At times, government leaders, planners, environmentalists, and advocates in California can lose sight of the bigger picture. Even with all of our immediate problems, one of our biggest challenges in the coming decades will be population growth: our state of 38 million will add another 10 million people over the next 20 years. For reasons ranging from Climate Change to Peak Oil to declining public health to congested infrastructure to simple geographic limits, California will not be able to tolerate a continuation of its past suburban growth paradigm . We must grow in a more smart and sustainable manner, which means channeling a significant amount of development back into our urban cores. Within the Bay Area, there are only a few large-scale opportunities for such growth: Hunters Point, Treasure Island, and the Eastern Neighborhoods in San Francisco, the Broadway corridor and Oak to Ninth in Oakland, the Salt Works in Redwood City, and Alameda Point in Alameda.
This Tuesday, Alameda will vote on Measure B, which will decide whether or not to approve SunCal’s plan for the city’s gigantic decaying Naval base that has been abandoned for almost two decades. After 12 years of planning, SunCal has submitted a plan that would bring 10,350 new residents, 9,590 new jobs, two new schools, and 145 acres of open space (including a 58-acre sports complex and 15 miles of bicycle routes) to the site. This vote should be extremely close, and will probably come down to two major issues: traffic and density.
From the beginning, Alameda Point has posed significant challenges to redevelopment due to the infrastructural limitations of Alameda’s West End. Unlike the East End, which has three bridges connecting it to neighboring Oakland, the West End relies only on the Webster and Posey tubes as its only connection off the island. With each tube currently at capacity, every morning traffic backs up well into the West End, causing some residents to drive miles out of the way to the East End for an easier exit. Although Alameda has great potential for transit and bicycle use, its underdeveloped bus service and extremely poor bicycle connection to Oakland fails to draw enough people away from driving. 40 years ago, these same concerns over traffic produced Alameda’s Measure A.
Resulting from a backlash against developers in the 1960s, Alameda’s Measure A was passed in 1973 to essentially outlaw multi-family housing in order to prevent redevelopment and limit traffic. While Measure A is among the harshest lot size restrictions in Northern California, it came at a time when Victorians were being bulldozed weekly to make way for new apartments and condominiums, seemingly stripping the city of its sense of identity. Two major bay-fill projects—the development of the South Shore and Bay Farm areas—further contributed to the fear that Alameda was being overtaken by developers. The anti-growth movement that produced Measure A is rightfully credited for preserving Alameda’s unique charm, but it has also hindered the city from creating livable neighborhoods that support walking, bicycling, and transit use. Having constructed very little housing and no new apartments in nearly 40 years, Alameda has become increasingly unaffordable, even after the housing crash. While many Alamedans still ardently cling to Measure A with their “Low Density=Less Traffic” lawn signs, a growing number of residents are recognizing the need for new housing if done properly.
Because of Alameda’s past experiences with major developments, it is logical to expect that Alameda Point’s redevelopment would be met with significant skepticism and opposition stemming from fears of another traffic-inducing development disconnected from the core of Alameda; but, the Alameda Point Plan has responded to these challenges with an innovative set of transportation mitigations which will result in only a slight increase in overall car trips. The plan calls for nearly as many new jobs as new residents, making longer commutes unnecessary for some of its residents. For trips outside of Alameda Point, SunCal will provide $200 million in island-wide infrastructure improvements, including a vastly improved ferry to San Francisco, a new BRT system linking Alameda Point with Downtown Oakland, the 12th St. and Fruitvale Bart stations, and the rest of Alameda, and a dramatically improved bicycle network (which, coupled with a new bridge to Oakland’s Jack London Square, could make Alameda one of California’s premier bicycling cities). In addition, unbundled parking, mandatory transit passes, and an on-site transportation coordinator would help to limit automobile use and promote transportation alternatives. SunCal’s redevelopment of Alameda Point would not only produce a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhood, it would give Alameda the complete transit system that it deserves.
Tuesday’s vote is one of the most pivotal moments in Alameda’s history. A yes vote ensures a more sustainable and affordable Alameda and significant housing relief for the region, while a no vote preserves the status quo of an increasingly gentrified and congested island, a decaying and contaminated Naval base, and a more sprawling region. I am sympathetic to those in favor of redevelopment but concerned over the complex developer agreement, but this is a case where Alameda voters need to realize that no perfect deal will ever exist, and this is still a solid plan will a committed developer that wants to get building. Most importantly, the cost of doing nothing is not zero: a no vote means Alameda will miss out on a BRT system, a vastly improved ferry, new schools, tons of open space, $12 million in yearly tax revenue, and countless other benefits. Please, Alameda, if you care about the sustainability and livability of your city and your region, vote yes on Measure B.
UPDATE: Measure B was dealt an embarrassing defeat with 85% of Alamedans voting against it, a product of bad timing, a huge anti-Measure B movement, and a mediocre measure to begin with. The reality is that not many leaders came out to support it in the first place because it was such a risky and uncertain issue (the developer agreement really doomed the entire project). It will be interesting to see whether or not SunCal sticks with the project–it sounds like they might be willing to renegotiate and give the project one last shot through other means besides a ballot measure, but who knows what will happen at this point. One thing is certain: the Point will not change anytime soon–just how the “Low Density=Less Traffic” crowd wanted.