Why you shouldn’t believe what you read in the Chronicle

The Merry-Go-Round used to be a fan of Chip Johnson, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist who writes about the East Bay.

Now we’ve had our confidence shaken.

Today, Mr. Johnson published a column describing Measure A, the Alameda City Charter provision prohibiting multi-family housing and limiting housing density to 21 dwelling units per acre, as “one of the last vestiges of a bygone era.”

We’ve heard that description before, and, indeed, it can be argued in good faith that Measure A is no longer necessary to achieve the goals for which it was enacted.

But that’s not the argument Mr. Johnson makes.

Instead, he rests his case on a statement of facts that is – there’s no other way to put it – flat out wrong.

According to Mr. Johnson,

And it’s only been a little over two years since Alameda was sued for failing to observe state-mandated affordable housing laws, which requires cities to carry their fair share of affordable housing for a region’s low-income residents.  The city settled the suit and agreed to include a plan to make affordable housing available at Alameda Point, the site of the naval air station that shut down 17 years ago.

Fighting the lawsuit risked millions of dollars in state transportation and park funds connected with affordable housing plans.

Now the city wants to bypass Measure A to allow for the construction of more than 1,400 apartment units at Alameda Point.  In order to do that, a developer would have to apply for a state exemption to local land use laws by including a certain number of affordable housing units as part of the project.

The project has set a goal of 20 percent affordable housing available to moderate, low-income and very low-income applicants.

Let’s take those statements one by one:

In fact, it has been far longer than “a little over two years” that the City was sued over its alleged failure to comply with state housing law.  The Guyton/Henderson litigation, which challenged the conversion of the Buena Vista Apartments into market-rate units, was settled in 1990.  The Renewed Hope/Arc Ecology litigation, which alleged deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Report for Alameda Point, was settled in 2001.

City Manager John Russo, who appears to have been Mr. Johnson’s principal source, may have told the columnist that housing advocates threatened to sue the City over its alleged non-compliance with state housing law two years ago.  Indeed, staff cited such a threat as a reason for Council to rush to approve the draft Housing Element.  But we’re confident that Mr. Russo never said that such a suit had been filed and settled – because, as he well knows, it never was.

(Ironically, the only lawsuit filed against the City over its housing policies in the last two years is the one filed by the East Bay Regional Parks District, which alleges, among other things, that the Housing Element adopted by the City violates Measure A).

Likewise, it was probably from Mr. Russo that Mr. Johnson got the argument that “fighting the [never-filed] lawsuit risked millions of dollars” in state funds.  That contention, too, can be found in the July 2012 staff report to Council urging immediate adoption of the draft Housing Element.  But we’re still waiting for the press release from City Hall announcing the millions in “state transportation and park funds” that have flowed to the City since then as a result of adopting the Housing Element.

Mr. Johnson has gotten the facts about plans for affordable housing at Alameda Point wrong, too.

The City did not agree, a “little over two years” ago, to “include a plan to make affordable housing available at Alameda Point.”  In fact, it was the Renewed Hope/Arc Ecology settlement – in 2001 – that obligated the City to require that 25% of newly constructed housing units at Alameda Point be “affordable.”

In response, the Community Improvement Commission – the body then responsible for overseeing redevelopment at Alameda Point – passed a resolution adopting the 25% affordable housing quota.  But that happened in 2004.  And every plan for residential development at the Point since then has acknowledged this requirement.

Mr. Johnson appears to be referring to the Density Bonus Ordinance when he writes that the City intends to “bypass” Measure A by having developers “apply for a state exemption to local land use laws.”  And, in fact, the Ordinance permits a developer to apply for a “waiver” of the density limits imposed by the City Charter if its project includes sufficient affordable housing.  (Whether a judge would uphold such a maneuver is another matter  — no one’s sued to find out).

But the idea of using the Density Bonus Ordinance as a way around Measure A is not something staff just came up with for Alameda Point.  True, the staff report that proposed the Ordinance back in 2009 didn’t highlight its potential use for this purpose.  But, as we discussed last September, the developers of both the Boatworks and Alameda Landing projects have used the Density Bonus Ordinance to increase the number of market-rate housing units included in their plans.  And City Planner Andrew Thomas candidly admitted a year ago that he envisioned that a similar stratagem would be employed at Alameda Point.

Mr. Johnson also refers to a plan to build “more than 1,400 apartment units,” with the “goal” that 20% of them be affordable, at Alameda Point.  This comes as news to us, and, we suspect, to Mr. Russo and the rest of City staff as well.

In fact, the City Manager has made quite clear that he believes that the total number of housing units at the Point is constrained by the 1,425-unit cap set forth in the conveyance agreement with the Navy.  Since 218 existing low-income housing units will remain, new construction will be limited to around 1,200 units.

And Mr. Russo never has said that all newly constructed units  — whether it’s the 1,400 imagined by Mr. Johnson or the 1,200 estimated by staff — should be apartments.  To the contrary, in the staff report and presentation to Council on April 15, staff allocated 800 units to the Waterfront Town Center, where only multi-family housing is permitted, with 200 units reserved for adaptive reuse in the Historic District and 200 units for new housing in the Main St. Neighborhood.

And whence the “20%” affordable housing “goal” for Alameda Point cited by Mr. Johnson?  It’s not in the Guyton/Henderson or Renewed Hoped/Arc Ecology settlements.  (The latter specifies 25%).  Nor is it in the newly adopted general plan or zoning amendments for Alameda Point.  (Neither sets any new “goal” for affordable housing).  And the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which applies to all new residential development in the City outside Alameda Point, requires that 15% of the units be “affordable.”

So how could Mr. Johnson get everything so wrong?

Indulge us for a moment while we put on our fedora with the “Working Press” card in the band – you know, the one from “The Front Page.”

To us, it appears that Mr. Johnson wanted to write a piece about how Alameda is moving beyond what he regards as its racist past.  (We use that word deliberately; why else drag in the hoary story about the cops?)  So far, so good.  He then chose to use Alameda Point as an example of our new enlightenment.  Maybe questionable, but still OK.  But then he got sloppy.  The factual narrative he concocted supports his theme.  The only problem is, It isn’t true.

At the Merry-Go-Round, we’ll still read Mr. Johnson’s columns.  But we’re afraid it will be with the same degree of skepticism that we now reserve for Bill O’Reilly and Lawrence O’Donnell.


Guyton/Henderson settlement agreement: Guyton-Settlement-1990

Renewed Hope/Arc Ecology settlement agreement: Settlement Agreement – Renewed Hope and Arc Ecology

CIC Resolution 04-128: CIC Resolution 4-128

July 3, 2012 staff report re draft Housing Element: 2012-07-03 staff memo re Housing Element (2)

EBRPD v. City of Alameda complaint: EBRP vs City of Alameda Lawsuit-1

October 20, 2009 staff report re density bonus ordinance: 2009-10-20 staff report re density bonus


About Robert Sullwold

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

8 Responses to Why you shouldn’t believe what you read in the Chronicle

  1. Karin Sidwell says:

    Thank you for your factual unbiased article. It was a pleasure to read and I like that you supported your article with supporting documents.
    Thank you again

  2. Gretchen Lipow says:

    The term fortress congers up medieval times but then again our island city is connected to the
    outer world by four draw bridges and a very worn out sunken cement tube.
    Chip fails to even mention all the housing that is going up on our estuary…well over 1,000 housing units will appear within five years! Is this the fortress he’s referring to?
    Chip’s article is poorly written, lots of hyperbole and light on accuracy.

  3. Laura Thomas says:

    A well-written and accurate account of the problems in Chip Johnson’s column. As a former reporter it’s sad to see these inaccuracies, but then newspaper columnists are never held to the same standard as the reporters and that’s the problem with columnists: Reporting and opinion are interwoven and accuracy slides away if one is not rigorous. Thanks for your dispassionate appraisal of the column.

  4. notmayberry says:

    Chip Johnson should go the way of Dan Rather…Maybe the City of Alameda should sue Johnson for slander..or is it libel?

  5. rubiconjoe says:

    Great story, Robert. But could you add a link to the Chronicle story?

  6. dave says:

    That’s why I call it the Chronic Lie

  7. MI says:

    notmayberry’s comment is just the kind of cranky carp which motivates a guy like Johnson to write what he wrote. Ditto on Laura Thomas’s comment.

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