Council Set For Suncal Vote Tonight

Michele Ellson

The City Council is set to decide tonight whether to deny SunCal’s proposed development plan for Alameda Point, effectively sending the developer packing as its exclusive, three-year deal to negotiate a development deal for the Point expires.

The Irvine, Calif.-based developer’s tenure here has endured shifting political alliances and a failed bid to win voter support for their project, accusations of malfeasance that crossed both sides of an increasingly broad chasm between SunCal and city officials and a blisteringly bad economy that left Southern California littered with the developer’s bankrupt projects in various states of completion.

Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant and Deputy City Manager Jennifer Ott said the council should deny the project for a host of reasons, including concerns about the financial viability of the development, traffic impacts, and a lack of community support SunCal’s plan, which would put as many as 4,845 homes, 4.57 million square feet of commercial space and 146 acres of park on 770 acres of the former Naval Air Station.

The development proposal also lacks an economic development strategy and concern for the welfare of the endangered California Least Tern and doesn’t commit to an appropriate balance of jobs and housing or a transit-oriented strategy, Ott wrote in a report to the council in advance of tonight’s meeting.

A SunCal spokesman said Monday that many of the concerns about the company’s development proposal, including traffic and endangered species impacts, would be addressed in an environmental impact report that is being prepared to study them. The report could take up to two years to complete.

“The EIR is an important tool to answer a variety of questions that will affect the future of this unique site along San Francisco Bay. We believe it is in the best interests of the community to see the review process play out so everyone can obtain the results of the project’s impact on the environment,” SunCal spokesman David Soyka was quoted as saying in a news release touting the support of the Greenbelt Alliance, the local Sierra Club chapter and Renewed Hope, and affordable housing organization, for continuation of the process.

The release said the groups want the city to continue to work with SunCal. The developer has also earned the support of several labor unions, who have urged the city to continue to work with them.

A local pro-development group that has supported SunCal, Housing Opportunities Make Economic Sense (HOMES), has also urged the council to move forward with them.

“For the first time since the process began, we have a redevelopment plan that promotes economic growth, amenities for all Alamedans, and environmental sustainability. For the City Council to stop the process at this point in time dooms the community to more years without the benefits of the development of this new neighborhood,” HOMES president Helen Sause was quoted as saying in a press release issued Monday.

The developer gained the right to negotiate a development deal at the Point in May 2007, after the previous developer, Alameda Point Community Partners, left the project and an attempt to broker a deal between Catellus and Lennar to work together on the project fell apart. Councilwoman Lena Tam and Councilman Doug deHaan voted to hire SunCal as the site’s master developer, with Councilwoman Marie Gilmore casting the deciding vote after it became clear that Lennar, her choice for the job, wasn’t going to get it.

The relationship between the developer and the city held steady even as SunCal’s then-financial backer, Lehman Brothers, fell apart and the number of SunCal projects falling into bankruptcy mounted. Mayor Beverly Johnson and other members of the council continued to express support for the developer and its plans even as city staff put out a pre-election report laying out risks they believed it could pose to the city, with Johnson taping a robocall to urge support of the plans and allowing the developer to use her visage on a pre-campaign mailer.

But Johnson ultimately reversed her support of the developer, with her opposition hardening in the wake of SunCal’s overwhelming February 2 defeat at the polls. City Councilman Frank Matarrese also ultimately reversed his support of the measure, and even Gilmore, who had supported SunCal’s development plan, conceded in the days leafding up to the vote that its ballot measure might not be good for Alameda.

The relationship between SunCal and the city deteriorated quickly and publicly after that, with city officials notifying the developer that they were in default of their exclusive negotiating agreement just days after their dramatic loss at the polls and the developer’s representatives firing back the necessary revisions to the plan they had submitted to the city just moments before their deadline to do so was to expire.

The months that followed were marked by a series of late-night verbal slugfests that were more reminiscent of a failing marriage than an effort to realize an agreement to reinvent a third of the Island, complete with competing websites that revealed a wealth of typically confidential financial and other data.

On July 6, Johnson announced to a stunned audience in council chambers that Gallant had authorized an investigation into whether Tam had leaked confidential information to SunCal and others. The outside attorney who handled that investigation asked the Alameda County District Attorney that he thinks Tam should be removed from office.

A week later, an attorney working for SunCal insisted that Gallant should be investigated, alleging that she was blocking the developer’s efforts to make good on their deal with the city because she believes Alameda can develop the Navy property itself. The attorney, Louis R. “Skip” Miller, said the investigation against Tam was an effort to rig tonight’s vote against SunCal, and he put the city and Gallant on notice that they were facing legal claims based on Gallant’s alleged actions.

The federal government announced in 1993 it planned to close the naval air station, and it was shuttered in 1997.

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