Our Backyard: Alameda's Big Mistake

The Alameda council turned down an offer for a free 8.5-acre waterfront park.


Published:

Mike O'Hara of Tim Lewis Communities.

File photo by Chris Duffey

It’s not often that a developer offers to spend $30 million to build a new public waterfront park for everyone to use — and agrees in writing to maintain that park for free. But that’s exactly what developer Tim Lewis Communities offered the city of Alameda in December: a new 8.5-acre public park and large plaza on what is now a mostly vacant parcel on the estuary. And yet the Alameda City Council declined to accept the proposal, saying it wasn’t good enough.

Huh?

In truth, the council declined to accept the park not because it wasn’t a good deal (because, of course, it was), but because the developer is also proposing to build 589 units of housing next to the new park. However, under new state laws that greatly restrict the ability of cities like Alameda to reject new housing, the council couldn’t legally turn down the 589 units. But it could decline to accept the park — so it did so.

But the council made a big mistake, because the developer appears intent on building the housing with or without the park. And if the council tries to reject the housing, it likely will lose in court, just like Berkeley did last year when it tried to turn down new housing in violation of state law. So, Alameda will end up with 589 units (which is not a bad thing) but not a nice park (which is).

The mechanism the council used to decline the park involved a “land swap.” Alameda holds in trust 5.5 acres of state land in the middle of the parcel where Tim Lewis Communities wants to build. That landlocked public space is basically unused and worthless to the public. The developer proposed to swap those 5.5 acres to the city for 8 waterfront acres it now owns and would then use to build a new public park. The 5.5 acres would be used for housing. “You’re getting something more valuable than we have,” explained Alameda city planner Andrew Thomas to the council, noting that the developer can legally build the 589 units either way.

But the council, led by Mayor Trish Spencer, who often votes against needed housing, and Councilmember Frank Matarrese, who is likely running for mayor this year and appears to be courting the Island’s anti-housing vote, dismissed the swap plan and ordered more negotiations with the developer.

Bad move.

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