Report card for the Mayor – Part II

When the Merry-Go-Round’s old friend, the late William F. Buckley Jr., founded the National Review, he described its mission as being to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.”

There undoubtedly were some who voted for Trish Spencer last fall because they believed (or hoped) that Ms. Spencer would take a similar approach to residential development in Alameda.  If she didn’t go so far as to yell Stop, at least she’d shout Slow Down!

During her first six months in office, Ms. Spencer hasn’t met this expectation.  Instead, she has:

  • Voted against her own resolution to repeal the former Council’s approval of the Del Monte project, which will add 380 new housing units, 325 of which will be sold or rented at market rates, along the northern waterfront.
  • Voted to approve the Site A project, which will put 800 new housing units, 600 of which (362 apartments, 166 townhomes, and 72 condos) will be sold or rented at market rates, at Alameda Point.

In her first six months Mayor Spencer thus has voted in favor of more new housing than Mayor Marie Gilmore voted for in her entire term.  To Ms. Spencer’s detractors, this shows she was just pandering to the anti-development crowd during the campaign.  But even the “slow-growth” advocates themselves may be starting to question the extent of her commitment to their cause.

For the Del Monte project, Ms. Spencer deserves a break.  By the time she was sworn in, her ability to yell Stop or even Slow Down was extremely limited.  In fact, the former Council had arranged, in the waning days of the Russo/Gilmore administration, to make the deal virtually impossible to overturn.

The Del Monte project was announced in April 2014.  The only planning document left to be finalized before the November election was the transportation demand management plan.  (The Planning Board had to choose between neighborhood residents, who wanted “bundled” on-site parking, and Board member John Knox White, who didn’t.  A majority went with the residents).  A week after the election the Board signed off on the TDM plan.

The proposal then was ready for consideration by Council.  Ms. Spencer (and some of her supporters) urged the lame-duck Council members to hold off.  But, still smarting from her defeat at the polls, Mayor Gilmore declined to be deferential.  Instead, with post-midnight assistance from Councilwoman Lena Tam, she pushed through the ordinance approving the project, with the second reading taking place hours before the incumbents’ term expired.  The ordinance was set to become effective 30 days later.

Ms. Spencer then placed on the Council agenda for the January 6 meeting, her first as mayor, a resolution reversing the former Council’s decision.  But the new Council apparently was advised during a closed session – or at least Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese later so suggested – that repealing the approval ordinance before it took effect would face daunting, if not insuperable, legal obstacles.  Having been so advised, every Council member, including Ms. Spencer, voted against the resolution.  But the Mayor’s vote signified not so much an endorsement of the project as a recognition of reality.

As with the Del Monte development, many of the decisions that led up to the Council vote on the Site A project already been made by the time the new Mayor took office.  The former Council had enacted a zoning ordinance permitting residential development in the “Town Center” sub-district at the Point.  It had approved a “precise plan” favoring multi-family housing in that area.  It had authorized sending out requests for qualifications requiring the developer for Site A to include a minimum of 800 housing units in its submission.  And it had selected Alameda Point Partners based on its proposal to build a project containing 800 housing units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space.

So yelling Stop probably wasn’t an option for Ms. Spencer when she took her seat on the dais.  Nevertheless, since the City and the developer were still negotiating the disposition and development agreement and the other legal documents for Site A, the Mayor was in a position to press for revisions to the project.

Wisely, Ms. Spencer never sought to cut the number of housing units at Site A – that would have been a non-starter.  Instead, she focused on the type of housing that would be built there.

“My priorities,” she said, “are to meet the needs of Alamedans and people that work here currently.”  To that end, she wanted a goodly portion of the 600 “market-rate” units to be priced within the reach of residents and workers who weren’t eligible for one of the 200 units that qualified as “affordable” under the standards set by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.  The project should offer “entry-level” or “low-end” townhomes and condos for purchase by middle-income households, she said.  And the developer should make rents low enough that a middle-income Alameda household could find an apartment that fit its budget.

Ms. Spencer brought up these points at all three of the meetings at which A.P.P.’s point man, Alameda resident and Minnesota native Joe Ernst, briefed Council.  But she never sought a commitment from Mr. Ernst to build, in addition to the required 200 “affordable” units, a specific number, or percentage, of moderately priced market-rate units.  Nor did she solicit support from her colleagues for requiring the developer to make that pledge.  And so she ended up not getting what she wanted.

Both Ms. Spencer and Councilman Tony Daysog publicly claimed credit for convincing the developer to increase the ownership/rental ratio for the market-rate units from 25-75 to 40-60.  But Mr. Ernst told us that he had used the former figure at an early Council meeting to refer only to Phase I of the project.   The overall mix between for-sale and for-rent units never really changed.  It was “largely driven by economics and ability to source capital,” Mr. Ernst said.

Likewise, based on the chart prepared by Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott for Ms. Spencer, the project will not provide any market-rate housing units, for sale or for rent, that a household earning $74,606, the median household income in Alameda, can afford.  Both the smallest condo and the smallest apartment will require an annual income of $95,000.  A buyer of the smallest townhome will need to make $120,000 a year.

(For his part, Mr. Ernst told us that A.P.P. intends to provide “diversity by design” by “attempting to address a wider range of incomes through unit sizes and finish packages.”  But, he cautioned, “we have to do this within the confines of the market”).

There were, of course, legitimate reasons, political and otherwise, for Ms. Spencer to vote to approve the Site A project despite her inability to mold its housing component to her liking.  But with the Council sign-off on that project coming on the heels of the Del Monte approval, Ms. Spencer will find very few opportunities during the rest of her term to influence the scope and pace of residential development in the City.

A few weeks ago, City Planner Andrew Thomas presented to Council the following chart of anticipated housing construction from now to 2023:

Alameda pipeline chart

The chart shows that, of the 1,835 housing units forecast to be built in the next nine years, Council already has approved projects totaling 1,554 units.  (The total includes, in addition to Del Monte and Site A, 285 units at Alameda Landing and 89 units for the Marina Shores [aka Marina Cove II] development).

The principal remaining residential development projects shown in the chart are 2100 Clement Street (52 units) and Boatworks (182 units).  At its next meeting, the Planning Board is set to consider recommending approval of the development plan for 2100 Clement.  Last month, the Board rejected the latest proposal for the Boatworks, but Mr. Thomas told us the developer intends to re-submit its application, which should go to the Planning Board in the fall.

Both of these projects involve residential development along the northern waterfront, where the Del Monte and Marina Shores projects also are located.  When the 2100 Clement and Boatworks proposals reach Council, Ms. Spencer (or her colleagues) might well ask:

  • Does the City really need the additional housing those two projects would supply, especially since the vast majority of the new units (45 out of 52 at 2100 Clement, 161 out of 182 at the Boatworks) will be priced at market rates?
  • With the Del Monte and Marina Shores projects – not to mention Alameda Landing and Site A – already poised to generate additional traffic along the northern waterfront, can the bridges and tubes handle the extra volume created by two more developments?

A third project didn’t make Mr. Thomas’s chart, but it poses even more fundamental issues about residential development.

The project is located at 1835 Oak Street, a 2.58-acre parcel now occupied by a vacant warehouse.  The developer – which is the same firm behind the 2100 Clement Street project – proposed last October to retain 4,860 square feet of the warehouse for use as commercial space (and demolish the rest), and to build 47 three-story townhomes on the site.  The problem is, the property is now zoned “General Manufacturing (Industrial).”  For the project to go forward, the site will need to be re-zoned for residential use.  Mr. Thomas told us the next hearing on the developer’s request for re-zoning is scheduled for October.

The majority of the Planning Board – we wonder who – was favorably disposed to turning the parcel over for residential development when Mr. Thomas first presented the possibility.  But Ms. Spencer (or her colleagues) may see the matter differently.

Not currently being zoned residential, the 1835 Oak Street parcel is not included as an “opportunity site” in the 2017-23 Housing Element.  Not only is re-zoning the property unnecessary to meet the City’s regional housing quotas, it actually would increase the existing surplus of sites available for residential development.  Moreover, as Mr. Thomas pointed out to the Planning Board, “Converting land from employment use to residential use in Alameda is not consistent with achieving a citywide jobs-housing balance.”

The Planning Board may short-circuit the debate by denying the re-zoning application.  But if it doesn’t, we can’t imagine Ms. Spencer going along with an action that would expand, rather than shrink, the extent of new residential development in the City.

And then there’s Ron Cowan.

Currently, the only application Mr. Cowan has pending is to build a new Harbor Bay Club at the Business Park.  (Mr. Thomas told us the Environmental Impact Report for this project will be released in September).  But if that application is approved, Mr. Cowan surely will follow it with another scheme for tearing down the existing Harbor Bay Club and replacing it with . . . something.  (His original proposal was to build 80 single-family homes on the site; later, he floated the idea of a hotel and conference center).  You can bet Tim Coffey and Harbor Bay Neighbors will be ready when Mr. Cowan pulls back the curtain.

When that happens, Ms. Spencer will be put to the test:  Did she really mean it when, during the campaign, she proclaimed her opposition to further residential development on Harbor Bay Isle?

(BTW: There’d be no merit in any attempt to disqualify Ms. Spencer or Vice Mayor Matarrese, who also spoke out during the campaign, from voting on Mr. Cowan’s proposals.  As candidates for office, they had every right to express their views about potential development at Harbor Bay.  Their statements on the campaign trail no more bar them from voting as Council members than Mr. Knox White’s blog post about the Boatworks project a few years ago prohibits him from voting as a Planning Board member).

Mr. Cowan’s usual tactics are unlikely to work on Ms. Spencer.  She probably wouldn’t mind being treated to an expensive dinner, but, as far as we know, she doesn’t play (or watch) tennis.  And we’ve never heard her speak admiringly of Willie Brown.  If Ms. Spencer suddenly comes out in support of more housing at Harbor Bay, she truly will have gone over to the other side.


Del Monte: 2014-12-02 staff report re Del Monte DA

Alameda Point Site A: 2015-06-16 staff report re Site A2015-06-16 staff presentation – REVISED

2100 Clement: 2015-03-09 staff report to PB re 2100 Clement2015-06-22 staff report to PB re 2100 Clement2015-07-13 staff report to PB re 2100 Clement

Boatworks: 2015-06-22 staff report to PB re Boatworks

1835 Oak: 2014-02-10 staff report to PB re rezoning 1835 Oak St.2014-10-13 staff report re 1835 Oak St.

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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