New Hotel Could Bring Rewards
The planned Marriott Residence Inn at Harbor Bay Business Park promises to boost city tax revenues and provide much-needed ferry parking. But local residents are seeing red.
Rendering courtesy Bob Leach
The week after Thanksgiving, with the air finally clear after weeks of wildfire smoke, developer Bob Leach stood on a field on the Bay Farm Island waterfront and explained how he decided that this spot, wedged between the Harbor Bay ferry terminal and the McGuire Hester building, would make the perfect place for a hotel.
“My wife and I rode a jet ski around Alameda, shortly after we got married two years ago,” said Leach, gesturing at the uninterrupted views of the bay that guests and visitors to the Residence Inn, as Leach’s proposed Marriott is called, would enjoy.
“This will be the nicest hotel in the history of Alameda,” said Leach, his voice, at times, drowned by the roar of planes taking off from nearby Oakland airport, as he listed features for his five-story, 172-room waterfront hotel. It would include “a bright atrium lobby with high ceilings and luxurious furnishings; roomy suites with separate living, working, cooking, and dining areas; space for conferences and private events; a restaurant, bar, and coffee shop,” and a plan to share 112 parking spots with Harbor Bay ferry riders.
Pacing the field to demonstrate his five-story design on 5.5 acres of waterfront property he has purchased, Leach noted that the Marriott Residence Inn would create green space with a public plaza and bike-pedestrian access. The project would bring 85 new permanent jobs and 250 construction jobs to Alameda, have 24/7 security, provide a shuttle to and from Oakland airport, and follow the city’s recently approved bird-friendly window requirements. “Progress doesn’t please everyone, but if we are going to build, let’s build quality things,” Leach said.
Born and raised on Alameda, Leach worked for the city’s parks and recreation department and then the police department, before becoming a developer and moving to El Dorado Hills. “My heart is in this town,” Leach said. “I would never build anything other than a first-class project.”
Noting that he has more than 30 years of experience in the hotel business and that his company, West River Inc., specializes in luxury boutique hotels that emphasize customer service, Leach added, “I’m not some flashy developer with inherited money.”
Leach’s proposal also meets the city’s zoning requirements and has support from the Harbor Bay Business Park Association, the San Francisco Bay Conservation Development Commission, the Bay Area Council, and the San Francisco Water Emergency Transportation Authority, or WETA, the region’s ferry service.
But at a Nov. 28 community meeting attended by more than 90 residents, hometown roots weren’t enough to spare Leach accusations of being a greedy, out-of-town developer, as residents voiced concerns about the plan for the hotel at 2900 Harbor Bay Parkway. Their concerns included fears that building a five-story hotel on landfill could lead to sinkage and would destroy a peaceful area where people enjoy walking along the water. But the No. 1 concern was the height and scale of Leach’s proposal and that it would block homeowners’ views of the bay.
It was also clear that most neighbors would prefer the field to remain empty, even though it’s been zoned as a business park since Harbor Bay was built decades ago. “I want to cry,” said Bay Farm resident Reyla Graber. “A five-story hotel on this most beautiful piece of land — to have it cemented over by this monster building and parking lot — it’s a travesty.”
Records show the community has opposed many proposals for the site, including two-story office buildings and an assisted-living senior facility. Brian Tremper, president of the Freeport Homeowners Association, said his HOA supported both of those proposals, but opposes Leach’s hotel plan. “I’m not against something being built there; however, an office building is different from a hotel,” Tremper said, noting that hotels are open 24/7, generate traffic, and cater to possibly noisy events.
Tremper also argues that the project will block views from 23 homes in his HOA. “This is an entry point for Alameda, but if this project moves forward, our image will be of a prefab, three-star hotel,” Tremper said, referring to plans to use prefabricated modules to build the hotel — a process Leach says will shorten construction schedules and reduce energy consumption, on-site disturbances, traffic, and waste.
Yet despite the opposition, the Alameda Planning Board approved the project on Dec. 10. Tremper said before the board’s vote that the community plans to appeal the decision to the newly sworn in city council. However, the new council is expected to be more open to growth than the last.
Leach says he’s been sympathetic to community concerns. “We’ve already made 37 changes based on comments,” Leach said, referring to amendments made during the fall in the wake of a planning board study session and informal meetings with the project’s neighbors. But he noted that the city has identified hotels as a major generator of general fund revenue.
In a Nov. 29, 2018, memo to the planning board, Economic Development Manager Lois Butler noted that Leach’s proposed Marriott “is the type of development encouraged” in the Economic Development Strategic Plan that the council adopted in 2018. With the 172-room hotel “conservatively estimated” to generate $1 million annually in transient occupancy tax revenue in its first year of operation, Butler stated that “this will make the Marriott one of the largest revenue-generating businesses in the [c]ity, matching the scale of the entire sales tax collected from one of Alameda’s major shopping centers” and “will bring needed amenities to Harbor Bay business park, serve business travelers, and generate revenue for municipal services, such as police and fire.”
During Leach’s Nov. 28 community presentation, local resident Kira Comini begged the developer to reduce the project’s height to three stories. “That way, the developer gets his hotel, the city gets their revenue, and the community gets something that’s not a monstrosity,” Comini said.
But Planning Director Andrew Thomas explained after the meeting that Leach’s proposal conforms with city zoning regulations and has passed multiple environmental reviews. All of which made it nearly impossible for the planning board to block the project on the grounds of its scale.
Moreover, in face of pressure to increase city revenues and reduce greenhouse gas emissions citywide by expanding ferry service, Thomas noted that Leach’s proposal looks attractive. “It’s kind of a perfect fit,” Thomas said. “It checks so many boxes.”
For Harbor Bay’s parking-embattled ferry riders, the prospect of sharing hotel parking is also tempting. Commuters lost 100 street parking spots near the terminal in 2018, following neighborhood complaints, and it’s unlikely the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development will approve an equal amount of parking on streets near the terminal.
But could Leach’s Marriott end up needing all of its parking for guests? Ferry rider Christine Lok thinks not. “They have pretty detailed metrics from other properties, so they know their needs, so while parking won’t be guaranteed every day, it’s very likely there’ll be spaces most weekdays,” Lok said.
As for Leach’s plans to charge commuters to park at his hotel, Lok noted that WETA also plans to introduce fees at its lots, once the Seaplane Lagoon terminal opens in 2020. Observing that the presence of a hotel would support WETA’s plan to expand Harbor Bay service to ferries at midday and on weekends, Lok said she liked that a hotel would provide 24/7 security. “This isn’t a frat boy destination; it’s a business park,” she said, adding her belief that the fight over the hotel represents a broader, “philosophical battle” over growth on the Island.
Or as Leach put it, waxing optimistic despite neighborhood opposition, “This hotel is going to please more people that it’s not.”