Since 2006, the US Department of Veterans Affairs has been planning to build a massive new complex on the northwest edge of Alameda Point, featuring an outpatient clinic, a national cemetery, and a conservation management office. And six years of complex negotiations with the City of Alameda, the US Navy, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are moving toward an endgame. But the talks have been environmentally sensitive because the seven hundred acres of former Naval Air Station land in question contain thriving wetlands and are home to one of the most important nesting sites of the endangered California Least Tern.
The Navy and Veterans Affairs are anxious to present a final plan to the public, but critics are raising questions about the closed-door nature of the negotiations, the thoroughness of the environmental assessment, and, most critically, about the overall suitability of building a 150,000-square-foot facility at that site.
The Center on Urban Environmental Law at Golden Gate University School of Law, which monitors the intersection of urban spaces and ecosystems, and offers guidance to government agencies in locating factories, roads, and parks, is concerned that the joint Navy/VA proposal is missing out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a world-class park in the East Bay. As such, the environmental group is offering an alternative vision, a design that locates the VA facility in a different part of Alameda Point and creates a shoreline wetlands park surrounded on three sides by the bay, offering unencumbered views of the San Francisco skyline. The Center on Urban Environmental Law also contends that a new park will drive up property values and have a long-term positive economic impact on the East Bay.
Currently, the northwest corner of Alameda Point isn't readily accessible; it's an expanse of cracked concrete and vegetation just beyond a battered cyclone fence that marks the western boundary of a row of giant hangar buildings. Much of the former fighter-jet airstrip has already begun to disappear as the wetlands reclaim the land; wildlife such as jackrabbits, geese, and pelicans thrive there.
Both the Navy and the VA, however, say that the proposed facility will preserve the wetlands, and are expected to release a draft environmental assessment in the near future, which will then be available for public comment for thirty days. If no significant impact is found as a result of the proposed action, the Navy and VA will release the final environmental assessment for public review before implementing any action.
Though the Navy and Veterans Affairs stated jointly — in advance of the draft document's release — that they expect no long-term environmental impact, the Center on Urban Environmental Law contends that the documents released thus far appear to focus on the immediate footprint of the planned new facility while neglecting to take a closer look at the long-term impact of a busy road and the influx of hundreds of thousands of vehicles each year. The group also is questioning whether that level of vehicular traffic can realistically have no immediate impact on the surrounding ecosystems.
Critics also say the negotiating parties aren't seeing the bigger picture. With Alameda recently losing the bid for a second campus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the site formerly set aside for the lab is now available for other purposes. And opponents of the current VA/Navy plan say the property proposed for the lab offers numerous advantages. It's close to the USS Hornet Museum, it was slated to be given to the lab for free, and it doesn't have any of the seismic issues of the current proposed site. Moving the VA clinic also will provide Alameda an opportunity to protect the wetlands.
However, according to Paul Kibel, the co-director of the Center on Urban Environmental Law, the Navy is keen on moving the process forward, rather than pursuing a new location, apparently because of concerns over liability. "The VA has basically indicated to the Navy that they would accept the property as is and release the Navy from any further liability, which the Navy likes," Kibel said. "Other agencies, like Fish and Wildlife, have not been willing to agree to that. There was some discussion a few years back about a large wildlife refuge. One of the big sticking points was the Fish and Wildlife Service would not agree to release the Navy, due to the contamination cleanup it would require."
Some residents also have expressed frustration that they haven't been more involved in the decision-making process. Though part of the "Going Forward" Alameda Point redevelopment process has allowed opportunities for public comment, the bulk of the negotiations have taken place without meaningful input from outside parties. "I believe the site that Alameda offered for a lab campus at Alameda Point is the best site" for the VA facility, said Richard Bangert, a member of the Alameda Point Resident Advisory Board, which deals with environmental cleanup on the former Naval Air Station. Bangert also writes the Alameda Point Environmental Report. "It appears, however, that a deal has been struck that would have the VA locate its facilities on the northwest territories adjacent to the wildlife refuge. Unfortunately, all discussions have been behind closed doors, so I do not have the ability to weigh the various options that were before the decision-makers. I believe the best course of action would have been to bring the discussion out in the open so that the public could have participated in the final outcome."
The next meeting of the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority, part of Alameda's "Going Forward" planning process, is scheduled for June 6 at 7 p.m. at Alameda City Hall.