Alameda's decade-long debate over development — especially the development of Alameda Point — is turning out to be the dominant issue in the city's mayoral and council races this fall. And voters' views on the Point — whether they want to develop it with new homes and businesses or whether they're concerned about the extra traffic that a large project would bring — likely will determine the outcome of the election.
On one side of the debate stands Mayor Marie Gilmore. She strongly backs the city's plan to develop the former Alameda Naval Air Station — also called Alameda Point — with more than 1,400 new homes, along with new businesses and parks. Her opponent, popular Alameda school board member Trish Spencer, adamantly opposes the proposed large development, noting that Alameda already has traffic problems, in part because there are few access points to the island.
Likewise, in the race for city council, incumbent Stewart Chen supports the development proposal for Alameda Point, as does Jim Oddie, a district director for Assemblymember Rob Bonta. Frank Matarrese, the third candidate in the race for two seats on the council, backed the idea of developing the Point when he previously served on the council, but now opposes the city's current proposal.
In addition to sharing support for development, Gilmore, Chen, and Oddie act at times as if they're running together as a slate, frequently parroting each other's answers during candidate forums. For example, on the subject of rising rents in Alameda — an issue that is beginning to gain prominence in the election —Gilmore said more information is needed to discern the size of the problem and that she doubts that rent control is the answer. "I don't know as I stand here whether these are a few bad apples [landlords] or if the problem is a lot more pervasive than that. You don't need a sledgehammer to kill a gnat." Chen and Oddie voiced a similar opinion and referenced the same imagery. (The powerful Alameda firefighters' union, which historically has been the most influential special interest in the city, has endorsed Gilmore, Chen, and Oddie.)
Similarly, when questioned about a proposal to build new homes at the site of the current Harbor Bay Club, the three declined to answer, arguing that the issue could potentially come before the City Council in the future, and so if they voiced an opinion about it now, they might have to recuse themselves later from voting on it. "I really envy the candidates who are not in office because you are at-will to speak your mind," said Chen. Even though the controversial plan to tear down the aging Harbor Bay Club and build new homes and a conference center on the site was withdrawn earlier this year, Gilmore and Oddie took the same position as Chen. "You cannot make up your mind before the idea comes to council," Gilmore said. "It's ethically wrong."
In an interview afterward, Matarrese, a former councilmember for eight years, contended that Gilmore, Chen, and Oddie were just making up an excuse to avoid answering a tough question. "Does that mean if I'm Barbara Lee — and I'm against the war — does that mean if a war-funding bill comes up that I can't vote on it?" Matarrese said. "I thought we were legislators, not judges." Matarrese, however, said he would recuse himself from any Harbor Bay Club vote if elected because he owns property within 300 feet of the club, and thus could benefit financially from new development on the site. Spencer opposes the plan because it likely would bring additional traffic to Bay Farm Island.
Spencer, a school board member known for speaking her mind, opposes most development plans in Alameda. "We know there are housing developers that want to come here and build, build, build. We know that. Is that best for Alamedans? No. Many of us do not want that," she said. "That is why I'm running. We have housing development that is occurring way faster than any real solutions to address the transportation issue."
Gilmore maintains that traffic, particularly coming from the Webster and Posey Tube on the West End, is not a problem endemic to Alameda, but is a regional issue. On several occasions, Gilmore has dismissed Spencer's position as being shortsighted. "Slowing development down is not a solution," Gilmore said at a recent forum. "It's not a plan."
Although most City Hall observers believe that Spencer is facing an uphill battle against the incumbent, there is far more uncertainty over which of the three council candidates will occupy the two available seats on the council next year. Despite being the lone incumbent, Chen's re-election is no sure thing. He was elected in 2012 to fill out the last two years of Bonta's term after Bonta won election to the State Assembly. However, news reports earlier this year revealed that Chen had not been forthcoming to the public about an insurance fraud scheme he was caught up in two decades ago. Chen said of the conviction, in which he served three years probation and paid a fine, "They had nothing on me." He said he believed the charge was wiped from his record after his probation expired and never felt obliged to mention it to supporters or the public.
Meanwhile, Oddie is hoping that his experience and connections to regional government during his tenure as Bonta's right-hand man in Alameda will convince residents to vote for him. This is also not Oddie's first foray into Alameda politics. Last year, he unsuccessfully sought an appointment to the Alameda Healthcare District Board of Directors.
Lastly, Matarrese notes that he's the most experienced candidate in either race. However, his opponents have painted him as a flip-flopper because of his prior support for development of the Point. He said that just before he lost the 2010 mayor's race to Gilmore, he began to have a change of heart about the Point. "I changed my mind, and if people want to call it a flip-flop, it's fine," said Matarrese. "But it's better to flip-flop ...and avoid disaster."