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Comment: What’s the Point?

Submitted by on 1, January 26, 2010 – 6:00 am25 Comments

apI had hoped to have an editorial for you this week that would tell you whether to vote for or against Measure B. But the truth is, I’ll be sitting this one out. Because it has become crystal clear to me that the city has decided that they’re going to do whatever they want on this one, regardless of what voters think.

At the beginning of this debacle, a majority of our City Council members were clearly in favor of SunCal’s development plan for Alameda Point. They should have put a Measure A exemption, which is the only thing we really need to be voting for or against, on the ballot. But in a supreme display of cowardice (who wants to touch the third rail of Alameda politics?), the council passed this responsibility on to SunCal. And then they acted surprised when the for-profit developer larded a development agreement onto the ballot that would basically cover their own butts, at a potentially steep cost to the city.

Since SunCal decided to go to the ballot, Alameda voters have been caught in the middle of an epic ping pong match between the developer and city staff. Faced with a wealth of conflicting (and often inaccurate) information, many people who are genuinely concerned about the future of this Island are unsure how they should vote. But here’s a dirty little secret: It doesn’t matter. Because ultimately, the city can do an end run around any decision we make.

How can they do that? If voters say yes to Measure B, we will have a Measure A exemption for the Point on the books and a land plan, plus a development agreement that no one can credibly argue is good for the city. But SunCal may never get the chance to exercise them. If the city and SunCal don’t strike a development deal for the base by July 20, the city could send the developer packing. And city leaders may already be preparing for this outcome: the Interim City Manager told SunCal in November that the city could work directly with the Navy on a Plan B. One scenario Gallant outlined includes offering long-term leases for existing Point tenants, which she said could pay for the infrastructure repairs that have so far played a major role in stalling the former Naval base’s redevelopment. And three members of the council have been taking field trips to other redeveloped military bases to see what else we could be doing with our own.

But even if voters say no to Measure B on February 2, the plan could proceed intact if city leaders decide they want it. The city’s existing agreement to negotiate with SunCal allows the developer to submit its development plan directly to the city’s planning department to be considered like any other development project, and in the face of mounting evidence that their ballot initiative will fail, the developer exercised that option on January 14. It’s the same land plan that’s on the ballot. And in a letter to the city, SunCal’s Pat Keliher said he thinks his company could build it using an affordable housing ordinance that was just placed on the city’s books.

SunCal’s decision to put its plan on the ballot could cost the company $1 million when all is said and done. Meanwhile, we’ll pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being made to feel like we have a vote on how this decision gets made.

So what’s a good citizen to do? Personally, I’m reserving my vote for November, when we choose a new mayor and fill some City Council seats with some fresh bodies. I’ll be looking for candidates who are willing and able to exercise the leadership our current crop of dais-sitters hasn’t. I don’t see the point of making a decision that my elected leaders are unwilling – or unable – to carry out.

25 Comments »

  • Lauren Do says:

    And there’s the rub, right? Despite protestations that the City will be in a subordinate negotiating position, when all is spelled out the City has always and will always have the upper hand.

    I think you, Michele, will be the standard and not the exception in this election. The “decision” will be made by handful of voters, but the real decision will be made by an even smaller number in City Hall.

  • Barbara M says:

    I couldn’t agree more! This whole thing lands in the lap of City Council people not wanting to stand up and be counted on where they stand on Measure A. Being on those boards means taking a stand on the issues in front of you.

  • David Hart says:

    Michele:

    You are absolutely correct that B can be obviated, worked around or outright cancelled even if it passes, but there remain compelling reasons to vote against.

    Should it pass, it gives the developer a lot of power in the negotiations. Yes, the city can scotch the deal by 7/20 if it passes, but that would be a brazen repudiation of public will. The city may have legal reasons to do so, but not politically tenable ones. As you note, it is a very poor deal for the city. A bad deal is a bad deal, even with escape clauses.

    A no vote clears the table and facilitates more even-handed negotiations starting Feb 3. A yes vote both muddies the waters and weakens the public’s hand.

  • alameda says:

    We have a rather lame city council that lacks leadership and the ability to tackle the tough issues. I was never really impressed by Beverly and Frank to start with … I voted for them the last time, because they looked better in comparison to the alternative. But will most certainly not be making that mistake again with Frank.

  • Scott says:

    All we really know for certain is that doing nothing is no longer an option. Redevelopment starts this summer.

    • Hi Scott,

      Thanks for your comment. I urge you to take a look at the project schedule for the development, which is here. On this timetable, grading for the first phase doesn’t start until January 2011. And that’s providing that the money to do it comes through. And that the city and SunCal can make a deal with the Navy to purchase the land in the first place.

      To be honest with you, even if B passes, I think there are solid indications that nothing will happen all that quickly. For an obvious example I’d look to the Alameda Landing development, which if I’m not mistaken is more than two years behind schedule.

  • Irene says:

    A reason to vote NO rather than stay home is because “the for-profit developer larded a development agreement onto the ballot that would basically cover their own butts, at a potentially steep cost to the city.”

  • ct says:

    Kudos, Ms Ellson! Couldn’t have said it better.

  • Scott says:

    Thanks Michele I can live with starting the redevelopment in January of 2011. The sooner the better but January will do. The landing is way behind schedule, I believe once the construction of the Target starts which I believe is sometime later this year the rest of the Landing will follow. Both the Point and the Landing are going to really upgrade the look of the west side of Alameda. You can already start to see Webster street being cleaned up and revitalized. The construction of the new Boys and Girls Club clubhouse is yet another welcome addition to the West Side.

  • Karen Bey says:

    SunCal is not the victim here. SunCal could have submitted an initiative with the plan that many of us support. But SunCal took advantage of a political situation and included a one sided development agreement as part of their initiative, instead of submitting a “draft development agreement” as they have in their Plan B. I don’t believe we would be having this conversation if they had chosen this path.

    The City could have created an initiative to exempt the Point from Measure A, but it is not unusual for a City to ask the developer to sell their plan to the community via an initiative. It has happened many times!

    • Karen,

      Thanks for your comment. You make a good point, one of several that have been made today. And I wanted to make clear that I am by no means saying that SunCal is a victim or blameless, because you’re right – they made the choice to put that development agreement on the ballot (and to go to the ballot in the first place). That said, I think city leaders have a fair bit of culpability here which shouldn’t be overlooked – and that they have more power in this process than they’ve been letting on.

      I honestly could have written an editorial that said to vote no on Measure B, if for no other reason than the inclusion of that development agreement. But I think that ground has been fairly well covered. What I thought people needed to know was that the influence our vote will have on this process may be far less than we think, and that we are paying dearly for appearances.

  • dlm says:

    The whole thing about the city dumping this problem on the developer doesn’t make sense and I don’t think it’s an honest argument. When SunCal originally applied to develop Alameda Point, it was under the terms of the PDC and Measure A — they knew that and they chose to apply. They also knew the conditoin of the site, as they’re supposed to have experience w/ military bases and much of it is obvious anyway.

    So they chose to apply under those circumstances, then changed their plans and decided to take a major risk on a ballot measure. They also chose to dump everything but the kitchen sink into their ballot measure and chose to include the business terms that ultimately sunk the whole thing.

    What’s that old saying: “You can’t blame the world”? This is not the city’s fault by any means, it’s just bad judgment on the part of the developer and the financial backer. Personally I think it was a deliberate effort to snow us under and it deserved to fail.

    • dlm:

      I checked in with the city’s redevelopment director, Leslie Little, and she says this is not the case. She said that according to Sean Whiskeman, who is the Catellus veep handling this, “Alameda remains an important move for Target and they are still committed to the project.” I will also touch base with the Catellus folks to confirm the account.

      Meanwhile, I’d direct folks here:

      http://www.contracostatimes.com/business/ci_14272688

      And here’s the grafs I took particular note of:

      And this isn’t the end of Target’s new push to add stores in this area, said Matthew Kircher, a senior managing partner with commercial realty firm Terranomics, which arranged both Target deals.

      “Target is pretty active in the Bay Area for 2011 openings,” Kircher said. “We have a few more things in the pipeline.” He declined to disclose the other cities that could land new Target stores.

  • Barbara Thomas says:

    When SUNCAL first determined to bid on this project, it did so with MEASURE A intact, and SUNCAL generating a profit sufficient to motivate it to undertake this project. SUNCAL understood this. It then determined it could make more money by overturning MEASURE A. I agree our leaders appear leaderless. Who knows what they told SUNCAL in private? We all know Mayor Johnson started the ball rolling with her favorable Robocall. When faced with a through vetting of the proposal, opposition started pouring out of the woodwork. Our elected officials starting jumping ship. [Except DeHann who was not on board]. Since we don’t know all the facts, it is hard to tell the percentage of responsiblity for this fiasco between SUNCAL and our Council.

    I do not believe our current leaders will renig on something passed by the voters.

    I can’t wait to see a wonderful Target sign as the Westend entryway to our fair City. Pretty fitting don’t you think?

  • Karen Bey says:

    Michele,

    I share some of your concerns, but I believe the City made the right call in asking SunCal to sell their plan to the community via a ballot measure. It’s disappointing that SunCal’s mis-steps have set us back. I also believe the City is right to call into question whether SunCal/D.E.Shaw is the right master developer for this project. Their 30 bankruptcies are of concern to me and whether or not SunCal can take on a 25-30 year project is a question we all should be asking. The structure of their deal revealed in their development agreement answers alot of those questions in my opinion.

    That said, once Measure B is defeated – the City has some good options, but I believe it would be a grave mistake for the City to try and take on the role of master developer themselves. It will take strong leadership and a good master developer to capitalize on the current momentum and navigate us through the next very important development phases.

  • dlm says:

    Yes, you’re right, there’s no point in speculating on this, so I won’t speculate any further.

    With regard to the Special Election this coming Tuesday, here’s a link for a polling place locator from the Registrar’s Office. I’ve heard that some polling places may be combined for this election, so this link may be handy.
    Just click on the link and scroll down.

    http://www.acgov.org/rov/voter_poll_lookup.htm

  • dlm says:

    Michele: If there’s something controversial about a link to a polling place locator, then I have to say that I don’t see it. My best guess is that you’re pissed off because your side isn’t winning — that’s what it looks like.

    As for the “speculation” on Target: There’s a really good chance that they’re not coming here, regardless of what anyone says. Target stores are generally a good distance apart, and Target seems to be moving towards “megastores” like the one it has in Albany, which was built in recent years. The space they’re taking over in Oakland/Emeryville has a huge parking lot and it’s quite a large building as well, so I suspect that they’ll build another megastore there, which will absorb all the nearby Oakland shoppers — who’ll go there for the better access and many stores nearby. So a store here would be for Alameda shoppers alone and that doesn’t sound likely.

    If links are now a big issues to you, then maybe you should post a policy to that effect. I don’t see one here.

  • Barbara Thomas says:

    When Marina Village was in the planning stages, the developer tried to get a Wendy’s to locate there. Remember Marina Village is just inside the tube. Wendy’s did a study and declined based on the economic-demographics. They determined it would not generate business to warrant construction. Any big chain does that. So now the demographic for Target will be, if after adding a Mega Target at the old Design Expo, is there sufficient demand generated by persons that will slog through clogged tubes both ways to get to a Target in Alameda. My guess is that any SUNCAL development as planned at Alameda Point, would constitute a major adverse factor for the persons in charge of opening new Target stores. A wise Target planner would sit back and see how long it took for SUNCAL to get into construction of the 5000 plus new homes before Target makes a move.

  • Dennis Green says:

    Michele,

    I’ve worked with many Alameda developers, including Ron Cowan, Aidan Barry and Rich Sherrett, and I know that both the City and the Navy are very difficult to work with around any project for the Point. But your decision to punt is foolish to say the least. Sitting this one out, and encouraging other voters to do the same, is unconscionable.

    SunCal is based in Orange County, which, culturally and politically, is about as far from Alameda as you can get. This is not some suburban backwater, but a vibrant community central to the greater metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area, and we share many of the values that Bay Area residents do — especially the preservation and conservation of what works. You and Loren Do and John Knox White have all been in denial about the harm that the SunCal proposal can do.

    So now you want to “sit this one out” because you claim it doesn’t really matter. I expressed a similar idea in a recent op-ed piece, but my reasoning was that the harm has already been done, that you and other newcomers have expressed such disrespect for us “old timers” that the rift will never be healed again.

    So I’m fascinated by your comment that you will support candidates in the November elections who represent your point of view. I’ll be alert to who those people are, so I can be sufficiently wary.

    Thanks for the heads up,

    Dennis Green

    • Hi Dennis,

      Thanks for your comment. I think what I tried to do with this piece was to make it clear to folks that when you get right down to it, the impact of this vote could be minimal at best on the process of developing the Point – and yet we’re getting stuck with a pretty big bill for it. Yes, there is a development agreement on the ballot that could be very bad for the city. And that’s a point that has been made very well by a host of other reputable publications. But I also think people have the impression that voting no on Measure B will stop the project from happening, and it’s my reading after attending dozens of meetings on this, reading thousands of pages of documents and talking to people about it for two years that this is not necessarily the case.

      I also want to clarify what I said about who I’ll support in November, because I don’t think I’ve said that I will support candidates who “represent (my) point of view.” What I’m saying is that I want to see people who are willing to lead and make decisions up there on the dais. I don’t have a proscribed set of views that I’m looking for any candidate to fit.

      That said, I’m curious what you think my point of view is.

  • Dennis Green says:

    Michele,

    I think you’ve tried very hard to be an objective journalist in all this, but are also very naive politically, and your conclusion about sitting this one out plays into the hands of SunCal, which would love to see anyone who won’t vote a hard “yes” simply stay away from the ballot box. Then they can tell the City folks, “See, we told you so. They don’t really care!”

    They have outspent their opposition by many hundreds of thousands of dollars, run ads in all the local newspapers, conned many locals into joining ranks with them, and still they don’t think they can win, so they try yet another slick maneuver. For me, that simply confirms their lack of integrity, but somehow for you it means our city leaders didn’t do their job. Considering how many naive voters there are now in Alameda, I’m glad our leaders didn’t simply put Measure A to an up or down vote, because the newcomers would have just said, “Well, a ‘no’ vote is just more NIMBYISM!”

    Instead, we’ve gotten the full monty from SunCal, and they have revealed themselves as only slick political promoters can do. I say this myself as a one-time Spin Doctor who served more than 65 clients all over the Bay Area with Lazzari & Green Advertising. Great fun, and a real education!

    Dennis

  • BC says:

    Dennis

    You’ve written a couple of times about newcomers versus old-timers. What’s the criterion for becoming an old-timer? Does one have to have lived here 10 years? 20? 30? 46% of one’s life? Or is it a state of mind? Can one be an old-timer, having lived here one’s entire life if one doesn’t favor Measure A?

    If you allege an unhealable rift, please at least explain how one can determine what side one is on.

    Thank you.

    Old-timer/newcomer

  • In any case, if there is any validity to global warming, we may find we’d rather spend the money on a dike.

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