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Alameda Takes Advantage of Prime Navy Parcel

Redevelopment of closed military bases in the City of Alameda is moving forward thanks to the settlement of a lawsuit filed by affordable housing advocates and environmentalists. The settlement clears the way for a 600-unit housing development and a 1.3-million-square-foot business park at the former U.S. Navy Fleet Industrial Supply Center.

Meanwhile, the city is in the process of choosing a master developer for about one-third the 2,600-acre former Alameda Naval Air Station, which is next to the closed supply center at the northwest end of the island city.

City officials, planners and civic activists agree that the closed military bases offer the city both great opportunities and enormous challenges. The closed bases provide the nearly built-out city with its last chances for large-scale development and on a waterfront site with spectacular views of San Francisco Bay. However, the sites contains a great deal of contamination left from the Navy, and there are concerns about how to handle the traffic that development will generate.

The Naval Air Station closed in 1997. At its peak, the base employed 14,000 civilians and service personnel. Since the closure, the City Council (the official base reuse board) has leased 2.7 million square feet of former Navy buildings to about 90 private companies. Approximately 2,000 people now work on the closed base, according to city Development Services Director Doug Yount.

Just prior to the base's closure, the city adopted a 20-year plan for the site, which is now known as Alameda Point. Although short on specifics, the plan calls for a wide range of uses, including single-family and multi-family homes, retail businesses, offices, light industry, a public marina, a golf resort, parks and a wildlife refuge.

"It is truly a mixed-use, urban infill development," Yount said.

What form that development will take depends a great deal on the master development agreement proposed for 770 acres of the Naval Air Station. After receiving proposals from seven developers, the city has whittled the finalists to three heavyweights Catellus Development, Centrex/Shea Homes/Shea Properties and Harbor Bay/Lennar. All three have pitched variations on a New Urbanist-style development. City officials hope to select one master developer this summer for what could be up to $1 billion worth of development, Yount said.

Naturally, reuse of the base has be a controversial topic in a town where growth battles date to the 1970s, when voters approved a ballot measure that prohibits replacement of single-family homes with multi-family structures. Complicating things is the fact that activity at the base has been below peak levels since the mid-1990s.

"You have a lot of folks who forget what it was like when the base was here. We used to have 14,000 people working and living at that base," Yount said. "People have gotten used to having it quiet."

Traffic remains a major concern because the city relies on various bridges and tubes to connect to the mainland cities of Oakland and San Leandro. Yount contends the city needs to get as creative as possible with light rail, a tram, ferries and even hovercraft service. "It may seem like a crazy idea," he said, "but what's your alternative? Build another bridge?"

Patrick LaCava, an Alameda resident and restaurant owner who has followed the city's planning process, said he is confident city officials can figure out how to handle traffic from Alameda Point. His bigger concern is seeing the right mix of housing and retail development that will bring people to the area.

"It's got the greatest views around, and it would be wonderful to make better use of those," LaCava said of the site. City residents, he added are "spending our money elsewhere. We go to Berkeley or Walnut Creek, and we'd much rather spend the money on the island."

The full extent of contamination at Alameda Point remains unknown. Yount estimates there is at least $100 million worth of remediation necessary. The Navy is responsible for the cleanup. Dave Berger, assistant city manager for community and economic development, said the property is now "worth less than nothing" because of the contamination and need to build new infrastructure.

"We've told the developer that this is not for the squeamish," Yount said.

However, city officials worked past contamination concerns at the 215-acre Fleet Industrial Supply Center (FISC) adjacent to the closed Naval Air Station. Last year, the Department of Toxic Substances Control approved a "dirty transfer" of the site from the Navy to the city, meaning that full remediation was not required prior to transfer, as it usually is. At issue are about 12 acres tainted with PCBs, cadmium, petroleum wastes and other toxic materials that will cost at least $3.5 million to remediate, according to the state. The Navy is still responsible for the cleanup and is planning to begin work later this year, said Jeff Bond, the city's development manager.

In May of 2000, the city approved a mixed-use project on the 215-acre site, for which Catellus is the developer. The project called for about 540 dwelling units, a 1.3 million-square-foot office and research and development park, five parks of various sizes, a waterfront promenade and an elementary school site. But two advocacy groups quickly filed a lawsuit alleging the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Hodge urged the parties to settle, which they did in March.

Under the settlement, the city and Catellus agreed to provide an additional 60 units of very low- and low-income housing, and agreed to earmark more of the already approved moderate-income housing for people with incomes of 100% of median or less. Additionally, the city agreed that 25% of all housing developed in the overall base redevelopment will be affordable.

Getting affordable housing concessions has been particularly tricky because of popular sentiment against development of lower-cost units, said Tom Matthews, chairman of Renewed Hope, a housing advocacy group that sued the city. He and others urged the city to refurbish 590 units of shuttered military housing on the FISC site for poor people.

"We were not successful in convincing the city not to tear down those units and replace them with $400,000 and $500,000 homes," he lamented. But Matthews, a former housing official for the city, understands the politics. "Like most communities, everybody talks about it [affordable housing] as a great thing for the community. But when it comes time to approve a particular project on a certain site, nothing gets approved."

Assistant City Manager Berger, however, said the old Navy apartments in question would have cost $83,000 per unit to bring up to code, a cost that did not include needed infrastructure improvements. He said the city's commitment to affordable housing can be seen in the lawsuit settlement.

The settlement also calls for additional soils testing at the FISC site, with results to be made public, said Eve Bach, an economist and planner for Arc Ecology, one of the plaintiffs. Although the settlement does not require more cleanup, "I guess we feel confident that if there is a problem there, they won't be able to sweep it under the rug," Bach said.

The lawsuit delayed development by about nine months, said Bond, the city's development manager. Officials are now piecing together a financing package to fund demolition of old military buildings and construction of backbone infrastructure at the FISC site. Housing construction could begin by about the first of the year, he said. The timing of business park development depends partly on the economy.

While the city is closely involved with development of the FISC site, it wants a private company to handle redevelopment of the much larger Naval Air Station site. A city the size of Alameda does not have the staff, capital and expertise to serve as executive developer of such a large project, said Assistant City Manager Berger. City officials are pleased to have received interest from large developers who are pursuing the project.

"We want it to be spectacular, but it's not going to have anything that is out of character with the community," Bond said. That means houses with million-dollar views will be part of the project and waterfront amusement parks will not.

The city figures the 770 acres can accommodate about 1,300 houses, 750 multi-family units, 3.2 million square feet of offices and businesses, 900,000 square feet of light industry, 100,000 square feet of retail uses, a marina with 900 boat slips, and 144 acres of parks and public open space.

Elsewhere on the closed Naval Air Station, city officials have set aside a large portion called the "Northwest Territories," for which they are in the early stages of planning a golf course and resort, said Berger. Because the Northwest Territories are in the Tidelands Trust, the property must remain in the city's possession, and it can only be developed with recreational amenities, visitor-serving commerce, and maritime-related facilities. Another 574 acre along the bay has been set aside as a wildlife refuge for the California least tern, an endangered bird that breeds on the site.

Contacts:

Doug Yount, Alameda development services director, (510) 749-5810.

Dave Berger, Alameda assistant city manager, (510) 749-5920.

Tom Matthews, chairman, Renewed Hope, (510) 231-3991.

Eve Bach, economist/planner, Arc Ecology, (415) 495-1786.

Alameda Point redevelopment website: www.alameda-point.com