4 Responses to The “community vision” for Alameda Point’s Town Center

  1. vigi says:

    I have also heard that you cannot put both a ferry terminal and a marina in the Seaplane Lagoon, since the ferry wakes would overwhelm the marina boats. There was a significant contingent of marina supporters…where are they?
    This again is the danger inherent when the City Manager does not live in the city he manages. Alameda is just another job to him. No love, no commitment.

    • The “Precise Plan” (at p. 62) has this to say about the conflict you identify between a ferry terminal and a marina:

      “An additional consideration for the placement of functions within the Seaplane Lagoon is the proximity of marina and ferry facilities. Access for both marina and ferry functions is best accommodated along Ferry Point Road, on the eastern edge of the Seaplane Lagoon. However, due to the wake created by ferries, and the potential conflicts with commercial marina operations this may create, any marina developed in the Seaplane Lagoon within proximity of a future terminal may require wake protection, such as a breakwater. As such, an integrated approach toward the design and implementation of future ferry and marina uses within the Seaplane Lagoon is required.

      Towards this end, the Precise Plan identifies three alternative locations for the Ferry Terminal, in order to allow WETA flexibility to determine the best location to meet its operations and service needs. Consequently, the location, size and development specification of a marina within the Seaplane Lagoon is pending final decision on the future location of the ferry terminal in consultation with WETA, and with requisite review, by WETA, of wake protection requirements and measures.”

  2. Richard Bangert, who writes the Alameda Point Environmental Report — — provided the following update on the plans for a new ferry terminal at the Seaplane Lagoon:

    Regarding the ferry to Seaplane Lagoon, I once had doubts that it would ever happen. But it appears that one inhibiting factor raised in past years – adding Seaplane Lagoon on a SF-Oakland-Seaplane Lagoon run would add too much time – has a solution waiting to be studied…and funded. It now looks like the way around this added time will be to have separate service.

    Below are excerpts from the upcoming WETA agenda. Also note that the Main Street ferry is getting some engineering upgrades. One other point – if they move Alameda’s West End ferry service to the Seaplane Lagoon, they will definitely need a parking garage at some point for existing riders who take up a lot of surface area to park at the Main St. terminal. There will also undoubtedly be new riders driving to the trendy new village. It will be somewhat of an irony that the new transit-friendly village will require a parking garage for all the people driving to the ferry. Maybe they can put the garage over the OU-2B plume.

    Excerpts from May 8, 2014 WETA agenda

    “Alameda Seaplane Lagoon – The City of Alameda recently adopted environmental documents together with general plan and zoning amendments, the result of a two-year effort to prepare the former naval base now known as “Alameda Point” for development. The plan envisions 1,425 housing units, up to 5.5 million square feet of commercial space and 240 acres of parks and open space. The plan is expected to take up to 20 years to reach full build out and will be developed as individual parcels and not by a single master developer as was previously assumed. City staff has requested that WETA conduct necessary studies to better understand the capital and operating cost associated with a Seaplane Lagoon terminal.

    The transition agreement between the City and WETA states that staff from the City and WETA “shall in good faith work with each other and the Seaplane Lagoon master developer or other developer(s)…to explore the viability of Bifurcated Services”. The term “bifurcated services” refers to the possibility that Oakland and West Alameda will be served by separate vessels and crews, as opposed to today’s arrangement where the sites are served by a single vessel making two stops before heading to/from San Francisco.

    Staff requested on-call consultants currently under contract with WETA to develop work scopes and cost estimates to conduct two studies: a sketch-level design sufficient to develop order of magnitude costs and an operational study to analyze the costs and service implications of an additional terminal or a replacement terminal in the central bay Alameda/Oakland service. This second study would require the participation of not just the City of Alameda but the City of Oakland and even AC Transit. City of Alameda staff has reviewed the proposals for these two efforts and their comments have been incorporated into the final work scopes. The next steps are to schedule a meeting among staff at the cities of Alameda and Oakland to discuss funding the studies and a process to conduct the analyses.

    Alameda Terminal Access Plans – Both ferry terminals in Alameda have experienced a surge in ridership beginning with the first BART strike in July 2013. As a result, parking at both terminals typically spills onto adjacent streets and informal parking lots. WETA will partner with the City of Alameda staff to prepare plans to address the immediate issue and identify long term solutions. Staff has secured the consultant services of Nelson Nygaard through its on-call planning agreement with KPFF, Inc. to support the project.

    After hosting a pair of public workshops in March, staff and the consultant team have been developing and analyzing potential access improvement concepts suggested by riders and other stakeholders. Staff has been invited to attend the Alameda Transportation Commission meeting on May 28 to discuss the study and the ferry service in general. The next steps in the study are to engage the City of Alameda, which has jurisdiction over streets and neighboring city-owned parcels. Another round of public workshops will be scheduled for June.”

    Click to access b050814aFULL.pdf

  3. MI says:

    Hi Robert. It is great that you have emerged as a voice in Alameda politics. Agree or not, I appreciate your thorough attention to facts and detail and I’m relieved that those who dissent from the so called status quo have you in their corner, because too often many of the opinions expressed by this contingent come off as knee jerk.
    I have one bone to pick with the content of this blog. Workshops and polls are all well and good, but the numbers of people pro or con who show up at these things, or come out to speak at city council meetings on various issues, shouldn’t be referred to like scientific samples as the be all end all for the will of the people. For example, the vote on the Sun Cal initiative was a pretty authoritative rejection of THAT plan, but the workshops you allude to here revealed that the result of that ballot couldn’t be taken to mean 85% of Alamedans are fully supportive of Measure A. I’m not saying you have stated that here, just using the example to try to point out the problems of representing what people actually do or don’t favor.
    Keep up the good work. Mark Irons.
    P.s.- regarding “vigi”‘s comment about whether a City Manager lives in Alameda. If that were a criteria for all City employees we would probably suffer by not having the ability to hire the best talent. David Brandt would be an example of a very qualified employee who understood Alameda issues as well as any anyone but was not a resident.

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