To Build or Not to Build

To keep up with changing trends in fitness, the Harbor Bay Club wants to reinvent itself. So what—or who—has been stopping it?


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Photo by Chris Duffey

Kirk and Becki Cowan examine a model of the new Harbor Bay Club club that they have proposed for North Loop Road.


Kirk Cowan is troubled by the mistrust that some of his neighbors have for his plan to build a new, state-of-the-art Harbor Bay Club.

The 52-year-old club operator has been trying for years to build a new club, and the building he has proposed would be larger and nicer than the existing facility. Cowan also believes that the houses he’d replace it with would raise property values and generate less auto traffic.

But his plans have been opposed at every turn by vociferous opponents who vent their opinions on blogs, social media, letters pages, and their own website. They complain to city officials and blanket the Island, and even his club, with fliers. They accuse Cowan of everything from upending city land-use plans to outright greed.

The son of Alameda’s leading developer doesn’t understand why those neighbors and critics aren’t appreciative of what his family has done for the Island over the past 40 years—building homes, schools, and businesses on a former pile of sand.

“I’m neighbors with these people,” Cowan said. “It’s frustrating. You hear people just gush with the pride they take in where they live, but the second they have an opportunity to throw you under the bus, they do. You know, they do it to the people most responsible for the quality of life they enjoy. It just burns me up.”

Yet some Alamedans, including a number who live near the current club, feel burned up about the Cowans. As the Harbor Bay Neighbors group, which claims to have 1,000 members, these residents have rallied “in opposition to replacing Harbor Bay Club with homes.” On their website,, they list seven reasons they believe the proposal “is bad for our community.” Group members cast the Cowans and their development company, Harbor Bay Isle Associates, as powerful manipulators out to grab as much profit as possible.

Of course, Alamedans are notoriously fickle when it comes to development. Some opposed remodeling of the Alameda Theatre, but later fell in love with it. Others were initially leery about building a new city library. These days, many are hostile to development at Alameda Point.

In November’s election, Alamedans once again applied the brakes to development on the Island, this time rejecting the pro-development impulses of then-Mayor Marie Gilmore. As part of that shift, members of the Harbor Bay Neighbors worked hard to elect two City Council members who reportedly had pledged not to support the Cowans, Councilman Frank Matarrese and Gilmore’s replacement, new Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer.

In the 1970s, Kirk Cowan’s father, Ron, now 80, spent seven years securing the approvals needed to construct the 2,973 homes of Harbor Bay Island. In contrast, his son has already spent thirteen years just trying to rebuild and move a relatively tiny 3,800-member health club.

Has the Alameda anti-growth backlash that first solidified in response to the elder Cowan’s plans swung so far that the Island’s premier health club can’t even upgrade its facilities? The next few months should provide an answer.


Harbor Bay Club is one of the East Bay’s finest health clubs, with services comparable to Berkeley’s Claremont and memberships ranging from $160 to $500 a month. It has the atmosphere of a country club, albeit an aging one. While it looks like a Hawaiian resort with views of the Bay and San Francisco, its amenities are now dated, Cowan concedes.

It was designed in the 1970s, when tennis and racquetball were booming. Today, the tennis courts are often empty, and some of the old racquetball courts now house workout equipment. Meanwhile, competition is fierce for the club’s lone swimming pool.

Today’s fitness patrons want places to swim, weight machines, and rooms for doing yoga and Pilates. Although the club has added equipment to accommodate these pastimes, its layout is cramped, Cowan says.

Spa treatments also are more popular these days, including facials, massage, body scrubs, and other beauty treatments. The original club had none of that, and even now, with those amenities offered, clients have to traipse across the workout rooms in their bathrobes to access them. A club built today would have the spa in one place, ensuring peace, privacy, and the kind of luxury one expects with such services.

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