The third Battle of Harbor Bay is about to begin.
The first two battles ended in victory for the insurgents (defenders of the Mif Albright golf course and residents living near the Harbor Bay Club, respectively), but the issues are different this time around and the outcome is far from certain.
The venue for the opening skirmish in the latest battle will be a joint meeting this Monday of the Planning Board and the Historical Advisory Board, where City staff will present the most recent version of the updated “General Plan” for the City.
In a nutshell, the controversy involves whether the land on which the Harbor Bay Club and the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center now are located can be used for multi‑family, high‑density residential development. The draft update proposes that it can (and should) be. Indeed, the draft states that multi‑family housing with building heights of 40 to 80 feet, and densities of between 30 and 65 units per acre, should be permitted in both places.
We’ll get to the pros and cons of this proposal shortly, but first we want to discuss the first two battles, because they foreshadow the arguments the opposing parties are making this time (and – we admit – because they bring back pleasant memories).
The first battle involved what is now known as the Corica Park golf complex.
In May 2008, the City decided to close the Mif Albright par‑three course, where hundreds of children (including current PGA player James Hahn) had learned the game, allegedly because it was losing money. In fact, it wasn’t, and a grassroots group led by the Alameda Golf Commission and kids who played at the Mif (and their parents) convinced Council to reopen it.
The City then hired a consultant to offer advice about the future of the City‑owned property. Close the Mif, the consultant recommended, and find a private company to operate the two 18-hole courses. Council took the advice and ultimately selected a Chicago-based sports management firm, KemperSports, with which to negotiate a long-term lease.
The City was well on its way to finalizing a deal with Kemper when the late Ron Cowan, the developer of Harbor Bay Isle, appeared on the scene. Cowan proposed a swap: the City would give the land on which the Mif was located to Cowan in exchange for 12.25 acres he owned on North Loop Road. The developer then would build 112 single-family homes and an office building on the former Mif site, and the City could use the North Loop Road site for sports fields. Cowan sweetened the deal by offering to contribute $5 million in cash (later raised to $7.2 million) to the City to spend on the golf course and sports fields.
It was a shrewd move, designed to divide and conquer. The golfers who had striven successfully for three years to save the Mif naturally opposed the scheme. So did Alamedans who blanched at the prospect of turning City-owned parkland over to a for-profit real-estate developer. But a few youth sports groups – or at least their leaders – were sold on it. There was, after all, something in it for them.
Moreover, Cowan had proven himself adept at pulling political strings to get what he wanted. He contributed $10,000 to former-Mayor, then-Councilwoman Beverly Johnson’s ill-fated campaign for County Supervisor. And he wined and dined other Council members (not including Doug deHaan, who allied himself with the “Save the Mif” movement from the outset).
As soon as Cowan revealed his proposal, Council directed staff to negotiate a deal with him, and within months, staff was ready to present a memorandum of agreement. But before Council members could apply the rubber stamp, they found themselves inundated with emails from Harbor Bay residents, who joined the golfers and park advocates in opposing the swap. The primary objection was the traffic congestion that, they said, would result from turning the Mif into a residential development.
Council backed off. Instead of approving the Cowan deal, it directed staff to “consider alternatives.” The denouement occurred in March 2012. The golfers, park advocates, and Harbor Bay residents all made the case against the swap, with the president of the Community of Harbor Bay Isle Owners’ Association ticking off a host of reasons for rejecting it, ranging from air quality to quality of life.
The opponents won. The swap “comes at too high a price for the community,” Councilwoman Lena Tam declared, and, shortly after midnight, her colleagues unanimously voted to turn it down.
But Cowan didn’t give up. And, just about a year later, the second Battle of Harbor Bay began.
This time, in an April 2013 letter, Cowan “informed” the Mayor and Council, “as a courtesy,” that the developer intended to build a new health‑and‑fitness club on North Loop Road. As part of the plan, he would tear down the existing Harbor Bay Club and build 80 new single-family homes on the site, which, he claimed, he had the “indisputable right” to do.
Again, Cowan sought to flex his political muscle. An email later surfaced revealing that the developer had enlisted Democratic party kingpin Willie Brown to pressure City Manager John Russo and Councilwoman Marie Gilmore, who was contemplating a mayoral run, to support his scheme. “Willie will make that very clear to you, John,” Cowan wrote. “Marie, you can vote anyway you want . . . although Willie said that anybody’s who’s that scared of losing the job probably isn’t strong enough to hold on.”
But, once again, Cowan hadn’t reckoned with the hoi polloi. Led by a securities analyst named Tim Coffey, Harbor Bay residents formed a grassroots organization called Harbor Bay Neighbors, which grew to more than 1,100 members. The Neighbors sent emails to Council, and, taking a page from Cowan’s playbook, met one-on-one with staff and Council members. They created a website setting forth their arguments and providing supporting evidence. And they showed up at Planning Board and Council meetings.
Like their predecessors during the golf wars, the opponents of Cowan’s latest plan emphasized cars and kids. Commuters from the new residential development would travel from Packet Landing Road to Robert Davey Jr. Drive and then Island Drive, which already was heavily congested in the morning and evening. The increase in traffic, the opponents argued, would make the commute even worse. More importantly, they said, the additional traffic would make crossing the street riskier for the children being dropped off or picked up by their parents from Amelia Earhart elementary school. And, in the event of emergency, getting off Bay Farm Island would become more difficult.
This time, it was Cowan who backed down. In March 2014, his attorney sent a letter withdrawing the application to build new homes on the club site. But Cowan continued to press ahead with his plans for a new club, and the Harbor Bay residents remained anxious about his next move. In October 2015 Council scheduled a special meeting to “provide an advisory evaluation” of whether the existing club site should be used for residential development.
At the meeting, Cowan showed a slick, 10-minute video; the Harbor Bay Neighbors took turns speaking from the podium. Council then voted unanimously – Mayor Trish Spencer abstained – in favor of a motion by Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese “affirming the desirability of the commercial recreation use of” the existing club site. A few months later, Cowan’s attorney wrote a letter asking the City to “put on hold” his application to build a new club as well. Once again, the Harbor Bay residents appeared to have prevailed.
As far as we know, the Cowan heirs (Ron Cowan died in January 2017) did not instigate the latest Battle of Harbor Bay. They haven’t filed any applications to build housing on the club site, and, indeed, Cowan’s widow and trustee of the Cowan Trust told City Planner Andrew Thomas that “I want to keep the [existing] Club in operation as long as the Club remains financially viable. . . .” She added, however, that “I also wish to preserve the option of redeveloping the site for new housing,” and urged the planners to “include possible housing development on the Harbor Bay Club site” in their plans.
(We understand that the shopping center is owned by one or more off‑shore investors, but our attempts to find someone to comment about future plans were unsuccessful.)
Instead, the credit (or blame) for the idea of putting multi-family, high-density housing on the club and shopping center sites belongs to Mr. Thomas.
In April 2019, the City planner, assisted by a consulting firm hired by the City, began the process of updating the General Plan. He published the first draft on the City website in August 2020, and presented it to the Planning Board the next month.
The draft proposed to change the land-use classifications for both the Harbor Bay Club site and the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center site. Under the existing General Plan and zoning ordinances, the only residential use permitted at those locations was housing built over ground-floor retail – but only duplexes and only 21 units per acre. The draft moved both the club and the shopping center to a newly created land-use category called “Community Mixed Use.” (The original map showed the club in the “Medium Density Residential” category, but the latest staff report states this was a mistake.) For this classification, the draft stated, Council should “[c]onsider amending the Municipal Code to remove existing prohibitions on multifamily buildings and residential zoning density limits.”
Although the draft placed the Harbor Bay Club and the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center sites in the new “Community Mixed Use” category, it didn’t specify any maximum residential densities or building heights for that category. So it was impossible to assess the potential volume of new multi-family, high-density housing that would be allowed at Harbor Bay.
The next draft of the General Plan update supplied the missing information. The “Community Mixed Use” classification, it stated, would “permit multi-family housing by-right above ground floor commercial,” a maximum building height of 40 to 80 feet, and a maximum residential density of 30 to 65 units per acre, “depending on the sub district and historic district designations.”
As Mr. Thomas has pointed out, the General Plan “provides direction” for “future decisions” about land use. Accordingly, if Council approves the update with its “Community Mixed Use” category, it effectively will be sanctioning multi-family housing with densities between 30 and 65 units per acre on the Harbor Bay sites. It would, however, take a new zoning ordinance actually to achieve that end.
And how much additional housing at Harbor Bay would result?
Let’s run some numbers. The Harbor Bay Club occupies approximately 10 acres. Suppose multi-family housing with a 30-unit per acre density was now allowed. The site could accommodate 300 new housing units. By the same token, the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center covers 67.79 acres (according to Loopnet). Suppose multi-family housing with a 30-unit per acre density was now allowed there, too. If half of the shopping center were left as commercial space and the rest developed for residential use, the site could accommodate 1,017 new housing units. And if the developer included enough “affordable” units to qualify for a “density bonus,” the numbers in either case would increase dramatically.
Opposition to the proposed re-classification of the club and shopping center arose soon after the latest version of the General Plan update was announced. The Community of Harbor Bay Isle Owners’ Association fired the first salvo, passing a resolution opposing the rezoning of the “Commercial areas within the COMMUNITY” – presumably, the club and shopping center – and “strongly urg[ing]” the City to “permanently remove upzoning Commercial Areas to housing.”
Judging by the staff report, this resolution aroused Mr. Thomas’s ire. He appeared to interpret it as a declaration that the homeowners opposed any new housing anywhere at Harbor Bay. Such an attitude, Mr. Thomas asserted, was not only selfish but illegal. The resolution was “at odds with the General Plan’s equity theme and a wide variety of policies in the General Plan that articulate the premise that all neighborhoods are equal, and that all neighborhoods should provide for a variety of housing types and needs, including affordable housing,” he wrote. Moreover, “[d]own-zoning sites to bar residential use,” he pointed out, “must be accompanied by a companion up zoning somewhere else in the city to compensate for the loss of housing opportunity (the ‘No Net Loss Law’).”
With all due respect to Mr. Thomas, we think he may have overreacted. We’ve read not only the resolution but also the dozens of comments submitted by individual Harbor Bay residents. Taking those comments as a whole, we didn’t find universal antipathy to any new housing anywhere at Harbor Bay. More often, we saw opposition to allowing certain housing – high-density housing, to be precise – in certain places – the club and shopping center sites, to be specific.
Many commentators focused on the location of the Harbor Bay Club within a half-block of Amelia Earhart Elementary School, and the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center right on Island Drive, the main artery leading to the Bay Farm Island bridge.
If the club and the shopping center sites were used for high-density housing, inevitably there would be more traffic on Bay Farm Island. (Unfortunately for our local visionaries, not all of the new residents would be willing or able to ride their bikes or take the ferry to work or school.) The resulting increase in traffic would not only make travel more difficult for commuters, the commenters argued; it also would put at risk children walking or biking to school, old people taking their daily constitutionals, and residents forced to flee during an emergency. To us, these concerns – the same ones raised during the two previous Battles of Harbor Bay – are not unreasonable.
Moreover, many commenters bemoaned the effect of high-density residential development on what they called their “quiet quality of life.” Alameda today “is a wonderful oasis in the middle of a crazy world,” one resident wrote. “We don’t want or need high-rise apartment buildings.” Said another: “One of the draws to Harbor Bay has been the size, giving it a small-town feeling, and many of us have moved from the denser cities nearby. Please don’t destroy this and turn it into Anytown USA.”
Comments like these are, to say the least, not fashionable in “progressive” circles. Indeed, someone who voices such a sentiment is likely to be accused of emitting a racist “dogwhistle.” (We will note that, among the dozens of comments, we read only one from a resident who balked at the stated goal of enhancing “equity and inclusion” at Harbor Bay.) Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that putting one or more apartment complexes in the midst of a neighborhood of single-family homes would alter the “character” (however one defines it) of the area. It would be like sticking a tomato plant in the middle of a bed of roses. For our part we don’t consider this necessarily to be bad – we happen to like tomatoes – but we can see how others might want the keep their community just like it is. What’s ignoble about that?
There is, however, another theme running through the comments that strikes us as less defensible: i.e., permitting multi-family residential development at Harbor Bay would somehow violate residents’ legal rights.
Several commentators argued that they had been “promised” that the Harbor Bay Club would remain an athletic facility “in perpetuity.” But promised when and by whom? The Harbor Bay Neighbors often pointed to a resolution passed by the Planning Board in 1991 reciting that “the purpose of the Harbor Bay Club is and shall continue to be to provide quality recreation facilities for the residents of Harbor Bay Isle residential development.” This may reflect an acknowledgment; it does not constitute a commitment. Moreover, if the “promises” were made by Cowan or his real-estate agents – or even if they were contained in the CC&Rs – they are enforceable only against private parties, not against the City.
Similarly, several commentators suggested that the proposed changes to the General Plan are inconsistent with the recent defeat of Measure Z at the polls. This objection appears to be based on a false premise: i.e., by rejecting Measure Z (and thereby preserving Article XXVI of the Charter), the voters ensured that there would be no further residential development at Harbor Bay, even if state law required the City to make sites available for new housing units.
Neither the ballot arguments nor the campaign literature prepared by the opponents of Measure Z, however, ever made this claim. Indeed, anyone who watched the debate sponsored by the City of Alameda Democratic Club – including prominent “Yes on Z” promoter John Knox White, who had been designated as the advocate for ballot measure – would have heard “No on Z” campaign leader Paul Foreman specifically acknowledge that Article XXVI was “superseded” by state law to the extent necessary to enable the City to meet its RHNA quota.
So where did the notion come from? If anyone is to be blamed, it is the proponents of the ballot measure. They told Alamedans that passing Measure Z and repealing Article XXVI would promote all kinds of new residential development everywhere on the island (which they touted as a good thing). The Harbor Bay residents shouldn’t be chastised if they thought the converse also must be true – i.e., defeating the measure and preserving the Charter provision would prevent any new residential development anywhere in town. It is typically brazen for Mr. Knox White and his camp followers to demonize their opponents for falling prey to a misconception the pro‑Measure Z crowd itself fostered.
One final note. Unlike our local Twitter trolls, the Harbor Bay residents generally eschewed personal insults or name-calling. But there was an undercurrent of distrust flowing toward those whom the commenters saw as profiting, financially or otherwise, from the proposed change to the General Plan, particularly developers and politicians. The owner of the shopping center – whoever that might be – came in for a slew of criticism. And Ron Cowan was not spared either – even though he has been dead for five years. But it is still somewhat remarkable – and somewhat troubling – that so many people believe that our local elected officials put their own political interests ahead of the public good. “Find another town to wreck” is not a message our Council members will enjoy reading.
Nothing is going to get resolved, one way or another, at the joint hearing Monday. Indeed, staff is merely asking the Planning Board and the Historical Advisory Board to comment on the draft update, not (at this point) to endorse it. So the battle is just beginning.
In any event, the Harbor Bay residents may take comfort in knowing that high-rise apartment buildings aren’t going to start sprouting up on the club and shopping center sites any time soon. As we noted previously, if the General Plan update is approved, the next step would be a zoning ordinance. But Article XXVI remains on the books. Accordingly, except to the extent the Charter provision is preempted by state law, any zoning ordinance implementing the updated General Plan still would have to comply with its restrictions.
Moreover, there’s no certainty that any new zoning ordinance, even one simply imposing a multi‑family overlay, would cover either the Harbor Bay Club or the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center. For one thing, there would be no point in re‑zoning either site for multi‑family, high‑density housing if the respective property owners in fact have no intent of converting their property to residential use. For another, Mr. Thomas has made it clear – at least so far – that he does not intend to propose a multi‑family overlay for any site where it is not necessary to meet the RHNA quota. There would be no need to re‑zone the club or the shopping center if sites elsewhere in the City supply enough units. Although the updated General Plan may serve as a “framework” for the future, it won’t function as a command for the present.
We were active participants in the first Battle of Harbor Bay and took a strong rooting interest in the second. For this one, we intend to remain neutral. We will make this promise: you won’t read here that those favoring multi‑family, high‑density housing at Harbor Bay are enlightened savants with a monopoly on wisdom and virtue; nor will you read that those opposing such housing are morons or racists. As the ref says when the fighters touch their gloves at the beginning of a boxing match, Let’s have a fair fight, people.
Existing General Plan (land use): Ch. 2 – Land use