San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

Fighting fierce over Alameda Point development

Carolyn Jones

The Navy might have pulled out of Alameda a dozen years ago, but fighting at the former Naval Air Station has never been fiercer.

City leaders, environmentalists and an Orange County builder are in a costly, protracted battle over development at Alameda Point, an issue the voters will ultimately decide at the ballot box Tuesday.

Measure B would create a one-time exemption to the city’s 1973 ban on multi-unit housing, allowing apartments and condominiums at the former Navy base. It also ushers in a host of other provisions that some argue would leave the city amid a sea of financial and legal wreckage but others say are necessary for any development in this stagnant real estate market.

“Measure B would be an enormous catastrophe for Alameda,” said Dave Needle, a Fernside resident who is among the leading opponents of the initiative. “Without a doubt, this will cost the city money.”

Development battles over Alameda Point began around the time the last Navy ship set sail in 1997. Four developers tried and failed to transform the 1,500-acre Superfund site into an urban oasis of parks, housing, retail and offices. But funding, the fluctuating real estate market and the city’s multi-unit housing ban have prevented any project from moving forward.

The latest developer to tackle Alameda Point is SunCal, based in Irvine, which submitted plans to the city in 2008 calling for 4,500 units of housing, two schools, a library, 145 acres of open space, a 58-acre sports field complex, 15 miles of bike paths, a ferry terminal and other amenities.

To move ahead with the proposal, SunCal needs Measure B to pass. If it fails, SunCal is likely to pull out of the project when its agreement with the city expires in July.

SunCal has an unlikely ally in its fight to pass Measure B: Greenbelt Alliance, which has argued that the benefits of SunCal’s proposal — the parks, trails and public transit — outweigh the negatives.

“This isn’t the perfect process, but we believe it will lead to a good outcome: a vibrant, mixed-use community,” said Jeremy Madsen, director of Greenbelt Alliance. “If we let this opportunity pass us by, it could be decades before anything happens out there. We simply don’t have that much time.”

Much of Alameda Point is contaminated with benzene, asbestos, PCBs, lead and other toxins, left over from six decades of ship and airplane repair. The Navy hopes to finish cleaning up the site by 2017. In addition, many of the roads, pipes and buildings are crumbling from lack of maintenance, creating liability problems for the city, said Alameda Councilwoman Lena Tam.

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Tam, the only member of the five-person council to support Measure B. “Clearly the city is not in a financial position to repair the rapidly decaying infrastructure out there. We’re going to need to leverage private funds.”

But many in Alameda say Measure B itself is the ticking time bomb. If it passes, the measure would allow SunCal to lower the amount of affordable housing from 25 to 15 percent, remove much of the city’s control over the project and potentially let SunCal walk away from the deal at any time, Needle and city Councilman Frank Matarrese said.

Opponents are also concerned that Measure B caps at $200 million the cost of the schools, library and other amenities. Those projects would cost at least $228 million, meaning some of the projects would get dropped or the city would be responsible for the extra $28 million, a third of the city’s general fund, Matarrese said.

SunCal estimates that the schools and other amenities will cost only $160 million, well below the $200 million cap. Officials also said they plan on adhering to the city’s request for 25 percent — not the state minimum of 15 percent — affordable housing.

“This issue has become so complex I think a lot of voters are confused,” said SunCal’s vice president of operations, Pat Keliher.


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