Making housing history in Alameda

On Tuesday, June 16, something unexpected happened in Alameda (the City).

The City Council unanimously approved a 68-acre, truly mixed-use development at the former Naval Air Station at Alameda Point. That night, of the 60 people who stood up to address the council, only one of them said “don’t do it!” As anyone who’s attended a meeting about building housing in Alameda knows, that’s unprecedented. The unanimity of the vote itself was thought impossible six months ago, when our new mayor was elected on an anti-housing platform.

Alameda Point’s approval will bring our city 800 new homes, 25% of which will be affordable, and a mix of retail and commercial spaces. It will include innovative approaches to parking, such as removing minimum parking requirements, unbundling parking spaces for residential units (meaning the price of parking isn’t included in the rent or sale of or a unit) and requiring all parking in the site charge at least a nominal fee. The project is based on deep community-based planning: a planning framework approved in 2013, a precise plan for this specific 68-acres, and a Master Infrastructure plan that address sea level rise in the near-60 year timeframe and years later. The infrastructure plan also lays out a network of bicycle facilities and transit facilities that will be the envy of cities around the Bay when they are built.

While this sort of development may sound familiar to those of us who read Citylab, Streetsblog, Strong Towns, or The Direct Transfer, the fact it is approved and moving forward in Alameda is a really big deal.

Moving Alameda forward

Those who follow housing issues in the East Bay know that Alameda has some of the most stringent housing laws on the book. This includes a voter approved section of the city charter that prohibits the building of more than two housing units on any given property and a prohibition against building multi-family housing.

As a former TransForm staffer, a resident of Alameda who has attended nearly every public meeting about Alameda Point over the last 14 years, and a current member on the Alameda Planning Board, I am overjoyed by the City Council’s decision. Watching the parade of YIMBY’s (Yes In My Back Yard) on the 16th validated the work that TransForm and its regional coalitions, partners and collaborators have been doing for decades. Many of these folks were at the meeting, standing with us as we encouraged the City Council to do the right thing.

The case for housing and transportation

Thanks to the hard work of local housing advocates working with Public Advocates and East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), the previous two city councils have begun to shift Alameda’s housing policies to accommodate more (responsible) growth.  They passed a local density bonus ordinance, which allows developers who propose significant amounts of affordable housing to request increases in density and exemptions from “Measure A,” a city charter prohibition on building attached housing that allows no more than two units per property, as well as avoiding onerous parking requirements. They also certified the first city housing element in over 20 years. These documents provided the basis for approving multifamily housing at the Point and made the case for housing, subsidized and otherwise, in the Bay Area.

Transportation is a constant sticking point in Alameda. In fact, about ten years ago, TransForm Executive Director Stuart Cohen spoke at a forum on Measure A, making the case that great community design can reduce traffic. At the June 16 meeting, TransForm was again represented – this time by the innovative GreenTRIP program. Jennifer West spoke about how the City’s Transportation Demand Management program for Alameda Point would provide exactly the kind of walkable, bikeable neighborhood with great public transit that TransForm has been working to support in the Bay Area. The project will also offer all three of the traffic-reducing strategies required for a Standard GreenTRIP Certification. They were joined by Greenbelt Alliance, who officially endorsed the project.

Also in attendance to make a strong case for the building of new housing were the Bay Area Council, the building trades, AC Transit, East Bay MUD, local businesses (new and old) and many, many residents.

A story of hope and optimism

Over the years, Alameda has often been cast as a backwards, anti-housing community. It has been seen as insular and unwelcoming because of its policies and its strident, vocal advocates against change. But the pendulum has shifted to a place where even anti-development council-members are voting FOR well-designed development that includes housing.

This is a time to take a victory lap. If Alameda can vote “Yes” for Alameda Point, I have high hopes for more great communities throughout the Bay Area. This is possible because of the case that TransForm and others have been making about the need for livable, sustainable cities, to house those who want and need to live here, and build a better future for all of us, especially the children, who, I believe are the future. 

John Knox White has lived in Alameda for 14 years and was Program Director for TransForm from 2005-2012.

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.