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Alameda's Radical Plan to Resist Climate Change

The small town has big ideas for how to reduce its carbon footprint.

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If the global climate crisis continues unabated, Alameda will be among the first Bay Area cities to confront major sea level rise. To meet this challenge, the city has declared a climate emergency, issuing a draft action plan that is both fiercely ambitious and tragically cognizant of the need to adapt.

In terms of transportation, the plan is proposing some the most radical ideas yet entertained by any West Coast city, including congestion pricing during peak commute hours to discourage driving, and urban infill development near transit to reduce car dependence. But the threat climate change poses to Alameda is just as unprecedented. The low-lying island's proximity to the water means it will bear a disproportionate burden in adapting to future climate hazards.

Bay Area sea level has only risen 8 inches in the past 100 years, but is projected to rise by another 12 inches in the next decade — and 32 inches by 2050. At 36 inches, current shoreline protection structures — which the plan recommends reinforcing — would be overwhelmed, and most of Bay Farm Island would already be underwater. By 2100, such unchecked flooding is projected to cost at least $6.8 billion, while adapting to prevent it would cost less than $1 billion.

"It's an existential threat," said Ruth Abbe of the nonprofit Community Action for a Sustainable Alameda, who served on the city's climate action task force. "Because Alameda is the most vulnerable city to sea level rise in the area, we have to show leadership on climate. If the city doesn't convince state and regional governments to act, we're going to be talking about retreat."

The city may ask voters to approve a bond to provide local funding for seawall upgrades, not unlike the $425 million seawall bond that San Franciscans passed last November. Preparing for sea level rise and expected flooding will be a major focus of the city's fiscal planning, and city staff has already identified $3 million in Alameda's general fund to implement parts of the plan in the next budget cycle.

The proposal also is unprecedented in the boldness of its emission-reduction goals. By next year, Alameda Municipal Power plans to have a fully carbon-neutral energy portfolio and the city will likely have reduced its emissions by 23 percent below its 2005 level, just 2 percent shy of the goal set in 2008. The plan calls for another 50 percent reduction over the next decade.

To do so, Alamedans must reduce their reliance on cars, and the Island's growing population must live more densely, close to transit, to make that possible. Alameda is in an especially good position to tackle transportation. Because of its clean local utility provider, the draft plan predicts that a full 70 percent of the city's carbon emissions will come from transportation.

Clean power also makes Alameda an ideal location for more electric vehicles, but experts say that won't be enough: according to a 2018 report by the California Air Resources Board, EVs are expected to gain market share too slowly to achieve state goals. Consequently, the state agency recommends at least a 25 percent reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled overall, and Alameda will prioritize shifting transportation modes over electric vehicle adoption.

"In Alameda, we're really focused on biking and walking," Abbe said. "If we feel safe enough to walk and bike, then we don't need to get in our cars. We're going door to door to talk to people about riding the Alameda BART shuttle, the 19 bus to Fruitvale BART. We really just need transit to get off the island."

The draft plan will work in tandem with the city's Housing Element and Transportation Choices Plan. Implementing the latter plan, which includes improved bus service, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and adding carpooling and EV lanes, is projected to reduce annual carbon emissions by 14,000 metric tons. Alameda's plan also proposes limiting vehicle travel during rush hour through congestion pricing. It is one of the first cities in the United States to seriously consider such a policy.

"It wasn't just rhetoric when we said we were declaring an emergency," said Vice Mayor John Knox White. "When we have a document advocating for congestion pricing — there are not a lot of cities willing to get out and do that."

Charging private vehicles for road access in high-demand areas has reduced vehicle travel and congestion in the cities where it is employed, such as London and Singapore. But it has yet to expand to the United States, and even in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have only recently endorsed a mild plan after initially opposing it for years.

Alameda also has become one of the first cities in the nation to seriously propose replacing minimum parking requirements with maximum parking caps for new housing developments.

On housing as well, the draft plan is extraordinarily bullish. Noting the environmental benefits of dense urban housing over suburban sprawl, and also the wisdom of maintaining economic diversity by preventing displacement, the draft plan essentially endorses Alameda progressives' pro-growth land use agenda whole cloth. In part, the authors call for policies to change zoning to allow "more multifamily use, reduced parking requirements, and increased allowable density while shortening overly lengthy permitting timelines."

Additionally, the plan recommends building on Alameda's Rent Stabilization Ordinance to protect tenants, while producing more affordable housing, retrofitting old buildings, and replacing natural gas with electrical appliances.

According to research by UC Berkeley climate scientist Daniel Kammen on 700 California cities, Alameda's greatest potential for emission reductions — to the tune of 600,0000 metric tons by 2050 — comes from urban infill development.

"Alameda's location in the inner East Bay, and wealth of transportation options, give it a competitive advantage to pursue emissions reductions with better land use policies," said local housing activist Josh Geyer. "Every home added in Alameda potentially represents a commuter who doesn't have to move out to Tracy or Stockton and drive for hours a day to get to their jobs here."

Alameda already has approved more than a thousand housing units at formerly vacant waterfront sites, with substantial portions of them permanently affordable: for example, 800 units and a new ferry terminal at Alameda Point, 589 units at Encinal Terminals, and 687 units at the Alameda Marina. These projects follow the city's "Housing Element," a plan adopted in 2015 that listed 11 sites for at least 2,000 units of multifamily housing. After nearly four decades of effectively banning new apartment buildings citywide, the era of 1973's Measure A is over.

After incorporating public feedback and finalizing the plan, the city council is expected to vote to authorize the plan within the next few months. But the plan is only the beginning.

"I'm very optimistic because city staff and city council know this is a high priority," Abbe said. This optimism is tempered, if not buoyed by realism: the city must implement a plan because it has no other choice. If Alameda doesn't act on climate change, and if other cities don't follow its lead, there may soon be no Alameda.

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