It would be easy, if one was so inclined, to stick a label on Inner Ringleader and Council candidate John Knox White. “Pro-development” and “anti-automobile” are two that come to mind.
After all, during his tenure on the Planning Board, Mr. Knox White voted to approve a host of new residential projects: Alameda Landing – Phase Two (275 housing units); the Del Monte warehouse (414 units); Marina Shores (89 units); Site A at Alameda Point (800 units); 2100 Clement Avenue (52 units); and the original plan for Encinal Terminals (589 units).
Likewise, Mr. Knox White consistently has advocated for policies intended to reduce “SOV” (single-occupancy vehicle) automobile trips and to promote usage of “alternative” means of transportation.
But the Merry-Go-Round never has seen much value in labeling a candidate instead of analyzing his views. (That’s one reason we don’t “follow” our local Twitter trolls). We think it’s far more useful to consider, in light of his track record, the actions Mr. Knox White is likely to take, should he be elected to Council, on issues relating to development and transportation. The labels cited above may have some basis in fact – but they don’t tell the whole story.
We’ll start with residential development.
Mr. Knox White’s detractors may fear that, if elected, he’ll mount a campaign to cram more housing onto the northern waterfront and Alameda Point. In fact, Mr. Knox White may not be able to accomplish that result even if he wanted to. But he very well may get the chance to please the housing advocates anyway.
All of the projects identified above already have received the approvals needed to proceed with development. So has the latest plan for the Alameda Marina, which the Planning Board okayed after Mr. Knox White left it and which Council approved in July. (Before then, Mr. Knox White had been a member of a subcommittee that worked with the developer and staff to prepare a master plan providing for 760 new housing units.)
Three additional projects – Shipways, the Alameda Landing waterfront, and the North Housing parcel – are still in the planning stages, but, according to Assistant Community Development Director Andrew Thomas, none of them will require any further approval by Council. If these projects get the green light from the Planning Board, Council will become involved only if the Board decision is appealed or called for review.
But there is one significant item for which action by the next Council will be necessary: development of the Main Street Neighborhood at Alameda Point. Last October, Council approved a “specific plan” for the area that includes new, multi-family “supportive” housing for the formerly homeless and veterans as well as new, market-rate residential units. A consortium of non-profit organizations including the Alameda Point Collaborative will develop 267 units of supportive housing, and Council has authorized issuance of an RFQ for a private developer for the rest of the property.
Under the RFQ, the private developer will be expected to construct the backbone infrastructure not only for the portion of the site where the market-rate housing will go but also for the land earmarked for supportive housing. But residential development outside the latter area will be subject to the constraint of the 1,425-unit cap imposed by the City’s no-cost-conveyance agreement with the Navy on new housing at the Point. According to the RFQ, due to the cap, the private developer will be allowed to build a maximum of 291 new units, only 260 of them available for sale or rent at full market rates. (The other 31 units must be affordable by “moderate”-income households.)
The issue thus arises: Given this limitation, will any developer be able to come up with a plan that generates sufficient funds to pay for all of the infrastructure for the entire site, cover the costs of vertical construction, and still yield a profit? And if not, what will the next Council do about it?
This is where Mr. Knox White, if elected, may seek to exert his influence. His statements as a Planning Board member hint at the direction in which he may go.
Single-family homes and townhomes produce higher profits – and thus throw off more funds available to pay for infrastructure – than condos or apartments. But while on the Planning Board Mr. Knox White made clear that he doesn’t like either of those types of housing. By the same token, “workforce” housing produces lower profits – and less available funds – than market-rate housing. But, when the Planning Board considered the Main Street Neighborhood specific plan in January 2017, Mr. Knox White opposed reducing the proposed requirement that 10 percent of the total units be dedicated to housing for the “missing middle.” (He doesn’t like the term “workforce” housing.)
So what would he do?
Two possibilities come to mind. Mr. Knox White raised one of them at the January 2017 meeting: Instead of designating the existing housing in the so-called “Historic District” – where the Big Whites and the bungalows once used by NCOs are located – for “adaptive reuse” only, the City could allow a developer to put new “workforce” housing there. That way, more market-rate units could go in the area adjacent to the supportive housing. This approach, of course, would eat up a lot of the quota remaining under the cap. Moreover, it wouldn’t earn any plaudits from the preservationists who fought hard to keep the “Historic District” largely as it is.
And then there’s the nuclear option: Either request the Navy to modify the no-cost conveyance agreement to raise the cap, or build more housing units than the agreement permits and pay (or force the developer to pay) the $50,000-per-unit penalty for each additional unit.
When former Board member Lorre Zuppan raised this idea at the January 2017 meeting, Mr. Knox White remained silent. But he has shown himself not to be wedded to the idea of housing caps. To the contrary: During the Planning Board discussion of the North Housing parcel, it was Mr. Knox White who suggested raising the 435-unit cap imposed by the current zoning ordinance. We’d bet that, were he elected to Council, he’d favor doing the same thing at Alameda Point. The result, of course, would be that more housing – maybe not the 4,396 units in the SunCal plan Mr. Knox White supported, but more than the 1,425 units to which the City agreed with the Navy – would end up being built at the Point.
Next to a related issue: traffic.
For years, Mr. Knox White has crossed swords with those who oppose new residential projects on the grounds they will create intolerable traffic jams, particularly at the tubes and bridges. At times, he has gotten downright right nasty, such as his putdown of licensed engineer Eugenie Thomson, who had criticized the City’s analysis of the traffic impact of development at the Point. “Some are quick to point out that Thomson often glosses over important facts and factors in order to reduce complex issues to overly simplistic antidevelopment slogans,” Mr. Knox White wrote in an op-ed published in the Alameda Sun. “This is just such a case. She ignores plain facts that support the very thing her instincts are telling her is wrong.”
But even Mr. Knox White acknowledges that the new developments will have a significant impact on traffic. He could hardly do otherwise, since the studies done for the developers show that those projects, collectively, will generate an additional 5,695 vehicle trips during the morning rush hour and 7,800 additional vehicle trips during the evening rush hour. Here’s the breakdown:
|Project||Additional AM trips||Additional PM trips|
|Alameda Landing waterfront||
(These numbers are taken from the Environmental Impact Reports and traffic studies for the various projects).
In response to these forecasts, Mr. Knox White regularly has argued that the traffic impacts can be “mitigated” through “transportation demand management,” whose goal is to reduce the number of automobile trips (compared to the number that the project otherwise would produce) by making public transit more attractive and driving less appealing. To that end, the TDM programs for Alameda Point and the northern-waterfront developments typically include providing free shuttle service to BART and free AC Transit passes, as well as reserving space for car and bike shares.
Mr. Knox White is a true believer in TDM. According to him, not only do the transportation “experts” vouch for the concept, but “lots of studies” prove that TDM programs are effective. (He often cites Arlington, Virginia; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and his own home town of Seattle, Washington as exemplars.) Mr. Knox White made sure that the Transportation Choices Plan adopted by Council this January endorsed TDM, and, during his tenure on the Planning Board, he scrutinized every proposed TDM plan carefully to make sure it met his standards – and urged the developer to make changes when it didn’t.
As the new residential developments already approved by Council are built and residents move in, we’ll get to see whether this faith in TDM is justified, since all of the TDM plans require an annual report showing whether the program in fact is achieving its goals.
If TDM works as well as he thinks it will, Mr. Knox White, if elected to Council, will be leading the cheering when these reports are presented. But what if it doesn’t? Based on his comments on the Planning Board, we’d expect that Mr. Knox White will argue that sterner measures are required. And the public may not like them.
One such measure that Mr. Knox White may push for is “unbundled” parking, where new residents are required to pay, in addition to the price of the unit itself, a separate amount for the privilege of getting a parking space. This is a common feature of an “ideal” TDM plan, and Mr. Knox White has argued that it is also a necessary one. According to him, “study after study has shown” that if the new residents don’t have to pay separately for a parking space, they’ll persist in using their cars. “We know,” he told the Planning Board in December 2016, “that when people have plentiful parking at their location, it doesn’t matter what the bus costs or what their options are, they’re gonna drive – right? – because we all want to go with convenience, and if driving doesn’t take that long, or it’s shorter than biking or taking a bus, and there’s no cost to it, at least on a daily basis, because we don’t externalize our costs, that’s how people are going to get there.”
Thus far, only the Alameda Point Site A and the Alameda Marina development plans require “unbundled” parking. But if the current TDM programs for the other new developments aren’t meeting their goals, Mr. Knox White may well propose adding a similar requirement for those projects as well.
Whether he would succeed is another matter. Mr. Knox White argued long and hard for unbundled parking at the Del Monte warehouse, but a neighborhood group objected that, in order to avoid having to pay separately for on-site parking, new residents would simply park on nearby streets – to the detriment of current residents. Ultimately, the Planning Board sided with the neighbors, but the next Council may be more willing to defer to Mr. Knox White’s asserted expertise.
Finally, “complete streets.”
Mr. Knox White is a bicycle enthusiast. (We admit it: so are we.) Indeed, he was a prime mover behind the Shoreline Bikeway project, in which the City spent $796,923.22 to install a cycle track and related amenities along Shoreline Drive. “This is an exciting project,” Mr. Knox White told Council. “It’s going to be a legacy, it’s going to be the project that, in 20 years, people throughout the City and people who live on Shoreline are going to say, thank goodness the City had the foresight to build this project. . . .”
Mr. Knox White summarily dismissed objections to the proposal raised by residents of nearby apartment complexes. “It’s not to say that there won’t be impacts,” he said, “[but] there are hundreds of people who will be benefiting from this as well.” As he framed it, the issue was whether the City should provide “safe access to people who want to bike and walk along the beach” – or “186 additional places for people to store their personal possessions in the public right-of-way.”
Mr. Knox White has not stopped at supporting projects like the Shoreline bikeway. Rather, he has been a strong advocate for “complete streets,” where existing thoroughfares are re-designed to reduce the number and width of vehicular traffic lanes and to add new bike and pedestrian pathways.
Thus far, the only “complete streets” proposal to make it to Council involved Central Avenue. When he spoke before Council in its favor, Mr. Knox White mixed high-minded rhetoric with implicit threats: “Tonight is about safety and people’s lives and the neighborhood for whose people this project goes through,” he said. “Your choice is safe streets and safe neighborhoods and stopping people from being hit by cars, or choosing politics. And everybody in this room is going to know which choice you made at the end of the night.”
The West Alameda Business Association objected to one aspect of the plan on the grounds that it would interfere with the operation of Webster Street businesses, but Mr. Knox White was no more charitable toward the business owners than he had been toward the Shoreline Drive residents. “Tonight your choice is very simple,” he told Council. “You can rely on the recommendation of your transportation planning staff and the professional engineers, and the well-respected transportation engineers from Kittelson . . . or you can . . . listen to a guy who owns a hotel down the street who tells you it can’t work, it’s going to be a disaster.”
Despite Mr. Knox White’s plea, Council decided to listen to the business owners. It approved the complete-streets “concept” for two segments of Central Avenue, but sent the plan for the Webster Street/Central Avenue intersection – the one that prompted the objections – back to staff for revision. According to a recent report by City transportation coordinator Gail Payne, staff “has begun the next phase of the project, which includes additional outreach for the Webster Street/Central Avenue area to determine potential alternatives for further consideration.”
And Central Avenue is not the only location where the potential re‑design of City streets is likely to come before the next Council. According to Ms. Payne, staff also is working on a “complete streets” proposal for Clement Avenue, and on changes to Otis Drive to, among other things, add “bicycle facilities” and improve “transit access.” We expect that Mr. Knox White would be a strong backer of these initiatives. And if he is elected to Council and a majority of his colleagues agree, three major arteries in Alameda will take on a configuration far different from the one they have today.
The three areas we’ve discussed today don’t constitute the universe of development and transportation issues over which Mr. Knox White will have a say if he is elected to Council. (We haven’t even mentioned the bike-pedestrian bridge over the estuary, which the Bike Walk Alameda crowd is promoting, apparently regardless of its cost.) But they give an indication of the consequences of electing someone who holds the views he has so persistently – and ardently – expressed. In deciding whether to vote for him, Alamedans shouldn’t look to labels but to likely results.
One final word. From our perspective, none of the positions taken by Mr. Knox White is outrageous. Indeed, in a sense, he is the only true “progressive” in the race, using that term in its historical context. Politicians like Woodrow Wilson and pundits like Walter Lippmann believed that elected officials should defer to experts in making policy decisions rather than cater to an ill-informed public. That seems to be Mr. Knox White’s stance as well. As he once told the Planning Board, planning decisions should be based on “what the experts think we should be doing,” not on “what people have been asking for.”
As a small-d democrat, we’re not pleased by the arrogance such a statement reveals. Too often, Mr. Knox White comes off as if he’s just come down from Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets handed directly to him by the Almighty. Nor are we particularly fond of Mr. Knox White’s proclivity for demeaning those who hold opposing views instead of just debating the merits. Not everyone who disagrees with him is an ignoramus or a troglodyte. Alamedans should realize that, if they elect the Inner Ringleader to Council, his supercilious attitude will be part of the package they’ll be getting, too.
TDM plans: 2014-05-20 Ex. 1 to staff report re TDM plan – draft TDM plan (Alameda Point); 2014-10-27 Ex. 1 to staff report to PB – Draft Transportation Demand Management Plan (DelMonte warehouse); 2015-04-13 Ex. 1 to staff report – Marina Shores draft TDM plan (Marina Shores)