Short takes: Francis, John & Chip

Today, we offer short takes on two of our regular topics – development and the budget – and a message to a local columnist.

Another defeat for Collins

If you were listening to the presentation made by the applicant on the first item on the Planning Board’s June 22 agenda, you might have thought, Here’s another residential development the Board is sure to like.

The project provided housing:  182 new housing units, comprising 79 three-level townhomes, 74 three-level single-family homes, and a 29-unit apartment building.

It included “affordable” housing”:  13 apartments for “very low”-income households and eight apartments for “moderate”-income households.

And it contained open space:  two acres of “landscaped pathways and recreational areas” along the northern waterfront, with a dock for kayakers extending into the estuary.

What’s more, the Planning Board and Council already had approved a prior version of the tentative map.  According to the project architect, the revised version offered “stronger connectivity between the waterfront and the city,” “superior design for the approximately two acres of publicly accessible open space,” and a “richer set of floor plans and architecture” than its predecessor.

Boatworks site plan

Boatworks Preliminary Site Plan

All the right boxes would appear to have been checked – more housing, more “affordable” housing, more open space.  But there was one problem:  the developer for the project was Francis Collins.

For more than 10 years Mr. Collins has been trying to get approval for developing the 9.8-acre “Boatworks” parcel located at the intersection of Clement Avenue and Oak Street.  But, during that period, he and the City have spent more time in the courtroom than at the drafting table.

The Planning Board rejected Mr. Collins’s first two development proposals – and each time he responded by filing suit.  Eventually, the parties entered into a settlement agreement whereby Mr. Collins agreed to submit a “reduced density alternative,” and the City agreed to provide $4.4 million worth of “financial assistance.”  Thereafter, the Planning Board and Council approved a tentative map reducing the number of units from 242 to 182 and including a two-acre waterfront park.

A little while later, redevelopment ended, the prospect of financial assistance went away, and the project stalled.

Then it became the City’s turn to sue.  Allegedly, once Mr. Collins had gotten approval for the tentative map, he let the property turn into what amounted to a junkyard.  After litigation lasting more than a year, the debris was removed and the dilapidated warehouses were demolished.  Perhaps coincidentally, Mr. Collins found a Newport Beach-based housing developer, William Lyon Homes, willing to buy the land after it had been fully entitled.  The revised tentative map presented on the 22nd was the first step in that process.

Given his history with the City, Mr. Collins probably shouldn’t have expected an easy time when he submitted his latest proposal.  And he didn’t get one.

According to the project architect, after nine months of negotiations, the City planning department had signed off on the revised tentative map – only, at the last minute, to raise new issues, one involving the phasing of the affordable housing component, the other involving the computation of the open-space requirement.  But the architect told the Planning Board that he had come up with solutions for both of these issues, and City Planner Andrew Thomas agreed that, “We think this can be fixed.”

Then it was time for the public and the Board members to have their say.  This is where, at least to us, it got interesting.

Two regular public commenters, who, for as long as we’ve been watching Planning Board meetings, never met a residential development they didn’t like, didn’t like this one.  Neither speaker uttered a word of her usual praise to the developer for ameliorating the dire shortage of housing in Alameda (caused, of course, by Measure A).  Instead, we heard that the project “lacks an appreciative eye” and is short on “community benefits.”

But this was mild criticism when compared to the subsequent Board comments.

Pick your favorite sound bite:

Board member David Burton:  “This current site plan is packed in too much, there’s no graciousness to it. . . .   It doesn’t have anything to recommend it.”

Board member John Knox White:  “When I opened this, I thought, Wow, this is a parking lot with a bunch of buildings built in the middle of it. . . .   There’s no tweaks that can save this plan.”

Board member Kristoffer Koster:  “It seems like tract housing that maybe you’d see down in Orange County.”

Even the personable president of the Board, union honcho Mike Henneberry – who usually offers comments at Board meetings as often as Clarence Thomas asks questions at Supreme Court arguments – got into the act.  “I see a host of problems” with the proposal, Mr. Henneberry said.

And so the Board voted unanimously to reject the tentative map (and accompanying density bonus application).

We don’t purport to be an architectural critic, so we don’t know whether the design was as execrable as an aesthetic expert like Mr. Knox White said it was.  But somehow we wonder whether this property owner could ever present any development proposal that would satisfy staff or the Planning Board.  If we were Mr. Collins, we might be tempted to just cut and run.  (Or maybe hire Becca Perata, the well-connected publicist who ran the P.R. campaigns for the Del Monte warehouse and Alameda Point Site A development projects).

But if history is any indication, Mr. Collins might choose to pick up the phone and call his lawyers instead.

Another advocate for austerity

Alamedans who harp on the wisdom of exercising fiscal restraint in the management of City affairs – and we count ourselves among those happy few – are used to having their advice ignored and their character impugned.  Indeed, even being called Republicans doesn’t bother them anymore.

But we wonder how the crowd whose members assault the City Auditor in the City Hall-ways and assail the City Treasurer in the weekly newspaper would react if the same advice came from a different source – like, say, the esteemed city manager of a vibrant and robust Inland Empire city.

This fellow just penned an op-ed piece in which he reported that not only did his city have a balanced budget (and a truly balanced one at that, “with current expenses met by current revenues”) but a projected $1.0 million surplus.  Nevertheless, he cautioned, “no one should be celebrating yet.”  In fact, “the work of stabilizing [the city’s] long-term finances has only begun.”

He then mentioned several items requiring particular attention.  One was the need to “set aside money to replace things as they wear out and break down, like fire trucks, police cars, technology and facilities.”  Another was the need to “confront [the] reality” of rising retiree benefit costs “with sensible budgeting.”

“So,” he concluded, “while there is additional money in the budget for 2015-16, there is not the windfall that some have anticipated.”  Under these circumstances, the “future demands that we maintain an attitude of austerity at City Hall for a few years more.”

It may be hard to imagine that the author of these words is the same guy who, as his last official act as Alameda City Manager, pushed through public safety contracts costing between $6.5 million and $9.8 million in salary and benefits over five years.  But, yes, the dispenser of this sage advice is none other than John A. Russo.

Russo photo

Mr. Russo

Mr. Russo’s description of Riverside’s financial condition could have been written about Alameda:  both cities can boast a “balanced” budget and a projected surplus for the next fiscal year.  And for Alameda, as for Riverside, the work of stabilizing long-term finances “has only begun.” Maybe Mr. Russo’s prescription of the mindset with which the politicians should plan for the future would work equally well in Alameda.  Attitude of austerity, indeed.

We’ll resist the urge to repeat the old saw about “Do as I say, not as I do.”  But we’d encourage our elected officials to go to and bookmark this page.  Maybe they can even figure out a way to have it pop up whenever they’re about to press the “Spend” button.

Another Chip shot

In an otherwise factually accurate column about Council’s approval of the plans for Site A at Alameda Point, San Francisco Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson couldn’t resist taking another shot at Alameda.

The City’s “struggle to come up with a workable plan” for the Point may sound “lengthy,” Mr. Johnson wrote in his June 30 column, but “it’s better than the alternative – losing free land for failure to adhere to the conditions of a public land transfer, which requires that affordable housing be part of any development.”

Well, yeah, it’s “better than the alternative” – except that Alameda never faced the danger of losing free land for failing to comply with any federal affordable-housing requirement.

Mr. Johnson appears to be confusing a “public benefit conveyance” with an “economic development conveyance.”  As the name implies, the former may condition the transfer on providing public benefits like affordable housing; the latter does not – and it did not in the case of the transfer of the former Naval Air Station.  In fact, none of the agreements between the City and the Navy imposes any mandates for affordable housing.

Which is not to say that a residential developer at Alameda Point is not obligated to build affordable housing.  Of course, she is.  But that duty derives not from any federally-imposed edict but from the March 2001 settlement agreement between the City and Renewed Hope.  In addition, all residential developers are subject to the City’s inclusionary housing ordinance adopted in June 2004, and, if they want to build more market-rate housing units than the zoning ordinarily allows, they must include the additional affordable units specified by the City’s density bonus ordinance adopted in December 2009.

The federal government had nothing to do with creating any of these obligations – they were the City’s doing, and they predate the transfer of the bulk of developable land from the Navy to the City.  Nor can the feds take back the property if the affordable housing isn’t built.

Chip Johnson photo

Mr. Johnson

This may seem like a technical distinction, but we bring up the point because this is the second time Mr. Johnson has sought to portray Alameda as some sort of backward – nay, racist – community with an antipathy toward affordable housing.  (See his May 5, 2014 column about Alameda Point).  He got his facts wrong then, and he’s gotten them wrong again.

(While we’re at it, we also might invite Mr. Johnson to check out four affordable housing projects built under the City’s auspices in the last 10 years:  the Breakers at Baypoint, opened in 2007 with 52 apartments; Shinsei Gardens, opened in 2009 with 39 apartments; the Islander Motel, opened in 2013 with 62 apartments, and Jack Capon Villa, opened in 2014 with 18 apartments.  It’s strange that all these projects managed to get approved and built in such a narrow-minded place).

Don’t misunderstand us:  We’re not holding out Alameda as some sort of model for affordable housing.  And, like Mayor Trish Spencer, we remain concerned about the paucity of new housing affordable by middle-income households.  (Based on the City’s own analysis, none of the 362 “market-rate” units at Site A appears to fall within that range).  But we hope that the next time Mr. Johnson chooses to write about Alameda he’ll get beyond stereotypes and look at the facts.


Boatworks: October 5, 2010 staff report (2010-10-05 staff report re Boatworks); July 19, 2011 staff report (2011-07-19 staff report re Boatworks density bonus application); June 22, 2015 staff report (2015-06-22 staff report to PB re Boatworks)

About Robert Sullwold

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

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