The weeks leading up to Alameda's February 2 special election have been as dramatic as ever. On January 15, developer SunCal, whose self-drafted initiative is the sole issue on the ballot, submitted an alternative proposal for the crumbling Navy base known as Alameda Point. This "Plan B" to Measure B, the controversial 288-page mishmash of amendments and entitlements for what SunCal wants to build, contains the same basic plan as the increasingly unpopular ballot measure but strips out some of the city's objections to the initiative and seeks to bypass Alameda's tough density restrictions by different means.
Both the plan that goes to the voters next week and the Plan B that SunCal recently filed with the city imagine a mixed-use, transit-oriented development of up to 4,346 residential units, 309 housing units from reuse of existing structures, and 186 existing collaborative housing units on the 770-acre site. Also included are approximately 145 acres of parks and open space, up to 350,000 square feet of retail and 3,182,000 square feet of other commercial and business park uses, plus up to 260,000 square feet for institutional and civic uses.
What's different in Plan B is the developer's approach to what is known as Measure A, the 1973 ballot measure that prohibits anything denser than a duplex and restricts construction to one housing unit per 2,000 square feet of land. The new application asks the city council to put forth its own initiative exempting Alameda Point from Measure A if Measure B loses. Alternately, SunCal argues, the same development can be built under the state-mandated density bonus law, which "expressly applies to" cities like Alameda, allowing higher-density developments to encourage construction of "affordable housing, senior housing, and child care facilities," SunCal's Pat Keliher wrote in a letter to the city accompanying the new proposal.
When SunCal asked in 2008 to amend its negotiating agreement with the city to let the developer place an initiative on the ballot, Alameda officials anticipated a measure that would simply exempt Alameda Point from Measure A. But SunCal's initiative asks the voters to approve everything from a general plan amendment to largely one-sided legal and financial terms that would otherwise have to be negotiated with the city. This unprecedented approach has inspired an equally unusual coalition of opponents, from Mayor Beverly Johnson, a former booster, to the local women's Republican club.
At issue for many opponents is the initiative's development agreement — a contract developers often ink with cities to ensure that particular planning guidelines apply over the life of a project. The development agreement in Measure B contains financial details that city staff say don't belong in an entitlement document, including a 2 percent property tax cap and a $200 million cap on the developer's obligation to fund public benefits. On a more basic level, argues City Attorney Teresa Highsmith, the document is "a little unfair to the community, because this development agreement was not negotiated with the city, and the community is being asked to vote on it."
SunCal has said it will address the city's concerns in the actual land deal that must happen before any rights outlined in the development agreement vest. Such talks are ongoing as part of the company's exclusive negotiating deal with the city, which lasts through July. So even if Measure B fails on February 2, SunCal still has a seat at the table and will be able to push for its newly submitted alternative plan.
In fact, as part of that new plan, the developer has made a point of submitting a new version of its development agreement that removes the 2 percent and $200 million caps. Nonetheless, SunCal spokesman Joe Aguirre said that the company still believes Measure B will pass and is still urging Alamedans to vote for it. Aguirre said that if the measure wins, SunCal will still have to negotiate a separate disposition and development agreement with the city even if it contains terms that "are contrary or more restrictive" to those laid out in Measure B. SunCal also picked up a key endorsement for Measure B last week from the Greenbelt Alliance, a longtime supporter of urban, infill development.
However, in an opinion released last month, Highsmith concluded that the initiative's development agreement contains language that suggests it would trump any other that came in conflict with it later. And then last week, mayoral hopeful Marie Gilmore, the only remaining neutral figure on Alameda's City Council, came down on Highsmith's side of the debate, joining fellow councilmember and candidate Frank Matarrese and likely candidate Vice Mayor Doug deHaan in calling for voters to defeat Measure B. In her January 21 announcement, Gilmore said that although she likes SunCal's land plan, over the holidays she "reluctantly" concluded that "Measure B had to be considered as written without regard to any post-election modifications or negotiations."
Although it remains to be seen whether the developer's new version of the Alameda Point project will pick up support from the many like Gilmore who have stated that they like SunCal's land plan but not the one-sided terms of Measure B, there are indications that the debate may be shifting again. Staunch initiative opponents Renewed Hope Housing Advocates, an affordable-housing nonprofit, released a statement calling Plan B an "encouraging development" that "could be a jumping off point for fair negotiation" in the future. But William "Bill" Smith, the nonprofit's vice president, said that SunCal still has a lot of work to do to regain the community's trust after a political campaign that has included tactics he described as being "misleading and calculating."