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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Renderings by mcg architecture


In response to the backlash, Cowan considered replacing the aging club with a hotel and convention center, which is already allowed under the current zoning. Yet that idea, which Cowan said was suggested by former City Manager John Russo, also wasn’t popular with neighbors. Cowan said his company has since abandoned such thought. He is now attempting to move forward in two distinct stages: first with the health club and then with the homes. Even so, the two phases remain inextricably linked in the minds of opponents.

Harbor Bay Neighbors accuses Cowan and the development company of “attempting an ‘end run’ to build a new Club in the Business Park that ignores community input and undermines the transparent spirit” of the application process. “It is clear that a decision on their current application is also a de facto decision regarding the future of the Club property,” the group’s website says. “The two sites are inextricably linked and their use should be submitted as ONE proposal so the community has an opportunity to fully consider the implications of any decision.”

An environmental impact review for the new club is due from the city soon, and Cowan said he wished people would wait until they have evidence from objective engineers before jumping to conclusions about the project.

“If people are concerned about the environment, why don’t they wait for the environmental impact report so we can base this decision on facts?” he asked.

Traffic is one issue certain to be studied in the report. Opponents fear that 80 new homes will add to rush-hour congestion getting on and off the Island. But Cowan believes the homes would attract less traffic than the club does now. Similar arguments typically surface wherever in Alameda new development is considered.

Cowan said he is confident that the environmental impact report will be favorable. But should the review come to unfavorable conclusions regarding traffic or environmental issues, he said the club’s future is in jeopardy. His critics don’t believe that.

The group known as Harbor Bay Neighbors strives to present a united front. Its website cautions members “to hang tight with us to show our maximum strength as a cohesive community” if a representative of Harbor Bay Isle Associates should call them. “It’s important we are heard by the people who really matter in the decision-making process—our association board members, elected officials such as our mayor and city council, and the City of Alameda Planning Board—in a public forum where everyone hears the same thing at the same time.”

Members also are reluctant to discuss the issue with reporters. Several people who have been publicly critical of the project did not respond to interview requests, and others deflected questions to the group’s spokesman, who initially deflected repeated calls from this magazine. Such reticence even included Mayor Spencer, whom the group said it endorsed based upon her opposition to club expansion. In a recent interview, the prominent club member declined to state her opinion of Cowan’s project, saying she was waiting to see the environmental report.

Although “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments are often at the root of opposition to Alameda development, Cowan’s critics pose the opposite argument: They want to keep the club close to their backyards and aren’t happy about having to travel almost two miles to the new location.

Group spokesman Tim Coffey eventually agreed to discuss the project, making it clear that he views the club proposal as a mere ruse by Harbor Bay Island Associates to build more homes. Coffey also said he doesn’t believe that Cowan can’t upgrade the current club. “You don’t see positive businesses having to shut down to completely remodel,” he said. “That’s pretty rare.”

Coffey said his group’s members want the club to remain a community recreational asset as set forth by the development’s original master plan. That means keeping it where it is.

“Our position is that the club is the recreational component of this gigantic master planned community and as a result belongs in the Harbor Bay community, not in another part of Alameda,” said Coffey, who also is a club member. “This isn’t vacant land that we’re talking about; it’s a community asset, and HBIA has unilaterally decided to move it.”

The critics claim that the club can’t be moved due to the wording of that 1976 master plan. Yet inspection of that document reveals that it granted the owner the right to sell the club but said nothing about moving it.

Cowan said his company has already surpassed the amount of open space it agreed to provide in the master plan. And shifting 10 acres from one location to another as proposed wouldn’t change the overall number, he added.

“All we’re doing is moving it and improving it,” Cowan said. “We are still maintaining an agreement to serve the community. To me that’s the biggest head-scratcher.”

But critics complain that replacing the club with homes would lower their property values.

“The truth is, if the club were an undesirable neighbor, then putting in homes would be an improvement and our values would increase,” the group’s website says. “However, taking away a community amenity and replacing it with three-story ‘monster’ homes that offer nothing to the surrounding community will reduce the value of our property.”

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