A Measure of a Community’s Compassion
The Alameda City Council wants to turn a piece of land near Crab Cove into a center that helps homeless people. But neighbors have forced a special election to block it.
Photo by Clayton J. Mitchell Photography
As Doug Biggs walked through abandoned buildings on McKay Avenue, across the street from Crab Cove, he shared his vision for how they could be used for good. Biggs is the executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative, which hopes to refurbish the buildings and turn them into housing for homeless seniors, as part of a $40 million federally funded project that would include providing services to homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless. It’s a vision shared by the city and by a supermajority of Alameda’s City Council, including new mayor, Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft.
The McKay Avenue property was previously a site operated by the General Services Administration for the federal government, with a portion of the property once serving as barracks for the U.S. Navy. That building is slated to become a 90-unit facility for homeless seniors. Rehabilitation of the building will include remodeling the small rooms to include a bathroom and small kitchenette, Biggs said.
“This will allow seniors to live and die in dignity after living on the streets,” he said.
Living on the streets can take an especially heavy toll on homeless seniors. A 55-year-old homeless person typically has medical problems similar to a housed person who is 20 years older, Biggs said. In addition, many seniors become homeless after turning 50, often after a sudden and serious financial setback, such as a major illness.
But Biggs and the city’s plans for the McKay property, which they call the Alameda Wellness Center, are in doubt. A neighborhood group calling itself, Friends of Crab Cove, is seeking to block the new facility. The group successfully gathered enough signatures against the Alameda Wellness Center last December, triggering a ballot measure. The group wants to turn the property into parkland or keep it as “open space” — although the property is not open space now and neither the city nor the East Bay Regional Park District is interested in using the land as a park.
As such, just five months after a vast majority of Alameda voters gathered at the ballot box, Island residents are facing a new special election that will be costly not only in terms of administering, but depending on its results, costly for the some of the most vulnerable populations in the region — and the city’s general fund.
In the April 9 special election, Measure B will ask Alamedans whether to overturn the city’s plans for the property. The special election is estimated to cost Alameda taxpayers up to $730,000.
The city council could have waited for the next consolidated election, in November 2020, and avoided the high costs of a special election. But the council majority argued that allowing the homeless services project to languish in uncertainty for nearly two years would be too costly for the nonprofit Alameda Point Collaborative, plus there would be lease penalties from the federal government.
Councilmember Tony Daysog, the lone no vote against an April special election, said he was not convinced the Alameda Point Collaborative was at financial risk if the ballot measure waited until November 2020. The April 9 special election also includes Measure A, a competing measure backed by the council supermajority that will ask voters to reaffirm the city’s plan for the Alameda Wellness Center.
Opponents of the project appear to be most worried about the influx of homeless people to the neighborhood. On the property, Building 1, as it is labeled, would be torn down and rebuilt to house medical respite services for seniors, but more controversially a walk-in center for Alamedans who may be on the verge of homelessness. Opponents of the project envision homeless Alamedans and homeless people from throughout the region flocking to the site and loitering in the neighborhood, possibly setting up tent cities.
Biggs, who also lives in the area, said he’s been more than willing to listen to neighbors’ concerns about the project. “I have no desire to create an unsafe situation,” he said.
Representatives of the Alameda Point Collaborative and Friends of Crab Cove met with a facilitator, but not before the neighborhood group ended the talks when the ballot measure had garnered enough signatures to trigger an election.
Biggs believes fears about hordes of homeless people rushing to the area is irrational. Similar concerns were raised two decades ago and proven to be without merit when the Alameda Point Collaborative was founded at Alameda Point, he said. ‘“Open space’ sells in Alameda even though there’s 500 acres of open space and 6 acres for serving the homeless,” said Biggs, referring to the neighborhood group’s call to have the McKay property be “open space.”
As late as 2017, Building 1 was used as a testing lab for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which tested contaminated meats and dangerous pathogens. A walk through the building conjures the imagery of a horror movie set in a macabre mental health institution. Some lab doors are ominously labelled for testing of E.coli and botulism. “They’re worried about the dangers of homeless coming here,” Biggs said of Friends of Crab Cove, “but I’ve never heard anybody complain about all the things that were coming through this lab.”
Members of Friends of Crab Cove, who did not respond to numerous requests to be interviewed for this report, have contended that the real controversy around the project is not about seniors or the homeless, but an alleged broken promise dating to 2008 when East Bay voters approved the East Bay Regional Park District’s Measure WW, a $500 million bond extension for a large number of park projects. The bond set aside $6.5 million for Alameda that included improvements to the Crab Cove visitors center, restoring the beach, but more importantly to Friends of Crab Cove, expanding the park boundary. But the park district has repeatedly said it has no interested in using the McKay Avenue property as a park.
In 2015, the parcel was divided, a move that members of Friends of Crab Cove contend undermined the will of voters. Angela Fawcett, a Friends of Crab Cove member, who lives across the street from the proposed Alameda Wellness Center, told the council in January, “The America I grew up in, we have rights, we have a voice, opportunities for input, and to be heard.”
The neighborhood group includes former Alameda Councilmember Barbara Thomas, who also acts as its attorney. Last fall, Thomas filed a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act against the Alameda Wellness Center.
If the ballot measure is successful, in what is likely to be an extremely low-turnout special election, a whole new set of problems will arise for City Hall. There is no current plan for construction and maintenance of new open space in this area, city leaders say. If the measure is approved, said Councilmember Malia Vella, it will put other city funds at risk and jeopardize funding for other parks in Alameda. Furthermore, a win at the ballot box for Friends of Crab Cove could cost the city millions. That’s because the transfer of the property to the city may constitute a “taking” of the land, therefore making the city liable for all of Alameda Point Collaborative’s costs associated with the project. Some city officials estimate the amount would be as high as $11 million.
For opponents of the ballot measure, it’s difficult to view Friends of Crab Cove’s stance as anything but NIMBYism run amok. Several members of the neighborhood group live in condominiums across the street from the property. “WW spells NIMBY,” said Biggs, who added some neighbors have yelled at him or security guards from their balconies. Others have flashed them with middle fingers.
Most telling is who is funding the ballot measure campaign. According to campaign finance records, Friends of Crab Cove raised $25,994 from April to Dec. 31 of last year. Harvey Rosenthal, owner of Neptune Plaza, a small shopping center near the project, contributed at least $14,500, an amount that likely funded the group’s signature-gathering campaign. The identities of who was financially backing the ballot measure, however, was unknown until Jan. 10, after a complaint was filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission accusing Friends of Crab Cove of failing to disclose finance reports during two successive filing periods.