Council offers 'historic' approval on housing development despite lawsuit

Council offers 'historic' approval on housing development despite lawsuit

Michele Ellson

City leaders have granted what some deemed an historic early approval for a new housing development that will include homes that don’t comply with Measure A, despite a lawsuit that challenges an earlier decision that allows such development on a limited number of sites.

The City Council on Wednesday offered an initial approval for the second phase of the Marina Cove development on Buena Vista Avenue, which is expected to replace a Chipman warehouse with 52 new single family homes and 37 new townhomes; the townhomes would be built on a 1.5 acre slice of the 7.14-acre lot. Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft recused herself from the 4-0 vote, saying she already weighed in on the proposed development as a member of the Planning Board.

If constructed, the townhomes would be the first privately financed multifamily housing to be built in Alameda in decades, City Manager John Russo said. The project, which still requires additional approvals, could begin construction this spring and would take 17 to 22 months to complete.

“I’ve been waiting 40 years. It’s time to get the shovels out,” said Nick Cabral, who lives near the Chipman site. “I’ve been looking at trucks for 72 years. And I’ve had enough of trucks.”

While some of the veteran council-watchers who attended Wednesday’s meeting urged approval of the tentative map that divides the property into lots for each of the homes that would be built there, others questioned whether city leaders shouldn’t hold out for a plan that has more housing in it. And some questioned whether the city should put the approval on hold until an East Bay Regional Park District lawsuit that could undo the council’s decision to allow construction of apartments and other multifamily housing is settled.

“If you proceed tonight with the approval and the city loses in the lawsuit brought by the park district, the city may again owe damages to a developer,” said former City Councilwoman Karin Lucas, who urged the council to wait on the approvals. “Please do not approve this development tonight and avoid the financial risk.”

Mayor Marie Gilmore said the council could face a lawsuit from Marina Cove developer Trident Partners if it didn’t offer an up or down decision because the city faces time limits for considering such applications.

“The city is obligated to process, approve it or disapprove it on its merits,” Assistant City Attorney Farimah Faiz said.

Councilman Stewart Chen said he was concerned that approving a plan with less than half of the 193 homes that city staffers determined could be constructed on the first of 10 sites where multifamily housing is allowed to be developed would set a precedent for future developers that could slow the city’s efforts to get affordable housing built. But Acting City Planner Andrew Thomas said that other developments that are in the works could contain more housing than envisioned.

Developer Francis Collins is seeking to expand his proposed Boatworks development on Clement Street from the 182 homes that were approved to 240 homes, Thomas said – an amount that the city had previously rejected but may now consider. And as of December, Sacramento-based developer Tim Lewis Communities – the winning bidder for the 3.9-acre parcel across the street from Crab Cove that sparked the park district suit – was in the midst of a deal to develop the Encinal Terminals site, which is adjacent to the Chipman property. That development could also include more homes than envisioned.

The council in July approved a new housing section of its general plan that offers a list of potential sites for housing development. The state requires cities to draft plans demonstrating that they have enough properly zoned land to meet future housing needs, and specifically, the housing needs of lower income residents.

State housing officials rejected an earlier draft of the plan in 2009, specifically calling out Measure A – which prohibits the development of multifamily housing in Alameda – as a barrier to approval. Facing a lawsuit and the potential loss of an array of state funding, the council okayed a plan allowing multifamily housing on 10 sites which the state approved.

But the council’s decision to include the federal property across the street from Crab Cove on that list provoked an angry reaction from park district officials, who had hoped to obtain it from the federal government. They sued the city in November, claiming city officials failed to properly notify them of the proposed zoning changes and to perform an adequate review of their potential traffic, ecological and other impacts.

The suit also claimed the council’s vote contravened the city’s charter in bypassing Measure A, and park district officials want a local judge to nullify the housing plan as a result. City officials have denied the claims, and have said that the state law requiring the plans trumps Measure A.

The park district has also asked the court to put the housing plan on hold as the case proceeds, a move that could stall projects that include Encinal Terminals and Alameda Landing in addition to the Chipman project.

Trident had originally sought to build 69 homes on the Buena Vista site, the number approved when city leaders first signed off on the project over a decade ago. But members of the Planning Board said they wanted to see more housing on the site.

City staffers and members of the council said that while they may want to see more homes on the site and others to be developed in the future, they’re likely to face pushback from developers who say the market won’t support the additional development.

“This is very unusual when the planner for the city is telling a developer, ‘We want more units,’” Thomas said. “But it’s something that’s going to be happening much more often.”

The city’s current plan is designed to accommodate the development of 2,400 homes for residents with varying incomes. But a revision due for approval in 2014 may be based on a need for far fewer homes – just as the city will be ready to add Alameda Point to the list of available development sites.

“This is not necessarily the permanent zoning of any of these sites,” Russo said.

In addition to the Marina Cove plan, the council signed off on a new, five-year lease for the Pacific Pinball Museum at Alameda Point. The nonprofit museum, which is leasing 12,000 square feet of warehouse space at the Point to stores items that don’t fit in its Webster Street space, will pay rent that tops out at around $2,500 a month, with a credit of up to $58,850 for any roof repairs it makes over the life of the lease.

The council also accepted a recommendation from the Social Service Human Relations Board to direct about $175,000 in federal funds to basic safety net services. In previous years, the funds were distributed to a wider array of services that included job training, housing counseling and youth services. But funding reductions compelled the board to recommend the funds be focused on providing shelter and food, board president Cyndy Wasko said.

The public also got its first look at a new city website that Deputy City Manager Alex Nguyen said was designed to be cleaner and easier to use than the city’s existing site. (Full disclosure: The contractor who designed the site, Jack Boeger, is a member of The Alamedan’s advisory board.) The site was also designed using responsive technology that "will offer phone and tablet an optimized view of the website for their mobile or tablet device," Boeger said. Nguyen said the city is seeking public input on the new site,, over the next three months.


Richard Bangert's picture
Submitted by Richard Bangert on Thu, Jan 3, 2013

The housing element seems to be about as effective at getting more affordable housing as the installation of electric charging stations was at getting people to buy electric cars.

According to proponents of now-defunct redevelopment agencies, those agencies were the single most important catalyst for construction of affordable housing in the state. Now we are left with hanging our hat on state housing formulas lovingly crafted in Sacramento for the creation of local housing elements. And as Andrew Thomas made clear last night, these formulas can leave cities like Alameda drawing up housing elements with fewer housing units per site than the site will support, which is exactly the opposite of the intended goal of the housing element law.

And then you have an affordable housing group that threatened to sue the city for being out of compliance with state law (by not having an approved housing element). But now that we are in compliance, when the new housing element cycle starts in a year, we will be zoned for FEWER housing units than if we had never bothered. If we had left the out-of-compliance housing element on the shelf, and the housing group had not followed through with a lawsuit, the required zoning for new housing in 2014 and beyond would have included the current amount PLUS the new amount. There is renewed hope for housing lawyers but not for people who actually need affordable housing in Alameda.

And, the party that ultimately is suing the city over the housing element does not even do housing – they do parks. But if they win, and Alameda is deemed out of compliance, we could find ourselves in 2014 having to carry over the current 2400 units onto the new required housing element amount – which won’t get us any more park space, but will get more zoning for housing. Is any of this drama making any sense?

Recent events, up to and including last night’s Marina Cove agenda item discussion, seem to illustrate two things: All politics is local, and economics is more important than social studies.

Submitted by Laura Thomas on Fri, Jan 11, 2013

It’s difficult to understand why the writer of the previous post wished to criticize housing activists in Alameda who have worked for over a decade to bring a semblance of fairness to the housing policies of the city. Renewed Hope did not sue the city, but worked to bring about a state-mandated housing element, which, with all its faults, now designates sites, with the requisite zoning, for the building of affordable housing.
There are now sites available for 2,400 units. Failing to adopt the housing element would have merely pushed off the time for rezoning and making these sites available until 2015 and beyond.
The East Bay Regional Park District, in all its zeal to get its desired parcel, has gone all the way to court and, so far, has refused to discuss or negotiate anything with anyone. Unfortunately, the district has pitted itself and its interest in obtaining park land against the struggle for affordable housing, which is also vital to maintaining our region’s environmental health.
By the way, the passage of the housing element in July has spurred the city to begin seeking out multi-family developers, something they have not been inclined to do for the last 30 years while Measure A has blocked all such development. That is a major shift that will begin to produce more affordable housing for the city. Along with moderate income single family units, Alameda has already built or is in the process of building solid, quality affordable housing projects, – The Breakers, Shinsei Gardens, the Islander Motel and the Jack Capon Villa, to name a few.

Submitted by David (not verified) on Sun, Mar 2, 2014

Since 1979, there has been state law on the books, that would allow developers to sidestep Measure A, if they are serious about building low-income housing - the density bonus law.

The law provides that builders can in fact build higher density multifamily housing when they provide low-income units.

Somehow, nobody ever saw fit to ask for a density bonus in Alameda until Francis Collins and the boatworks project in 2007 or so (the city fought it) and until SunCal was defeated at the ballot box in February 2010 and came back with a new proposal, asking for a density bonus.

The fault lies not with Measure A, but with city officials, who didn't enact a density bonus until 2009 - 30 years after the state law was enacted, and with builders and developers who, from 1979, never saw fit to apply, as state law permits, despite the lack of a local ordinance, for a density bonus to build low-income housing.

As someone else astutely noted, in 1973, it was not necessary to use regulations like Measure A to keep "undesirables" out - discrimination was much more open at that time, with the use of redlining, and simply throwing applications from "undesireables" into the trash.

It's worth noting also that since Measure A was approved by voters in 1973, Alameda has grown steadily more diverse.

California Density Bonus Law
Government Code § 65915