Council offers 'historic' approval on housing development despite lawsuit
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, alamedaca.gov, over the next three months.