In anticipation of the “public forum” on Measure A at the January 13 Planning Board meeting, the City has posted on its website a paper written by Planning, Building and Transportation Director Andrew Thomas that he describes as an “evaluation” of the Charter provision (Article XXVI) banning multi-family housing and limiting residential density.
But the paper is hardly a neutral evaluation of the topic. Indeed, Mr. Thomas finds nothing good at all to say about Measure A – and a lot to say about the multitude of evils he contends it has produced. The theme is stated right at the outset: “Article 26,” he writes, “continues to impede the community’s efforts to address local housing, transportation, and environmental problems facing the Alameda community in 2020.”
Mr. Thomas then goes on to argue that the Charter provision “limits the City’s ability to address the local and regional affordable housing crisis,” “is limiting the City’s ability to address the climate emergency,” and “undermines Alameda’s efforts to maintain an economically, culturally, and racially diverse community by prohibiting housing types that are most affordable to lower and middle income households.”
What’s more, Mr. Thomas finds no countervailing benefits created by the Charter provision. “Article 26 is not an effective growth control measure and does not reduce traffic or automobile congestion,” he writes. Likewise, “Article 26 does not ‘preserve the character of residential neighborhoods.’”
Wow! And you thought Donald Trump had no redeeming qualities.
If everything Mr. Thomas says is true, it’s a travesty that Measure A, passed by the voters in 1973 and supplemented by the electorate in 1991, has stayed in the Charter for as long as it has. Surely, when Alamedans go to the polls this November to throw the prevaricating president out of office, they ought to be given the opportunity to wipe this pernicious provision off the books, too. And we suspect that a ballot measure to that effect is just where long-time Measure A detractors like Vice Mayor John Knox White are heading. Mr. Thomas’s “evaluation” is the opening salvo in that campaign.
At the Merry-Go-Round, we prefer to look forward rather than backward. To us, the issue should be framed not in terms of the extent to which Measure A has hampered residential development in the past – although we’re constrained to point out that, despite
Measure A, the City has met its overall Regional Housing Needs Assessment quota for the 2015-23 planning cycle, and Council and/or the Planning Board have approved plans for 4,399 new housing units (by our count) since 2014 – but in terms of the impact repealing the Charter provision would have in the future.
It may be tempting to conclude that, if Measure A went away, all of the deleterious consequences decried by Mr. Thomas would disappear with it. But that ain’t necessarily so: the Charter provision alone didn’t create the current state of affairs, and its repeal isn’t likely to result in a complete reversal of fortune.
The only direct consequence of repealing Measure A would be that high-density, multi-family housing now would be permitted in Alameda. Before one can conclude that this change in the law would have any real-world effect, two questions need to be answered: Where would the new multi-family housing go? And who would build it?
The most recent Housing Element contained a list of 18 sites “available” for residential development. But since then plans have been submitted and approved for eight new projects on these sites, and only three parcels zoned for residential use – the 2.18-acre “City Corporation Yard Site” next to Marina Village and two parcels totaling 4.13 acres owned by Pennzoil on Grand Street – are left in the inventory. According to the Housing Element, the Alameda animal shelter now occupies part of the former site, and the Pennzoil parcels contain top soil contaminated by hazardous materials leaked from above-ground tanks.
There is, of course, a lot of vacant land at Alameda Point, but, as long as the City continues to abide by its no-cost conveyance agreement with the Navy, residential development is capped at 1,425 units, of which all but 125 already have been committed. Even if
Measure A were repealed, the Point doesn’t offer a venue for building a lot more multi-family housing unless the City and the Navy renegotiate their agreement or private developers are willing to pay the penalty for busting the cap.
If there are vacant parcels elsewhere in the city that could be used for multi-family residential development upon repeal of Measure A, we hope Mr. Thomas will tell the public at the January 13 forum where they’re located and how many acres they contain.
And if there aren’t any additional vacant sites, where will the land on which new multi-family housing could be built come from? Mr. Thomas’s “evaluation” provides one hint: the Park Street and Webster Street commercial districts. “Several mixed-use land developers,” he reports, “have inquired about developing a mixed-use project with ground floor retail and residential on the upper floors at the one-acre CVS site at Santa Clara and Oak.” But to make such a project work, the restrictions imposed by Measure A would need to be eliminated because “all of the prospective developers have informed staff that it is financially infeasible to develop the site with only” the number of units permitted under current law.
Again, if Mr. Thomas has fielded inquiries about other prospective “multi-use” projects in commercial districts that repeal of Measure A would render “financially feasible,” we hope he’ll let the public know where they’re located and how many new housing units they’d generate.
If no more vacant land is available, and “residential over retail” opportunities are scarce, there would seem to be only one other way to come up with sites for new multi-family housing: tear down existing single-family homes so that the land can be used for townhouses and apartment buildings.
Frankly, this prospect frightens us. It smacks of what happened during the 1960s when the federal government bulldozed entire neighborhoods to make way for construction of high-rise public housing. And even if we could ignore that thought, we question whether a tear-down scheme would make economic sense. According to Mr. Thomas’s “evaluation,” the average sale price of a single-family home in Alameda is $1.03 million. Are there really developers out there who are willing to shell out a million bucks upfront to get their hands on a piece of land they can put a four-plex on? And if there are, you can bet that the rents they’ll need to charge their tenants to recover their investment won’t be cheap.
Indeed, economics may constitute the real “constraint” on further multi-family residential development in Alameda if Measure A were repealed.
We’ve written frequently about the protracted delay in breaking ground for the Del Monte warehouse renovation, which the developer, Tim Lewis Communities, attributed to the unavailability of financing. (Tim Lewis finally sold the property last year, and the new developer says it will move forward with the project. We’ll see.) Measure A didn’t kill the Del Monte project; Tim Lewis just couldn’t get enough money to begin construction.
Nor is Tim Lewis the only outfit that recently has had to pull the plug on a high-density, multi-family residential project. Just this weekend, we read that Hill Street Realty, a Los Angeles real estate firm, is scrapping the plans it got approved four years ago for an 18-story building containing nearly 300 housing units in downtown Berkeley.
If there’s no place to build a new project, and no workable way to finance it, it may turn out that repealing Measure A would not result in a significant amount of new multi-family housing in Alameda after all. In that case, none of the benefits suggested by Mr. Thomas’s “evaluation” would be realized. Repeal would rewrite the statute books – but it wouldn’t change the “built environment.”
Maybe we’re wrong about all of this – we don’t consider ourselves to be part of the local “progressive” clique, so we can admit that possibility – and repeal of Measure A in fact would lead to a flurry of new residential construction. But would a flood of new high-density, multi-family housing in fact bolster the efforts to solve the “local housing, transportation, and environmental problems” Mr. Thomas describes? Again, we have a couple of questions that need to be answered.
First, would repeal of Measure A in fact result in an increase in the supply of affordable housing? According to Mr. Thomas, the average sales price of a multi-family unit ($742,000) is less than the average sales price of an single-family home ($1.03 million), but all this proves is that, if repeal of Measure A spurred more multi-family residential construction, rich people who want to live in Alameda would have a wider range of expensive accommodations from which to choose.
According to Mr. Thomas, “In response to the housing crises, Alameda regulations . . . should incentivize the construction of housing at a density that is affordable to lower- and middle-income households.” So be it. But if repealing Measure A simply would “incentivize” construction of $742,000 townhouses and apartments, it won’t do a damn thing for lower- and middle-income households.
The potential benefit would arise, if at all, only if repeal created an incentive to build less expensive housing. But is there any reason to believe that this would be the case? We’ve read – and reported – too many stories about how difficult it is to cobble together funding sources for projects designed for low-income households. (Why do you think there are so many proposals for state and local governments to issue housing bonds?) If the Charter provision were repealed, we can’t see why putting together a financing package would become any easier.
Mr. Thomas also argues that, if Measure A were repealed, the supply of affordable housing would increase because private developers would “be able to afford to include higher percentages of deed-restricted housing units” (i.e., units reserved for low- and medium-income households). To be sure, the more units a developer could build and sell at market rates, the more profit it would make. But would the developer actually choose to spend the excess on additional affordable units?
The experience with the City’s density bonus ordinance suggests a negative answer. A developer can get a 20% increase in overall project size by boosting the percentage of very-low-income units by only 1% above that required by the inclusionary housing law. And that is what many of them have done to qualify for the “bonus.” In those cases, the extra revenue generated by the greater number of units results in higher developer profits, not more affordable housing.
Second, would repeal of Measure A in fact reduce traffic congestion or greenhouse gas emissions? According to the Climate Action and Resiliency Plan cited by Mr. Thomas, “the higher density housing in transit-oriented locations prohibited by Article 26 generates lower vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gases per unit as compared to lower density housing allowed by Article 26.” (Italics added.) The implication is that, if Measure A were repealed and high-density, multi-family developments were allowed, VMT and GHG would fall, resulting in positive impacts for both traffic and climate.
The flaw in that conclusion is that it compares a multi-family project and a single-family project on a per-unit basis. (Hence, our italics.) By definition, however, a multi-family project contains multiple housing units, and each of those units separately generates VMT and GHG. Would an eight-unit apartment building really generate lower total VMT and GHG than a single-family home on the same-size lot? We find that hard to believe.
In a similar vein, Mr. Thomas argues that “the greenhouse gas emission resulting from heating and cooling a single-family home is greater than that resulting from a unit in a multifamily structure prohibited by Article 26.” That very well may be the case, but the same per-unit fallacy applies. It stands to reason that heating and cooling all eight units in an apartment building would be likely to generate substantially more GHG than heating and cooling a single-family home.
This is not the first time we’ve seen an argument for high-density, multi-family housing based on per-unit statistics. Indeed, those statistics are frequently cited in response to the objection that a new residential development will exacerbate traffic congestion. But the argument missed the mark in those cases, and it does in this one, too: The appropriate inquiry is not how much VMT or GHG any single unit in a multi-family project will produce, but how much VMT and GHG the project as a whole will generate. That’s where the impact on traffic and climate change can be found.
We’ve listened many times to Mr. Thomas explain to the Planning Board that, of course, the project under consideration will increase traffic on city streets – but the City and the developer have come up with a “transportation demand management” plan to mitigate the impact. We wish he had been equally candid in his “evaluation” of Measure A. If repeal of the Charter provision were to stimulate new high-density, multi-family residential development, of course there would be an increase in VMT and GHG emissions, both overall and compared to a project consisting solely of single-family homes on a same-sized lot. Having acknowledged this reality, maybe Mr. Thomas then can tell the public how the City or the developer could mitigate those impacts – or why they don’t matter.
Finally, would repeal of Measure A in fact promote “inclusiveness” and “equity”?
Frankly, we’re not quite sure what policy issue this section of Mr. Thomas’s “evaluation” is intended to address. If “inclusiveness” refers to racial and ethnic “diversity,” the data shows that the percentage of “people of color” actually has increased, and the percentage of whites has decreased, in Alameda since Measure A was made part of the Charter in 1973: The census reported that the city’s population was 79.2 percent white, 13.2 percent Asian, 8.1 percent Hispanic, and 4.2 percent black in 1980; the most recent American Community Survey estimated that the population was 48.1 percent white, 31.5 percent Asian, 11.5 percent Hispanic, and 7.5 percent black in 2017. As a result, one might argue that Alameda has become a more racially and ethnically “diverse” community in the last 40 years – Measure A notwithstanding.
Moreover, we have difficulty seeing how repealing Measure A would change these demographics. The premise of Mr. Thomas’s argument is that repeal would result in an increase in affordable housing. We’ve already expressed doubt about this premise, but even if it were true, would a greater supply of low-income housing really draw more people of color to Alameda? Presumably, cheap apartments would be attractive to all low-income households, regardless of race or ethnicity. We fail to see why blacks, Asians or Hispanics would find them more so.
Having worked our way through Mr. Thomas’s “evaluation,” we find ourselves unconvinced that repealing Measure A in fact would help remedy the “local housing, transportation, and environmental problems” he identifies. Indeed, we wonder whether repeal would have any significant positive impact at all.
But maybe that’s not the point of the move to change the Charter. To some people, Measure A is a symbol of what they don’t like about Alameda and its history. To them, repealing the Charter provision would be a symbolic gesture rejecting a vestige of a discredited past. Our local elected officials, of course, are fond of making these kinds of gestures, especially those calculated to prompt huzzahs from “progressive” activists. (Renaming Haight Elementary School comes to mind.) But far be it from us to suggest that political motives underlie the campaign against Measure A.
In any event, Mr. Thomas is not a political appointee, and we don’t think he’d seek to curry favor with Mr. Knox White or the “build, baby, build” crowd by taking a position he didn’t believe in. But we’ll be paying close attention to his presentation on the 13th to see if he can fill in any of the holes in the case he’s made so far.
“Evaluation” by Andrew Thomas: 2019-12-09 staff evaluation of Measure A