The Measure A Debate
A Considered Approach to Development
Alameda Point is a place that inspires people to dream.
Some nights, Andrew Cunningham lies awake, drawing plans in his mind. The architect and planner imagines a community where today there are abandoned wrecks of buildings and vast blighted spaces.
“You start with a school, a ballpark, an esplanade and you add housing,” he says.
Denise Brady sees Alameda Point as a place where light industrial buildings are filled with corporate start-ups. Or the western tip of the Island, with amazing water views of San Francisco, would be just fine if it was developed with single-family homes, says the real estate agent and history buff.
For Woody Minor, the promise of the future at Alameda Point inspires him to dream of the past. The city’s best-known historian imagines Alameda 150 years ago, when it was a shady grove of centuries-old live oak trees—before the construction of the Victorian homes that are so prized today.
The dreams for Alameda Point are just that—dreams. Who knew that one-third of the island of Alameda would become available for development this century? Certainly not Alameda’s residents 35 years ago, when they voted to limit development in an attempt to stop a population-and-development boom that was threatening the very historic fabric of the Island.
At the time, Alameda was more than making up for a loss of population following World War II; the Island boomed to a population high of 90,000 in 1945 because of the Alameda Naval Air Station, located on Alameda Point. In the late 1950s, after the population shrank to 65,000, the south shore of the Island was filled with millions of tons of sand, and new tract housing and a shopping center were built there. There were 70,000 people living in Alameda by the early 1970s.
There were plans for Bay Farm Island, the only remaining open space in Alameda, to be developed with housing for 30,000 more people. In addition, there was a plan to tear down the old buildings on Park Street, seen as dingy and dated, and to put up modern high-rise buildings.
City officials were projecting that 95,000 to 115,000 people would be living in Alameda by 1990. Compare that to the 72,000 people here today and the 75,554 living here in 1990.
And throughout central Alameda, developers were buying up old houses and tearing them down. In place of the old single-residence houses, builders put up the “crackerbox” apartment buildings that could house eight to 10 families. Some 800 houses were demolished. It’s not known how many apartment buildings were built in their place.
“I remember walking down the street and the horrific, shocking feeling of a house that you’d loved all your life, that you’d walked past going to school, and it was gone. It’s just gone,” says Minor, who grew up in Alameda. “And that was happening everywhere.”
The people of Alameda passed Measure A in 1973, an amendment to the city charter, and it prohibits the construction of apartment units or other multiple-dwelling homes on the Island, including condominiums and lofts. Developers are limited to building single-family homes or duplexes. Measure A was challenged in another public vote in 1991, when voters decided to require all residential structures be built on a minimum of 2,000 square feet.
Today, Measure A is up for debate because of something no one anticipated. In 1997, the Naval Air Station closed. The land, 1,700 acres, was given to the city, which has chosen a Southern California developer, SunCal, to develop the property.
SunCal follows on the heels of Alameda Point Community Partners, a combined effort that included Shea and Centex Homes; APCP abandoned the project in September 2006. The land with the bazillion-dollar views is a complicated piece of real estate—it comes with a $108.5 million price tag plus a tab for a major environmental cleanup. The property was badly contaminated during its years as a navy base; just two years after the naval air station was closed, the federal government declared Alameda Point a hazardous waste site.
There are many people, including Cunningham, a member of the city’s planning board, who would like to see the property developed with a mix of housing—including townhouses, condominiums and apartments—as well as commercial uses. He, like many of those in favor of amending Measure A, believe the law should only be changed for Alameda Point, keeping the tight development restrictions in place for the rest of the Island.
The debate is contentious and, at times, it moves beyond development issues. Among those who favor keeping Measure A, there is a deep-seated lack of trust in elected officials and a belief that City Hall is too cozy with developers.
At a February 2008 forum on Measure A, former planning board member and local attorney Lee Harris noted that there is “a large distrust in Alameda regarding its city planners.” His comments were met with a loud burst of applause from the public.
At the same time, there is a strong sentiment that Measure A is being used as a “racist tool” to keep people out of Alameda.
In the late 1980s, Measure A was challenged in a lawsuit that claimed it was an exclusionary measure, designed to keep affordable housing out of Alameda. The city reached a settlement that requires it to include affordable housing in new developments.
To be sure, Alameda has had its share of issues regarding race. Its police department was long criticized for pulling over African-American drivers as soon as they crossed a bridge from Oakland onto the Island.
The main opponent of Measure A, the group HOMES, continues to rail against Alameda’s property owners as elitist and exclusionary. The desire by some to “keep a certain element out” of Alameda is very real, they say, and Measure A helps accomplish that.
But Brady, who supports keeping Measure A to maintain Alameda’s “small-town feeling,” says the claims of racism are trumped up by Measure A opponents who are out to “play the race card.”
“Measure A has encouraged diversity,” says Brady, a longtime member and past president of the Alameda Architectural Preservation Association. “If it wasn’t in effect, there would probably be all apartments here.”
The 2000 census, the most recent information on the subject, shows that 56.9 percent of Alameda’s residents are white and 47.9 percent of the total population are homeowners. About half of the housing stock are single-family homes; the rest are multifamily dwellings.
Any changes to the law would require a petition from Alamedans requesting a public vote to change it. Or, the law could be changed if the city council placed it on the ballot for a public vote. The city council, too, can change how “multi-unit dwelling” is defined by simply calling a vote on whether it should remain as a duplex or be amended. So far, there hasn’t been a petition or a move by the council to change the existing law.
The discussion, though, continues, and it covers issues as diverse as transportation and global warming. The many bloggers who write about Alameda’s small-town politics are having a field day with the Measure A debate.
Measure A doesn’t matter, wrote one, because by the time Alameda Point’s environmental problems are cleaned up and developers are ready to build, global warming will have done its job and San Francisco Bay “will be lapping at the hangar doors down there.”
Transportation, on the other hand, seems to be a major concern on both sides. Brady points out that Alameda needs limits on development because there are only five ways off of the Island in an emergency—a tunnel and four bridges.
Those who want to change Measure A, however, claim that a better design for Alameda Point would include a mix of housing, including apartments, condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes. They claim that a higher-density type of development will encourage more commuting options and limit traffic.
As for the proposed developer of the property, SunCal, it is hard to know where it stands. SunCal has received an extension from the city for more time to develop a plan. In early March 2008, reports also surfaced that SunCal was facing rising claims from its contractors, suppliers and lenders, and that the company was having trouble paying its bills.
The company lost a 1,300-acre tract planned for homes and businesses in Sparks, Nev., in a foreclosure on Feb. 27, 2008, the Orange County Register reported.
Joe Aguirre, a public relations executive with SunCal, said in April: “Our plans for Alameda Point have not been finalized, and we are still at the stage of gathering input from the community for their thoughts about the future of the property.”
He declined to comment further on SunCal’s ideas for the Alameda Point property or whether the plans might be Measure A–compliant.
Many people in Alameda would like to see SunCal draw up some plans, to give residents an idea of the potential for Alameda Point.
“The only way you can show someone is to show them a plan,” says Cunningham.
Past plans for the windswept site have included a world-class golf course, a bird refuge and a transportation system that would involve ferrying people from Alameda Point on a gondola above the estuary over to Oakland.
To plan is to dream, and change in Alameda has always been built on dreams. Early on, Alameda was a shady farm town. But dreamers envisioned a place where workers could live and commute to San Francisco by train and ferry.
By the 1880s, the railroad had arrived, and within 40 years, most of the farms disappeared in favor of the development of Victorian- and Craftsman-style houses—the same houses protected now under Measure A.
Today, there are those who don’t want Alameda to change at all. But that seems unlikely.
“This is definitely an education process to kind of get the opportunities out there,” said Cunningham. “It’s not Brave New World. We need to look at why this is important for Alameda as a whole and not just Alameda Point.”
To further the discussion on Measure A, four community members were invited to submit guest editorials, which follow. Each was asked to state his primary position on Measure A, the goal being to produce a concise explanation enabling readers to easily determine how each weighs in and stands apart from the nuanced positions on Measure A.
Contemplate the Density-Bonus Law
Measure A protects and preserves what many of us love about Alameda, and the Measure A body of legislation must be maintained for all of Alameda, including Alameda Point.
Land developers understandably don’t like Measure A because it hinders their ability to make profits. And profits are good—without profits, there would be no jobs, no investment and no growth. But a conflict arises when developers attempt to maximize profit and “development” becomes “over-development” and negatively impacts the community. We’ve all seen oil company executives hauled before Congress amid charges of profiteering after gasoline prices spike at the pump. But what is a community’s recourse against a profiteering land developer that has overdeveloped the community? There is none of course, and the community is stuck with the impacts. That’s why Measure A is necessary, and that is why it’s preemptive—it prevents overdevelopment and prevents those irreversible negative impacts.
What are the negative impacts from over-development? Increased crime. Alameda’s relatively low crime rate is a benefit of Measure A. We maintain our low crime rate with only 13 sworn police officers per 10,000 residents while our immediate neighbor, Oakland, has serious crime problems and 18 officers per 10,000 residents. San Francisco, a high-density city with a population roughly 10 times that of Alameda and a city with significant violent crime, has 29 officers per 10,000, according to the state census and law enforcement agencies. Further, Alameda police are able to do many things that other municipalities cannot—like perform house checks on probationers and sex offenders or routinely take fingerprints and actually investigate property crimes.
But what about building housing that facilitates public transit use, provides affordable housing and allows for mixed-use developments? First of all, the emphasis on building housing is misplaced—if all that one can think about is building housing, then all that one thinks about is changing Measure A. Our civic leaders should be studying how to bring more businesses and more jobs at a range of pay scales to Alameda. The vast majority of Alameda residents leave the Island each day to go to work. Does it make sense to build more housing for more people who will also leave the Island—mostly in their cars—to go to work? Of course not.
We can afford only limited new housing in Alameda, but it can be transit-oriented and mixed-use; it can provide housing for low-income residents; and it can be done without changing Measure A. But our leaders, planners and developers refuse to study how the California state density-bonus law could be implemented in Alameda to achieve this. The law allows site-specific exemptions to Measure A to build transit-oriented mixed-use buildings where housing for low-income people and seniors is provided. The state law has been on the books for more than 25 years, and it calls for every California city to implement a density-bonus ordinance. Alameda has none. Instead of calling for changes to Measure A, we should be demanding that our city leaders study the potential for using the density-bonus law as a compromise to changing Measure A.
David Howard is the chairman of Action Alameda and an Alameda resident.
5 Reasons to Keep Measure A
Measure A has had five major effects: preservation, affordable housing, open space, quality of life and bearable traffic.
1. Measure A stopped the destruction of historic single-family houses. There was at least one house being demolished every five days. All in all, about 1,500 buildings were destroyed to make way for stucco apartments boxes.
2. Measure A saved affordable housing in Alameda. The developers were demolishing the least expensive residences in order to maximize their profits. Preserving Measure A is needed to protect the remaining small houses in Alameda. Property taxes from these houses go into the general fund, but new affordable housing would only be possible with tax subsidies from the people of Alameda.
3. Much open space has been provided by developers of housing under Measure A. Examples are the parks and lagoons in Harbor Bay Isle, Marina Village and Marina Cove.
4. Lower density preserves the quality of life for people who live here. High density does not provide affordable housing or open space. Nearby examples are the lofts on Second, Third and Fourth streets near the Oakland Amtrak station. These industrial buildings are built to the lot line and are very expensive. No open space is provided. However, this is the ugly future of Alameda if we do not keep Measure A. Lest the reader think that this would not be allowed in Alameda, stand on the corner of Santa Clara and Oak and take a good look at the new parking garage. That is now the architectural standard of our city council.
5. The access to Alameda is already overloaded. The friends of the developers promise that all of the new residents of Alameda Point will take buses if only we will build high-density housing! Another myth is that the residents will all work at Alameda Point. A third myth is that somehow all of the traffic from a highly developed Alameda Point will travel along the Clement Avenue extension on the north side to the Fruitvale BART station; that there will be room for this traffic along with bicycle lanes, pedestrian paths and light rail. The costs of light rail were found to be in the high millions when I was on the city council. However, the existing part of the Clement Avenue extension is narrow. There is no room for these promises. The traffic “solutions” to high density in Alameda are fictional. The developers’ high-priced consultants bring their one-size-fits-all theories to all projects. But for our Island, “sustainable” is another word for gridlock.
Cornell-educated physicist Barbara Kerr is a former Alameda City Council member and a 35-year resident of Alameda and president of the Northside Residents Association.
John Knox White
Consider the Options
To me, Measure A is a distraction. It distracts us from important, complex issues when we talk about development—issues like job creation, transportation infrastructure and, most importantly, community desires. Measure A diverts any conversation about community design by insisting that the only major issue to discuss is housing.
I find myself in the odd position of being considered “anti-Measure A.” I say “odd” because I ambivalent about the “Measure.” I have questioned whether or not the charter amendment has been responsible for all that it is credited with, and I have wondered if it is the right tool in all cases to lead our community where we want to go.
I have always thought that it is reasonable to discuss and examine our full range of options when embarking on large development plans like those at Alameda Point. Measure A is, indeed, the law for all development until such time as the voters decide it shouldn’t be. So in the end, it is the community (or at least the voters) of Alameda who decide where we should go with housing development, and therefore I have never worried about where discussion might lead.
Measure A was a useful and worthwhile reaction at the time it came into being. It was a response to development that was taking advantage of a barely existent regulatory environment. But since its passage, Alameda, like nearly every other city around us, has passed zoning and historic preservation ordinances that protect existing neighborhoods, and Prop 13 has reduced the desire of cities to pursue housing as a means for generating revenue. By these ordinances and laws, other Bay Area cities have been protected from the overdevelopment of multiple-unit housing.
For some, support of Measure A seems to come from a deep distrust of city government. The argument goes that Measure A gives the power to choose to the voter. And yet, discussions become inflamed as if Measure A, that is the Measure itself, is the goal our community wants to achieve. Rather than a means to maintaining our beautiful Island home. If the goal is to keep the power with the voters, then we have to be open to discussion and examination of all options and ideas.
I believe that Alameda is ready to move beyond the “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric of many years of Measure A discourse and start putting community goals front and center in our major civic discussions. One thing is certain: The history of Alameda is rife with change, and it is certain that there is more to come. We need to explore all avenues to find the best solutions for our city. Who knows? At the end of the day, the best solution might be Measure A–compliant, but we’ll never know until we’ve looked.
John Knox White is a program director at the Transportation and Land Use Coalition and writes about Alameda at www.alamedans.com.
Modify Measure A
HOMES, which stands for Housing Opportunities Make Economic Sense, is a grassroots education and advocacy group committed to ensuring that Alameda Point is developed in an environmentally responsible, economically sustainable way that reflects Alameda values and traditions. This vision was developed by the citizens of Alameda over years of community meetings and input and is embodied in the city’s General Plan.
Exempting Alameda Point from Measure A is not a goal of HOMES—it is a byproduct of fulfilling the community vision.
Measure A prohibits multiple-unit dwellings from being built in Alameda. It was passed in 1973 in response to the replacement of many historic homes by poorly designed apartments and to the development of South Shore and planned development on Bay Farm. In 1991, Measure A was amended to state a maximum density of one housing unit per 2,000 square feet of land.
The community’s vision for Alameda Point calls for a vibrant, new neighborhood that de-emphasizes the automobile and encourages public transit. This environmentally prescient vision requires areas of compact development around transit, shopping, retail and work places so people can walk to amenities and jobs. Higher levels of density than allowed by Measure A also mean increased transit opportunities—besides the car—for commuting to and from Alameda Point. Studies show that people who live and work less than a half-mile from transit are 10 times less likely to drive. Simply put, without compact housing, not enough people will live within a radius that supports walking and public transit.
The vision also calls for mixed-use and ensured economic development. That means a healthy housing/business mix. Higher levels of density mean more customers for business and more places for employees to live. Higher density also provides enough customers to support desirable amenities, such as shops and restaurants.
The main priority in the community vision is seamless integration with the rest of Alameda. Much of what makes Alameda so great is its diversity. We’re a community with active families, young adults just starting out, and seniors who want to stay put. As found on the main island, Alameda Point needs a range of housing types—apartments, condos, cottages, single-family homes—so that all members of our community are able to live and work here.
Alameda also values historic preservation. But many historic structures found on the base will have to be torn down because their reuse wouldn’t comply with Measure A.
Measure A’s prohibition of apartments, condos and townhomes means that those who can’t afford single-family homes (think young people, teachers, firefighters, police officers) are priced out. Lack of compact housing means lack of support for amenities that we’re accustomed to finding in our neighborhoods. Building only low-density single-family homes means an increased dependence on the automobile just when we’re starting to realize the effects of global warming and feel the pain of high gas prices.
Alameda Point has the potential to become an amazing neighborhood we can all be proud of. It’s up to us to decide if it will. Please visit www.homesalameda.org for more information.
An Alameda resident since 1964 and a retired redevelopment professional with experience on civic and community boards, Helen Sause is president of HOMES.