ALAMEDA POINT: ‘Their arrogance is exceeded only by their arrogance’
Even the most fervent supporters of SunCal Companies’ proposal to turn Alameda’s rotting former Naval Air Station into a new, mixed-use community admit that the company was its own worst enemy in its quest to win support for its plan.
The company routinely ignored advice from city staff, politically active locals and even its own highly paid political consultants, they said, angering Alameda voters and local policymakers, who sent them packing on July 20.
“They thought we were just bumpkins. That we were just urban city bumpkins that they could roll through,” said Vice Mayor Doug deHaan, who voted to bring SunCal to town but dropped his support of the developer when they failed to seek his input on their project.
SunCal’s insistence on placing Measure B on the ballot with a business deal many saw as deeply unfavorable for the city put them on a path of no return, supporters and opponents said. The developer claims they had city buy-in on the ballot measure.
“The developer with the ballot measure provided the hammer and the nails for the coffin top,” said Bill Smith, a Sierra Club member and affordable housing advocate who continued to support the project once Measure B was defeated.
A SunCal spokesman accused detractors of seeking to distance themselves from the breakdown of their efforts to develop the Point and faulted Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant for the failure of negotiations with the company. And he accused city officials of focusing on the development’s potential negatives instead of considering the benefits it could offer.
“Our contention is that things started to not go well when the person we’re dealing with came on to the scene,” SunCal’s David Soyka said, referring to Gallant.
SunCal did not get off to the most auspicious start. City staff, who recommended the council choose Catellus to develop the Point after a hoped-for partnership between that developer and Lennar failed to materialize, almost didn’t invite SunCal to the 2007 meeting where they ultimately won the job.
During the company’s first week as master developer, city staff learned that SunCal’s Point project engineer, James Winzler, once headed a company that was sued by the federal government for failing to forward employee contributions into their retirement plans. According to a Department of Labor press release, Winzler and the company were ordered in 2006 to repay $142,578 into the former employees’ 401(k) plans.
David Brandt, who served as assistant city manager during SunCal’s early tenure as Point developer, said the company – which he said had less experience dealing with the Navy than Catellus or Lennar – ignored city staff’s advice on how to work with the Navy and made “a number of blunders” in early meetings.
“They said some pretty stupid things, made promises they decided they couldn’t keep. We were constantly trying to keep them out of trouble,” Brandt said.
But by 2008, SunCal had started figuring out what to do and how to work with the key players on the Point deal, Brandt said. And they gathered public input and support for their emerging plans with a series of public meetings. They also hired a team of top experts to piece the development plan together, including Peter Calthorpe, who is considered a leading urban planner.
“I wouldn’t say we had complete consensus, (but) we had a very strong group of people that understood the trade-offs,” Calthorpe said.
The plans involved nearly three times more residential development than had been envisioned before SunCal came on board. But some members of the council said the developer made a strong case for them.
SunCal had argued that earlier plans to build about 1,700 homes – less than the 4,841 SunCal envisioned – weren’t financially feasible. The residual cleanup and engineering costs of developing the Point, which is a Superfund site that sits on a flood plain and young Bay mud, would be high; replacing its aged roads, water pipes and other infrastructure alone would cost more than $650 million. The company also said that it needed to build more homes to attract transit.
But in order to enact their high-density vision for the Point, the company had clear a delicate hurdle: They had to ask voters to exempt the project from Measure A.
Councilwoman Marie Gilmore said she felt the company made its case to the council for the increased development. But she thought that they, and not the council, should make that same case to voters.
“I think we individually came to realization that the council wouldn’t put Measure A on the ballot,” Gilmore said. “If some developer couldn’t get the required number of signatures, to have the council do it would be a waste of time and money. So the theory was, anyone who wanted to change Measure A would have to get the signatures themselves.”
But the company decided to put more on the ballot than a Measure A exemption. The 288-page ballot measure included the developer’s land plan for the Point plus a business deal that is typically negotiated with the city.
Brandt said he and other staffers begged SunCal to leave the business agreement off the ballot, to no avail. SunCal’s political consultant, Larry Tramutola, said he also urged the developer to streamline their plea to voters. Tramutola said the company feared they could win a Measure A exemption but get kicked off the project.
“They felt that if they didn’t go for the whole enchilada that there might not be an enchilada to eat,” he said.
Soyka admits the company erred in dropping such a huge ballot measure on voters.
“We probably made an error – we were always under the assumption that more information is better,” he said. Still, he said the company believed people would feel more comfortable voting for the plan if they had all the details.
The anger and frustration city staff felt soon spread. The paid signature gatherers the company says Tramutola hired – against the advice of local supporters, they said – enraged prospective voters, who claimed they had been harassed in some cases. Others claimed the signature gatherers misrepresented what was on the ballot.
Anger over the plan grew as city staff, led by Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant, raised questions about financial and other impacts the ballot measure could impose on the city if passed. Meanwhile, news of SunCal’s growing list of bankrupt projects was also making the rounds.
SunCal pieced together an advisory board populated by prominent local supporters and business people and spent nearly $1.3 million to earn voter approval of their vision for the Point, but the damage was done. An overwhelming 85 percent of voters said no.
In the days leading up to the election and those following, SunCal tried to distance itself from the loss. But opponents continued to press their case with members of the City Council, who showed few signs they’d reinstate their support for the developer.
Just days before the council’s vote to send them home, SunCal offered a final salvo: They threatened to sue the city and Gallant if they didn’t allow the company to stay.
“The crux of this is, (is this) a bad faith negotiation or a good faith negotiation. We have always acted like the city is our partner,” said Soyka, who said the developer had no choice but to bring attorney Louis “Skip” Miller in.
The move infuriated council members and SunCal’s opponents, who heckled Miller as he made his pitch on July 20. For nearly two hours, the developer’s opponents blasted SunCal and their plan.
“Their arrogance is only exceeded by their arrogance,” Jim Sweeney, who opposed SunCal’s plan, said.
Contact Michele Ellson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact The Bay Citizen’s Zusha Elinson at email@example.com.
Alameda Point series:
Monday: Accusations fly as SunCal exits
Tuesday: ‘Their arrogance is exceeded only by their arrogance’
Navy denies SunCal lawyer’s letter claim
Wednesday: Where do we go from here?