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

The pool is crowded while the tennis courts are often empty. 


In the ’70s, health clubs were for racket-swinging singles. Today’s members are more likely to have families and need child-care. Once again, the old club had nothing like that. And while the current club has a makeshift child-care room, it’s really not up to the quality that members want.

Cowan said he studied renovating the 17,000-square-foot club, but concluded it was impossible. The current club’s foundation simply cannot support a second story, he said. So the club would have to demolish its current facilities and rebuild them, a process that Cowan said could take five years in stages or two or more in one fell swood. Where would members go during the construction?

“When we have a drinking fountain go down, there are 20 people bitching to the general manager,” Cowan joked. “People have a low threshold for inconvenience.”

Thus, Cowan and his colleagues have spent more than a decade looking for a new location. In 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006 they studied four separate locations in the Harbor Bay Business Park, but none was acceptable to neighbors. In 2009 and 2010, at the request of the City of Alameda in its efforts to redevelop its Mif Albright golf course and create a youth sports complex, they studied the possibility of building a new club and some homes on the golf course. Golfers balked at the proposal, so it too was dropped.

Cowan became frustrated, but kept trying. He eventually decided to move the club 1.78 miles to the business park, on North Loop Road between Harbor Bay Kinder Care and the Chinese Christian Schools. He expects to spend $16 million to $18 million to build a club in sync with the times.

The new facility would more than double the club’s square footage, doubling parking and increasing the café in size almost eightfold. It would pare 19 tennis courts to eight or nine, but feature three swimming pools instead of one, including a 2,000-square-foot children’s pool. There also would be twice as much space for a cardio and weight room, and the new facility would have dedicated spinning, yoga, and Pilates studios. Cowan also said the larger facility should allow him to keep membership fees the same.

Cowan will eventually present his plans to Alameda’s planning board and City Council, which ultimately would have to approve the new club’s design for construction to proceed. The City Council also would have to rezone the current club site before it could be repurposed for any later residential development.

This civic interplay between developers, residents and political leaders is typical of the process, and Cowan said it has been good for the city.

“Harbor Bay is a rare example of well-done responsible development, that ying and yang that needs to happen,” Cowan said. “You had an ambitious developer, my dad, who wanted to have a higher unit total here. It was going to be a multifamily development with a lot more cluster multifamily housing. The densities were probably three times initially what they are. That got batted down. You had pushback from the community. You had pushback from the city. They were trying to move away from high-density development. It ultimately resulted in a measure, Measure A, that was passed, in part to put restrictions on multifamily development throughout all of Alameda. The net effect of it is that it got pared down to about 3,200 homes and the pushback required litigation where we donated land for schools and donated land for properties.

“My point is, the pushback from the city and the community was healthy. It really created that sort of ying and yang, and this is what we have now. It’s the product of really responsible development. Yet, we get broadbrushed into the same sort of perception that you have from these out-of-town developers.”

Debate was certainly loud from the minute that Harbor Bay Isle Associates plans’ surfaced. Much of it revolves around the ultimate fate of the club’s current location.

Once the new club is constructed, Cowan proposes to build 80 homes on the 90 waterfront acres the club now graces. Harbor Bay’s original master plan permitted 3,200 houses, so Cowan could add up to 227 new homes. But he said that 80 is more appropriate given traffic flow and neighborhood concerns. .Cowan initially submitted plans for both projects to be approved simultaneously. Then opponents began asserting that the housing plans were the real motivation behind the new club.

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