Developing in Alameda: The approval process

Developing in Alameda: The approval process

Michele Ellson
Del Monte warehouse

The Del Monte warehouse. Photo by Michele Ellson.

When the economy collapsed in 2008, housing development here and across the country came to a standstill as the funding to build and purchase new homes dried up. But now the Bay Area housing market is hot again, and Alameda’s Planning Department is busier than ever.

New neighborhoods are proposed or in progress at Alameda Point, Alameda Landing and all along the Island’s Northern Waterfront, where as many as 1,000 new homes are proposed to be built on the Del Monte warehouse, Encinal Terminals and Chipman warehouse properties that line Buena Vista Avenue.

Neighbors of the planned development sites have complained about what they see as a lack of public process around the development proposals, while city staffers say they’ve held a number of public workshops in an effort to draw the community in.

The number and type of approvals needed to develop new homes and commercial space in Alameda – and the entities responsible for making the approvals – depend on what it is that someone wants to develop. A homeowner who wants to do a major construction project on a house built before 1942 may need to gain the approval of the Historical Advisory Board first; a small project like Mapes Ranch, which when built will include up to 11 custom-built homes next to the Fruitvale Bridge, required the City Council’s approval to subdivide the property, and each home will be subject to the Planning Board’s design review before construction can begin.

Developers of big projects like the Del Monte are typically required to provide master and development plans, a study of the potential traffic and environmental impacts, building designs and a transportation plan for the city’s approval, and the city and developer will also need to sign a development agreement – a business deal that spells out what the city will allow the developer to do, and what Alameda expects in return.

So when and how can you have your say on the size of a development, its design and plans to address the traffic it might generate? We checked in with City Planner Andrew Thomas to find out.

1. Community meetings Thomas said that on big development projects like the Del Monte, the city likes to see developers start the public process by engaging with neighbors. He sees the presentation developer Tim Lewis Communities held at the Del Monte in the spring as its initial effort to do that. (Tim Lewis also conducted a community meeting to discuss its plans for the Del Monte and Encinal Terminals properties on June 19.)

2. Study sessions The city will also hold study sessions in advance of the formal approval process to start generating feedback on a major project, he said. The Planning Board, for example, conducted a trio of workshops on the Del Monte project in advance of the decision-making process, which hasn’t yet begun.

“We’re just trying to have an opportunity to see how the neighbors feel about it,” Thomas said.

3. Environmental studies The next step is to determine whether an environmental review – called an environmental impact report – is needed, and to conduct the review if the anticipated impacts of a proposed development warrant it. The report studies how the proposed development could impact noise levels, traffic and endangered animals, among other things, and offers a list of solutions to address those impacts.

On bigger and longer-term projects like Alameda Point or planned development areas like the Northern Waterfront, the initial environmental studies can be conducted years before an actual project is proposed. If the proposed project is different from what was originally envisioned, a supplemental study may also be conducted and subject to public review.

     Notice of preparation The city first sends out a notice of preparation to let interested parties know they’re putting the report together, and the Planning Board holds a public hearing where people can let the city know what impacts they think the report should study. Suggestions are collected for 30 days.

     Draft environmental impact report After that the study is drafted, a process that can take anywhere from three months for a smaller project with few anticipated impacts to a year for a bigger project that could have multiple impacts, Thomas said. Once finished, the draft study is presented to the public for its review; again, the Planning Board holds a hearing, and people have 45 days to comment on whether the study adequately outlines and addresses a proposed development’s potential traffic, noise and other impacts.

     Final environmental impact report After all of the comments are reviewed and responded to by city staff, the final study is presented to the Planning Board for its recommendation and the City Council for its approval. These two public hearings provide additional opportunities for interested parties to comment on the adequacy of the study.

     Supplemental environmental review In the case of the Del Monte, the city certified an environmental study for that property and six others in the Island’s Northern Waterfront area in 2008. Since Tim Lewis’s proposal is a lot different from what was originally envisioned – 414 townhomes, lofts and flats plus 25,000 square feet of work/live and retail space instead of the 75 work/live units and 166,000 square feet of office and retail space studied as part of the city’s original Northern Waterfront plan – the city conducted an “initial study,” which is a less intensive review than an environmental impact report, to determine whether the new proposal would create bigger impacts than the one already reviewed and would therefore require more study.

The initial study found the impacts of the new proposal wouldn’t be significantly greater than the original, so city staff drafted what’s called a “mitigated negative declaration” stating that no new environmental review is required. Thomas said that declaration will be reviewed by both the Planning Board and City Council at public hearings where the public can weigh in on whether they think more study should be done.

According to state law, the declaration can be issued if an initial study finds that there is "no substantial evidence" that a project will have a significant effect on the environment or that those effects can be diminished or avoided if the project is revised. The law requires the city to give the public 20 to 30 days to review the proposed declaration.

If the impacts of a revised development project are determined to be potentially greater than what was originally studied, though, a supplemental environmental impact report is drafted, and it goes through all the same review and approval cycles as the original report.

The California Natural Resources Agency offers a quick breakdown on the process in this flowchart.

4, 5. Master and development plans After the environmental review is put to paper, city leaders and the public will review a master plan for the site that spells out how much development will be done; where the roads, sidewalks and bike paths to support it will go; what kind of open space it will hold; and where landscaping will be placed. The developer must also submit a development plan for review; that plan lays out how the buildings to be constructed will look, and what materials and finishes will be used. Both plans are reviewed by the Planning Board and approved by the City Council at public hearings where neighbors or other interested parties can offer their input.

6. Transportation plan Developers of all of the projects along the Northern Waterfront will be required to draft transportation demand management plans that spell out the measures they will take to reduce rush hour traffic their developments create and how they will pay for those measures.

Catellus, the company developing Alameda Landing and the first developer to implement such a plan in Alameda, set up a governing body to oversee efforts to minimize traffic, which are paid for by property owners who buy into the development. So far, the development is funding a shuttle that runs from the new Target store to the 12th Street BART station in Oakland.

7. Development agreement They’ll also be required to sign off on a development agreement that spells out business terms between the city and developer. The agreement will spell out phases of development for bigger projects, and also, how much a developer will be allowed to build and also, what the developer will offer the city. Del Monte developer Tim Lewis Communities, for example, has offered $2 million to help complete the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park – an offer they’ll put in writing in the development agreement.

Like the master and development plans, the transportation plan and the development agreement will be reviewed by the Planning Board for a recommendation and by the City Council for its approval, at public hearings where residents and other interested parties can weigh in. Sometimes, all of the documents are approved at the same hearing – as they may be for the Del Monte.

8. Certificate of approval For developments that involve the reuse of an historic property – like the historic district at Alameda Point or the Del Monte warehouse, which is a city monument – a developer must also secure an approval from the Historical Advisory Board saying its development plan meets federal historical preservation standards.

9. Supplemental approvals For the biggest developments, like Harbor Bay or Alameda Point – which is expected to take 30 years to build out – all of the major approvals go through the Planning Board and the City Council. Supplemental approvals within those large developments – like the design of a building or campus – are conducted by the Planning Board, but can be appealed to the City Council if someone disagrees with the Planning Board’s decision.

For example, the board handled design approvals for the VF Outdoor campus inside the Harbor Bay Business Park, for which all the major approvals had already been granted. The Alameda Landing project was okayed in 2007, but the Planning Board had to review and approve the design of the homes and the commercial buildings in the Target-anchored Alameda Landing shopping center before construction could begin.

So now that you know when you can offer your thoughts on a planned development and on what aspects of it, how can you find out when all these hearings will be held? One big issue that neighbors of the Del Monte project and others have raised is around notification about the developer’s plans and upcoming city hearings.

In addition to listing review and approval hearings in meeting agendas, the city is required to notify anyone who lives or runs a business within 300 feet of a proposed development about the plans and their opportunity to weigh in, and a notification is also posted on the site of the proposed development. But that process can leave out a lot of people who might be affected by new development.

Thomas said neighborhood groups like P.L.A.N. Alameda, which sprang up as a source of information about the Del Monte and other Northern Waterfront developments, are a great aid.

“One of the most effective ways for people to find out (about development plans) is when neighbors are organized,” he said.


Submitted by Liz Taylor (not verified) on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

The big elephant in the room not mentioned is water- where will all of the water required for all of these new homes come from and what impact will the resulting waste water have on very aged infrastructure?

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

Great breakdown of the process, Michele. Really amazing detail.

At the same time, is there anyone who doesn't believe that the outcome is guided by the unseen hand of politics?

As I sit in the Webster Street Tube at rush hour, I will surely be heartened to recall that all of the right paperwork was filled-out.

If City government (elected and staff) were trying to make traffic/parking in Alameda worse, would they do anything different from giddily approving every massive development presented?

Don't get me wrong - I am totally chuffed at the excellent and detailed process you outlined. One cannot find better kabuki theater anywhere than this process, where developers can pretend they only need one space per unit and that hundreds of homes will not make already bad tube and bridge traffic worse.

The only thing that might make some difference is replacing our elected and bureaucratic officials who have forgotten who they serve, which would start with sacking the whole lot at the ballot box.

Submitted by Scott Sheppard (not verified) on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

I am all for progress. I understand why the City Council wants to increase the city's tax base. I just don't understand why no one will we need to widen the tube or add a bridge? I would be in favor of an honest choice: either develop these properties at the proposed densities or here is how much your property taxes will need to increase. If Alameda wants to remain as the place for single family homes and beaches, we may just opt to raise our taxes and keep things as they are.

Submitted by Irene D. on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

I have one question about this sentence: "The initial study found ... that no new environmental review is required."

Is the city relying on a former EIR as a baseline? If so, when was that prepared?

Submitted by William (not verified) on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

Very complete and comprehensive process review. Thank you for reporting it. We all understand that rules are meant to be broken, and that city, county and state officials break them as required, but in the car of this small island called Alameda, the process of development is secondary to the amount of traffic congestion and lack of parking that the current development plans are based on. Residents will be held hostage in their own city based on the limited space to accommodate so many vehicles. If my commute is from my home to City Hall or if I don't even live in Alameda, I may not be worried about the influx of hundreds of additional vehicles. But, if I live here and have to drive on and off the island to get to work each day, that will present a problem. AND, if some developments allow for multi-family dwellings, it will be even worse. Drive down Clinton Avenue from Grand Street to the Hospital and you will see an example of no available parking is all about. Even the hospital is trying to get their employees to park elsewhere to help the neighbors find parking. It's a mess there and on many other streets. The process seems well defined. The results are not.

Submitted by BP (not verified) on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

Any process is completely irrelevant to those who reflexively oppose any new development under any circumstances, of which there are many in this city.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Jul 8, 2014

Hey Irene: Yes, the city is using the original EIR, which was approved by the City Council in 2008. And Liz, as I understand it either the city or the developer checked in with East Bay MUD and have received confirmation that it has enough water available to support the development (this is per the developer's reps at their 6/19 community meeting) though that notwithstanding, I gather your concern is more along the lines of whether we should be straining that system further.

Submitted by frank on Wed, Jul 9, 2014

Michele good reporting.
It just seems incredible to me that the City can use a 2008 EIR. Looking back the intention (then) was to build 75 live-work units at Del Monte. Now it is 414 plus Commercial Development. It is quite a stretch of the imagination to think that the impacts are compatible. Does the original EIR take in account the Chipman development. If you could Michele can you find a link to the 2008 EIR?.

Submitted by Karen Bey (not verified) on Wed, Jul 9, 2014

I was just reading through the old plans which called for 166,000 sq ft of commercial and 75 live work lofts. They've reduced the commercial from 166,000 sq ft to 25,000 sq ft and increased the housing from 75 live work lofts to 414 units.

166,000 sq ft is more than half the size of the Alameda Landing retail development which was approved at 291,000 sq ft.

So I guess the question is whether parking and traffic generated from 166,000 sq ft of retail is more, less, or the same impact than 414 homes.

Submitted by Belinda (not verified) on Sat, Jul 12, 2014

Bayport has homes with 2-3 car garages. We have a terrible parking problem because garages are used for storage and generally each member of a 4 family home has a car. Additionally, the areas around Bayport do not have enough parking, so they park here too. What a nighmare.