Bulldozers rambling, and wrecking balls flying, throughout the Gold Coast.
Long-time residents driving round and round their neighborhoods looking for a place to park.
The Posey and Webster tubes clogged with cars from end-to-end and lines at the High Street bridge stretching all the way back onto Bay Farm Island.
This is the nightmare scenario painted by Measure A supporters of life on the island without the Charter provision prohibiting multi-family housing and limiting residential density to 21 units per acre.
By retaining Measure A, they argue, we’ll ensure that developers won’t be able to tear down Victorians and other historic homes and replace them with Motel Six-style multi-unit housing. And we’ll limit the growth in population that would render parking on our neighborhood streets uncertain and traffic through the tubes and across the bridges insufferable.
We’ll start with historic preservation.
According to a pro-Measure A Website, approximately 1,500 homes, primarily Victorians, were torn down from World War II through 1973, when the ballot initiative was passed. Indeed, the site claimed, over a six-year period, houses were being demolished at a rate of one every five days. They were replaced with “boxy” multi-unit apartment buildings that generated cash flow for their owners but created an eyesore for their neighbors.
Measure A stopped this phenomenon in its tracks, and all but the Measure’s most obsessed opponents give it credit for that result. But they would argue that, having served this purpose, there’s no reason for the Charter provision to remain on the books.
This argument raises two issues.
First, how likely is it that, if Measure A was repealed, history would repeat itself?
As the already announced multi-family projects go forward, the supply of vacant sites available for residential development is shrinking. The draft 2015-2023 Housing Element lists 12 sites zoned for multi-family housing, but five of the larger ones already have projects in the planning stage. So, Measure A supporters would argue, it’s possible that, if the multi-family housing market continues to stay hot, developers will return their attention to property with existing residences. Highly unlikely, in our view, but not inconceivable.
Second, if Measure A was repealed, couldn’t the Historic Advisory Board and City Council be counted upon to keep the wrecking ball away from Victorians?
Enacted two years after Measure A, the Historic Preservation Ordinance provides that, “Any building that was constructed prior to 1942 shall not be demolished or removed without the approval of a certificate of approval issued by the Historical Advisory Board.” If the Board refuses to issue the certificate, the Ordinance allows the applicant to appeal to Council, which is authorized to reverse the Board’s decision “only if it finds, upon the evidence of qualified sources, that the historical resource is incapable of earning an economic return on its value.”
Some Measure A supporters don’t regard this process as sufficiently prophylactic. As Jim Smallman, vice president of the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society, explained:
[T]he “strict preservation ordinances” limit only the appearance of the exterior of the houses. Nothing in the Preservation Ordinance limits the reconfiguration of the interior of historic houses. Throughout this city there are thousands of period houses which were reconfigured inside during the war years and through the sixties, creating multiple apartments. Today, such re-configurations are limited largely by Measure A.
Others are troubled by the prospect of depending on citizen advisors and political officeholders to protect historic buildings.
In any event, as we understand it, the major focus of Measure A’s defenders is not so much on historic preservation but on population density. By prohibiting multi-family housing and capping residential density, they argue, Measure A restricts the growth in the number of people who live in Alameda. As a result, it serves to prevent intolerable congestion, both in the neighborhoods and at the tubes and bridges and the roads leading up to them.
The factual premise underlying this argument is hard to dispute, and, indeed, it is one that opponents of Measure A agree with: For any given piece of land, new multi-family housing will yield more people than new single-family housing. Or, to use the fancy term, multi-family housing results in a higher population density than single-family housing.
To Measure A opponents, the higher population density resulting from multi-family housing is a good thing, because more people mean more potential customers for public transit.
To Measure A defenders, the higher population density resulting from multi-family housing decidedly is not a good thing. To the contrary: More people mean more cars. And more cars mean more parking congestion in the neighborhoods and more traffic congestion along the commute routes.
To examine the first point, let’s use a hypothetical situation based on data from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute:
- With an average lot size of 5,000 square-feet, you could build eight single-family homes on an acre. At three occupants per home, that’s 24 new residents; or
- You could build four 16-unit apartment buildings on the same acre. At 1.2 occupants per unit, that’s about 80 new residents.
At an average of two cars per household, the tenants in the four 16-unit apartment buildings would bring additional 128 cars onto the island. But, as we learned in our last installment, per household vehicle usage is lower, and transit usage higher, for multi-family apartment residents than for single-family homeowners. So we’ve got to apply a discount to the 128-car figure.
How much? According to VTPI, residents of “transit-oriented neighborhoods tend to own 10-30% fewer vehicles” than those who live in “automobile-oriented areas.” So let’s take the middle of the range and apply a 20% discount. That leaves us with 102 new cars to deal with.
The first question Measure A proponents would ask is: Where are all of these cars going to find a place to park?
Technically, the Off-street Parking Ordinance still requires two parking spaces per unit for each unit 3,000 square-feet or less in size. But this requirement is riddled with exceptions. Any project that includes affordable housing “may be allowed to reduce such off-street parking requirements” at the time the project is approved. For apartments located above a store, only one parking space per unit is required. If the project qualifies for the density bonus, the requirement is reduced to one space per unit for studios and one-bedroom apartments. Once residential development begins at Alameda Point, every unit in a multi-family building will be subject to a 1.5 parking space per unit maximum.
So it’s highly unlikely that all 102 cars in our four new 16-unit apartment buildings will get off-street parking. Which means their owners will have to find places to park on the neighborhood streets. If you’d like to know how neighbors will react to that experience, just watch the videos of the public comment period of the meetings at which the Del Monte warehouse project – whose master plan calls for a garage containing one parking space per unit in the converted warehouse – is discussed. Call these citizens unenlightened if you want, but we have to wonder what our Mayor and Vice Mayor would be saying – at least privately – if the same plan was being proposed for the Gold Coast.
But parking congestion in the neighborhoods isn’t the only – or even the major – problem Measure A advocates attribute to the higher population density resulting from multi-family housing. They’re even more concerned about the traffic congestion at the tubes and tunnels and the roads leading to and from them.
Alameda already is a community of commuters. It has one of the lowest “jobs-to-housing” ratios in the Bay Area – only .71 jobs for every resident. As a result, Alamedans have to leave the island to go to work. According to a report prepared for the City’s TSM/TDM plan in April 2012, only 30% of Alameda residents work in Alameda. Of the rest, 30% work in Oakland, San Leandro, and San Lorenzo and 17% in San Francisco.
For those who drive or take the bus, either directly to work or to BART, there are only four ways to get off the island. And until Alameda’s ace lobbyist, Don Perata, gets his buddies in Sacramento to fund building a new tunnel under, or a new bridge over, the estuary, there aren’t going to be any more choices any time soon.
How bad is the traffic on the bridges and at the tubes today?
All of us have heard (or told) anecdotes. Our recent favorite came from a woman who attended a meeting sponsored by H.O.M.E.S and featuring City Planner Andrew Thomas. During the Q&A period, the audience member described how it usually takes her an hour to get through the Posey tube to her job in Oakland. Mr. Thomas responded by explaining that the City’s “Transportation Demand Management” program would reduce traffic congestion by getting Alamedans to use public transit rather than drive to work. “But I do take public transit!” the woman exclaimed. “I’m talking about how long it takes to get through the tube on the 51 bus!”
There is also some hard evidence. Unfortunately, the data we’d be most interested in seeing – e.g., how long it takes to get from, say, Otis and Fernside over the High Street bridge during rush hour – isn’t the way the experts analyze traffic. Instead, they use something called the “LOS grading system,” which, as described by the Alameda Point EIR, “qualitatively characterizes traffic conditions associated with varying levels of vehicle traffic.” You can find charts of the LOS grades for various intersections at various times in the EIR and the Environmental Assessment for Alameda Point as well as in the similar studies done for the Boatworks, Del Monte and Marina Cove II projects. (All are attached to this post).
We’ll leave interpretation of those charts to the traffic engineers. We’re more comfortable with data like the chart below showing historical traffic volumes at the Posey and Webster tubes through 2009. (Thanks to Virendra Patel of the City Public Works Department for tracking it down for us).
Even more interesting is a chart contained in the report prepared for the TSM/TDM plan showing peak hour traffic at the tubes and bridges in 2007 and as projected in 2030 “with full implementation” of the General Plan.
The report’s conclusion: “Some crossings into and out of Alameda appear to be near capacity during the peak hour; traffic projections for 2030 indicate that almost all of these crossings will be at capacity during the peak hour by that year.”
Now we come to the rub of the matter. However one quantifies it, commute traffic is bad now. Just how much worse will it get if Measure A is repealed and construction of multi-family housing puts more cars on the streets?
If we knew, we’d tell you. The best we can do is present evidence about the projected traffic impacts associated with a few of the recent development projects that include multi-family housing. Having looked at the EIRs, initial studies, and special transportation analyses, here’s what we found:
- Boatworks. The draft EIR prepared in March 2010 assumed a project consisting of 242 housing units, which later was downsized to 182 units. The project studied in the EIR was estimated to produce 2,316 daily trips, with 136 during the a.m. peak hour and 90 during the p.m. peak hour.
- Alameda Landing. The transportation analysis prepared in October 2011 assumed a project including 50 low-rise apartments, 50 duplexes, and 200 single-family homes. (The residential mix has changed since then to 91 single-family homes, 84 condominiums, 56 townhomes, 22 flats and a 23-unit apartment building). The project studied in the analysis was estimated to produce 25,981 weekday daily trips, of which 1,315 occurred during the a.m. peak hour and 2,349 occurred during the p.m. peak hour.
- Marina Cove II (née Chipman). The initial study prepared in September 2012 assumed a project consisting of 59 single-family homes and 10 duplexes. (Subsequently, the mix changed to 52 single-family homes and 37 multi-family condominiums). The project initially studied was estimated to produce 623 daily trips, including 49 a.m. peak hour trips and 65 p.m. peak hour trips.
- Alameda Point. The EIR prepared in September 2013 assumed that development at the Point would follow the 1996 Community Reuse Plan, with 1,425 housing units (of a “wide variety” of types) and 5.5 million square feet of commercial space. This project was estimated to produce 33,429 daily trips, of which 2,928 occur during a.m. peak hours and 3,294 occur during p.m. peak hours.
The EIR also analyzed “alternatives” to the project: a “multi-family” alternative in which all 1,425 housing units were assumed to be multi-family units; a “transit-oriented mixed use” plan with 3,400 housing units and 5.5 million square feet of non-residential uses, and a “high density” plan with 4,841 housing units and 3.8 million square feet of non-residential use. As the chart below shows, the “high density” alternative produced a dramatic traffic impact, more than doubling both the a.m. and p.m. peak hour trips.
- Del Monte warehouse and Encinal Terminals. The initial study for the Del Monte project prepared in March 2014 assumed a project consisting of 414 units of residential lofts, townhomes and flats and 25,000 square feet of retail space. This project is estimated to produce 3,285 daily trips, of which 215 occur during the a.m. peak hour and 302 occur during the p.m. peak hour.
The consultant also studied traffic impacts for a project located on the site of the former Encinal Terminals, which is also owned by Tim Lewis Communities, consisting of 500 apartments, 25,000 square feet of retail space, and 400 marina berths. This project is estimated to produce 4,984 daily trips, with 290 of them during the morning rush hour and 428 during the evening rush hour.
So there you have it. If you want, you can go back and add the figures for these projects to the historical traffic volumes at the Posey and Webster tubes shown in the earlier chart. Measure A advocates would view the results of that exercise as support for their argument that construction of new multi-family housing may burden the tubes and crossings beyond their capacity. They also undoubtedly would point out that the situation would only get worse if Measure A was repealed and additional multi-family projects made it off the drawing boards and through the Planning Board.
But before anyone writes “QED,” keep three caveats in mind: First, none of the projects we cited consists exclusively of multi-family housing. Second, it isn’t reasonable to assume that every “peak hour” trip generated by a project is headed to or from the tubes or bridges. Third, the projections don’t take into account the effect of any recommended “mitigation measures.”
Which introduces – and that’s as far as we’ll go today – the main rebuttal made by housing advocates to the traffic-congestion argument: A well-designed “Transportation Demand Management” program will take care of any traffic problems caused by the higher population density associated with multi-family housing. Some of our politicians and planners are adamant about this point. “For the record,” City Planner Andrew Thomas told the Planning Board in January, “we believe Transportation Demand Management can and will work. It has, and does, work in other cities in this country. We’re firmly behind it.”
Maybe the two sides can be reconciled this way: Measure A advocates are right when they say additional multi-family housing will make traffic congestion worse. But if so, driving will become so unpleasant that a fed-up public will have no choice but to turn to public transit. And then the Measure A opponents will get their way after all.
* * * *
Thus far our analysis of whether to retain or repeal Measure A.
Undoubtedly, we’ve omitted arguments on both sides. We’ll name two we left out deliberately– and tell you why. Measure A defenders argue that retaining the Charter provision is necessary to preserve our “quality of life.” Measure A opponents argue that repeal is necessary to promote “diversity.” Sorry, but these concepts are too vague, and too subjective, for us to get our hands around. We’ll stand aside as the philosophers debate them.
So how would the Merry-Go-Round vote if Measure A was on the ballot in November? We’ll tell you as soon as we announce our candidacy for public office. All we’ll say for now is that, to the extent Measure A preserves a “vibrant” and “robust” community, we’re for it. To the extent it doesn’t, we’re against it.
We’re sure this position will play well on the stump. Maybe even good enough to get us elected. Maybe even elected Mayor or Vice Mayor.
Not good enough for you?
Well, since we’ve decided to run only if the Alameda firefighters’ union agrees to finance our campaign, we expect to be able to remain uncommitted forever.
Draft 2015-2023 Housing Element: 2014-03-10 staff report to PB — Ex. 1 – Draft Housing Element
Historic Preservation Ordinance: Historic Preservation Ordinance
Victoria Transport Policy Institute articles: Online TDM Encyclopedia – Clustered Land Use; Online TDM Encyclopedia – Land Use Impacts on Transport; Article, Land Use Impacts on Travel
Off-Street Parking Ordinance: Off-street Parking Ordinance
Alameda Point Zoning Ordinance Amendment: Zoning ordinance amendment
Report for TSM/TDM plan: AlamedaTSM_TDM_Plan_FinalReport
Historical traffic volumes at Tubes: TCMP2010exh_2
Development project traffic impact reports: Boatworks Residential Project DEIR (transportation); 2011-10-24 Fehr & Peers transportation report; Marina Cove Subdivision MND-FINAL1; Del Monte Warehouse – initial study