Our problems with Measure A

The Merry-Go-Round believes that the “wellness center” for the homeless proposed for McKay Avenue is a good idea.

But we’re having a hard time bringing ourselves around to supporting Measure A.

Let us explain why.

First, we don’t like the decision by the current Council majority to place Measure A on the ballot in the first place.

Legally, this was a totally unnecessary act.  The federal government had made it a condition of transferring title to the property to the Alameda Point Collaborative that the zoning be changed to remove the “G” overlay.  Council had the authority to make that change, and it exercised its authority by voting, 4-to-1, last November to remove the overlay.  No subsequent approval by the voters was required.  (Similarly, Council could, and did, change the General Plan designation for the property without going to the voters.)

So what’s the point of Measure A?  It’s a political tactic, pure and simple, intended to thwart the citizen-sponsored initiative (now known as Measure B) to re-zone the McKay Avenue property as “open space.”

The straightforward way to ensure that the property stays zoned for use as a wellness center would have been to oppose Measure B on the merits and defeat it at the polls.  But by submitting a “competing” measure asking voters to “confirm” its actions, Council set up a second way to render the initiative ineffective:  even if Measure B does get a majority, the prior zoning decisions will remain in place if the Council-sponsored initiative garners more votes.

The last time Council employed this stratagem was 2016.  The initiative sponsored by the Alameda Renters’ Coalition to ban “no-cause evictions” had qualified for the ballot.  In response, Council decided to submit a “competing” measure asking voters to “confirm” the existing rent stabilization ordinance that did not include such a ban.  (As hard it may seem to believe now, two current Council members – Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and “Just Cause Jim” Oddie – were part of the consensus against putting such a ban into the ordinance.)

As it turned out, the tactic wasn’t needed in order to uphold the existing ordinance, because the ARC initiative lost outright.  Maybe the current Council majority is fearful that Measure B has a better chance of passing than the ARC initiative did, so it behooved them once again to submit a “competing measure” to bump up the odds that their prior decision will stand.

In any event, we’re especially annoyed by the suggestion that Measure A was put on the ballot to allow Alameda residents themselves to determine the fate of the McKay Avenue property.  Just last Tuesday, Council voted, 4-to-1, to move forward with amending the rent stabilization ordinance to insert the ban on no-cause evictions that the electorate overwhelmingly rejected two years ago.  By this action, the Council majority demonstrated that they were perfectly willing to ignore, and indeed contravene, the “will of the voters” when they deemed such action to be politically expedient.  Similarly, passage of Measure A may give the politicians cover – but it does not constrain them from acting unilaterally in the future.

In addition, we don’t like the way the campaign in support of Measure A is being waged.  Here are the three things that bother us the most:

To start with, we don’t like the aura of moral superiority with which the advocates for Measure A cloak themselves.

We’ve read all the op-eds and letters to the editor published in the Alameda Sun and Alameda Journal about the two ballot measures since the first of the year.  Based on that review, it appears that the Measure A apostles would have us believe that they alone are on the side of the angels while their opponents are in league with the Prince of Darkness. (Excuse us for the theological analogy, but it is, after all, Lent.)

If you support Measure A, we’re told, you’re a member in good standing of a “caring, compassionate, and inclusive community” (according to the Rev. Dr. Laura Rose of the “Alameda All Faiths Coalition”) and “on the right side of history – and the right side of humanity as well” (according to Gaby Dolphin, co-president of the City of Alameda Democratic Club).

But woe unto you if you oppose it.  In that case, you’re part of a “duplicitous attempt to polarize older and younger folks” (according to Laura Thomas of the “Alameda Justice Alliance”) and are “pitting non-profits against non-profits” and “frail seniors against non-existent parks” (according to Jason Biggs, son of APC executive director Doug Biggs).

These are just a sample of the comments that have made it into the papers.  By no means are they the most dogmatic – but, as a matter of policy, we don’t quote remarks by ordinary citizens not affiliated with an interest group.  Moreover, we are reliably informed by the occasional user of social media in our household that the rhetoric is even more extreme there.

Frankly, we resent being lectured about the “morally right” position to take on a ballot measure, even one involving a wellness center for the homeless.  If we’re seeking guidance in this area, we know where to look:  Matthew 25:40‑45 – not the opinion pages of the local press.

We also don’t like the attempt to twist tried-and-true tropes into arguments for Measure A and against Measure B.

For example, during the ongoing debate over rent control, we have read and heard repeatedly that “wealthy, out-of-town real-estate interests” – including “Chinese investors” and “international conglomerates” – are engaged in a conspiracy to oppress Alameda renters.  These same evildoers, we now are told, are leading the campaign against the proposed wellness center.  “Here we go again – real estate interests have financed another dubious ballot measure,” Ms. Thomas wrote in the Sun and the Journal. “Last fall’s Measure K targeted renters. This time, elderly, sick and homeless people in our city are targeted, and Alamedans must stand up for compassion and justice.”

In fact, the only real-estate firm listed in the disclosure statements filed by the committee supporting Measure B and opposing Measure A is Pleasant Hill-based Cardoza Properties, which election expert Mike McMahon identifies as the owner of the strip mall located on Webster Street and Central Avenue next to the proposed wellness center.  In addition, the Crown Harbor Homeowners Association, whose website describes it as representing a “community of 76 townhomes nestled along Ballena Bay, Crab Cove, and Crown Beach,” also contributed to the pro-B/anti-A campaign.  Except for a trust (which the disclosure statements suggest belongs to a retiree), all the rest of the committee’s reportable donations came from individuals, of whom all but one is an Alameda resident.

Now it’s true that the real-estate firm supplied a goodly portion of the campaign committee’s funds – $10,000 in 2018 (out of $25,944 in total cash contributions) and $3,500 in 2019 through March 23 (out of $8,341 in total cash contributions) – and that the homeowners’ association tied for second place (with the trust) by donating $4,500.  But it’s hardly surprising that organizations with an economic interest in the outcome of the ballot measures would contribute heavily to the campaign.

Want to guess who has put the most money into the pro-A/anti-B war chest?  It’s APC, the prospective operator of the wellness center, which has contributed $28,000 through March 23 (out of $44,050 in total cash contributions to the campaign committee).  Except for two donors who were surprised to learn that a portion of their annual gift to APC was being spent for this purpose, we haven’t heard any objection to the non-profit disbursing so much of its cash in a political battle.

And finally, we don’t like the misleading aspects of the Yes on A, No on B campaign literature.

With $44,050 in the kitty, the pro-A/anti-B committee has been able to prepare, print, and send out three glossy brochures.  Presumably, these brochures were put together by the political consulting firm known as The Next Generation that was hired by the committee.  The firm has been paid $15,296 through March 23, and its principal, Doug Linney, is listed as one of the “public servants representing Alameda” who support Measure A.

We wish the consultants had done a better job of resisting the temptation to stretch, and even distort, the facts.

A couple of items are relatively minor.

For example, two of the brochures state that the wellness center will be “paid for with federal, county, and private resources.”  But the financing plan submitted by APC to HHS doesn’t show these as the only sources of funds.  In fact, the City of Alameda has promised to give APC $100,000 per year from the General Fund for operation of the wellness center.  In addition, the Alameda Housing Authority – the City’s housing agency – has committed to provide $600,000 over three years for “planning and capital improvements.”  (Apparently, AHA intends to take these funds out of the annual Community Development Block Grant made to the City by HUD, so we suppose they could be characterized as “indirect” federal money.)

One of the brochures also suggests that the wellness center will assist our local firefighters and cops in “getting homeless seniors off our streets” and thereby “free[] up emergency response services for the community.”  (The new president of the Alameda firefighters’ union, Patrick Corder, chimed in with an op-ed in the Sun and the Journal making a similar point).  But the senior assisted-living facility will be available for homeless seniors from throughout Alameda County, not just the City of Alameda.  And the wellness center isn’t intended to be a drop-off location where the Alameda fire department’s “community paramedics” can take homeless seniors they find on our local streets; in fact, it won’t offer any emergency or temporary shelter at all.

One could argue, if inclined to be charitable, that claims like this are simply . . . imprecise.  But the campaign literature contains another assertion that, to put it as politely as possible, is a gross overstatement.

Under the heading “Good Government,” one brochure states:  “City Council able to provide strict oversight of project, and it will go through an extensive regulatory and permitting review process.”

That just doesn’t seem to be the case.  When Council removed the “G” overlay, it left the zoning classification for the McKay Avenue property as “Administrative/Professional.”  The wellness center is a “permitted use” in this category, which means that the project need only go through “design review” by the Planning Board (with no further review by Council at all, unless a Planning Board decision is appealed).  And “design review” consists simply of reviewing the architectural and site development drawings to make sure that the proposed design is “consistent with the General Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and the City of Alameda Design Review Manual” and otherwise “appropriate” and “compatible.”

What’s missing from this list, of course, is any examination of the operating plans for the project:  How exactly does APC propose to accomplish its “mission” for the wellness center while minimizing any adverse consequences for the neighborhood?  The Planning Board, and, if necessary, Council will decide whether the buildings look nice; neither body will scrutinize what is supposed to go on inside, or outside, them.  This doesn’t sound much like “strict oversight” and an “extensive regulatory and permitting process” to us.

(Paul Foreman of the Alameda Citizens Task Force pointed out to us that the situation would have been different had Council zoned the wellness center “R-5,” the classification given to the Alameda Health and Wellness Center located on Willow Street near South Shore.  In such a case, the center would need a use permit, and the Planning Board would be required to review APC’s plans “for their appropriateness in a specific location, or for such other factors as safety, congestion, noise, and similar considerations.”)

This last issue brings us to the bottom line.

Perhaps all of our objections to Measure A could be considered simply matters of form that shouldn’t affect our voting decision:  “You may not approve of why Measure A was put on the ballot or how it is being marketed, but get over it,” one might say (and, indeed, this is what a member of our household is telling us in so many words).  “If you think the wellness center is a good idea, vote for Measure A anyway.”

Well, we do think the wellness center is a good idea.  It plainly serves a societal need (and we don’t know anyone who objects to providing housing for homeless seniors, giving follow-up care to homeless hospital patients, or offering information about resources available to people at risk of becoming homeless).  Moreover, if we evaluated the wellness-center proposal as if it were any other development project, it looks like a good deal:  APC is getting the land for free.  The site already contains former barracks that can be readily converted into an assisted-living facility.  HHS has reviewed APC’s financial plans, both for construction and for operations, and found them to be viable.  Put it this way:  We’re far more confident that APC will be able to get the wellness center up and running than we are that Tim Lewis will ever renovate the DelMonte warehouse.

Still, the lack of review and oversight over operations troubles us – substantively.  In his recent op-ed in the Sun (the final version of which can be found below; the Sun published an earlier draft), Mr. Foreman identified a concern that we’ve heard from others:  upon discharge from the medical respite facility, where will the patients go?  The data he obtained about the San Francisco medical respite center suggests that some of them will end up on the nearby streets (or in the park at Crab Cove).  We understand that APC is promising that it will make the necessary arrangements to make sure this won’t happen.  But we’d be far more comfortable if we knew what those arrangements consisted of – and if they had to be vetted by an official body after a public hearing.

Council, of course, could have taken care of this problem by zoning the property as R-5 (as Mr. Foreman suggests) or by conditioning the zoning changes on submission and approval of APC’s operating plans.  But it didn’t.  And, given the sanctimonious approach the current Council majority typically takes toward sensitive issues, it is unlikely they will do anything later to accommodate those whom they regard as NIMBYs.

Nevertheless, we’re reluctant to let our distrust of self-righteous, disingenuous politicians stand in the way of supporting a worthy project at the polls.  “Don’t,” we were taught as a child, “cut off your nose to spite your face.”  We still have 48 hours in which to ponder whether Mom’s admonition applies in this case.

Sources:

Wellness center project summary: Project summary (spring 2018)

Wellness center financial plan: 2017-11-13 (approx.) APC financial plan

Ballotpedia summary of Measure A:  Ballotpedia, Measure A

Campaign committee disclosure statements for the April 9 special election are available at https://www.southtechhosting.com/AlamedaCity/CampaignDocsWebRetrieval/Search/SearchByElection.aspx.

Paul Foreman analysis: Foreman article on Measures A & B

 

About Robert Sullwold

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

3 Responses to Our problems with Measure A

  1. Paul S Foreman says:

    Thank you for your very informative article and for publishing a link to the most recent update to my article, earlier versions of which were published in the Journal and the Sun.

    The only issue that I have with your article is the inclusion the failure of the Planning Board and City Council to zone the property as R-5, rather than A-P as a “relatively minor” issue. In my view this a major issue which needs to be addressed if Measure A wins the election.

    At both the Oct 8, 2018 PB meeting and the Dec. 4, 2018 CC meeting where the re-zoning of this site was presented by Andrew Thomas, he makes no mention of the fact that R-5 also would allow the center and that the site is surrounded on three sides by R-5 zoning. Most importantly, while A-P gives the PB no control over the center other than design of improvements, R-5 places the center in the category of “c. Uses Requiring Use Permits” which would allow the PB to place reasonable operational controls on the center.

    This is a critical difference. Mr. Biggs is making many promises on how the facility will be operated to minimize risk to the community, like not allowing drop ins to the clinic, limiting resource help to Alameda residents, providing transportation of discharged respite patients back to their original communities, operating respite as a “closed” program, providing security, etc. . He also is promising to voluntarily enter into a development agreement which will give the City some operational enforcement power. However, the A-P zoning gives the PB no negotiating leverage, while R-5 gives them great leverage.

    This leaves me with the question which I posed to Mr. Thomas by email on Tuesday as to why this option was not even mentioned in his staff report. I have also read the minutes and viewed the videos of both meetings. There is no mention of R-5. Based on my reading of the minutes and viewing of the above-mentioned PB and CC meetings I feel quite certain few, if any, members of the PB or CC were aware that R-5 was available when they approved A-P. Mr. Thomas has not answered my inquiry.

    If Measure A wins, I have been authorized by the Alameda Citizens Task Force to write to the PB and CC asking them to re-zone the Parcel to R-5, not to in anyway stop the project, but to give the City a voice in operations. This is action which should be supported by all Alameda residents, regardless of whether they are for or against Measure A. If you or your organization is interested in this effort please post to this blog or send me a private message through Nextdoor ASAP. Although we will not know the outcome of this election until later this week, City Council will be meeting next Tuesday, so I am planning to get a letter to them before the meeting.

  2. Alan Pomeroy says:

    Well Robert, you’ve nailed it again. This deal has always felt off somehow to me and partly because of the marketing/posturing being done to “guilt” me into voting for it. I was prepared to swallow hard and vote for it but seeing it all layed out like this just makes me pissed off so now I’m leaning NO on A.

  3. Mike McMahon says:

    Here is summary of voting data for the April 9 Special election. I will add precinct data when it is published in a few weeks.
    http://www.mikemcmahon.info/2019ElectionSummary.pdf

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