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Alameda Point: Nostalgia Confronts 21st Century Plan

Like boxers vying for a title, two very different ideas of planning are competing for the future of Alameda Point, a 770-acre community carved out of the former military base next to Alameda, the city. The choice is a 1950s-style bedroom community, all houses and cars and little else, or a mixed-use community in the style of the early 21st century, where higher densities are the trade-offs for premiums in open space and historic preservation. One can almost imagine a public hearing, in which half the room is filled with people who look like the parents in the Dick and Jane books, and the other half resembling the hip, high-tech parents of the "Spy Kids" movies.

With much of the former Alameda Naval Air Station a virtual blank slate for homebuilding, city residents are actively debating whether or not to apply Measure A to the area now known as Alameda Point. Approved in 1973, Measure A limits homebuilding in Alameda to either single-family homes or duplexes, period. In an apparent effort to keep density at bay, the measure requires each dwelling unit to be sited on at least 2,000 square feet of land. So much for apartment buildings, much less finding new uses for some fine ex-military buildings, including the Senior Officers' Quarters, which have no viable reuse except as multifamily housing.

Like most former military sites, Alameda Point presents tremendous environmental challenges. Large portions of the 1,700-acre peninsula were built on fill, which liquefies during earthquakes. (The base was built during the years immediately preceding World War II, and during the war Alameda was the most important military base on the West Coast.) More than 1,000 acres of the original island are now underwater, and rising sea levels due to global warming may consume more of the coastline. In the central portion of the former base, where the current preliminary design concept locates most of the future home building, much of the groundwater is contaminated.

Alameda Point also offers some economic obstacles to developers. Earlier development teams have dropped out of the project, including a partnership that included Shea Homes, Centex Homes and Morgan Stanley. That group had planned to build up to 1,800 homes on Alameda Point. One possible reason for their departure is the military's intention to charge the city $108 million for the ex-military acreage, rather than convey it free of charge, as originally announced. If the city passes that cost along to the developer, as it likely will, that sum could devour much of the developer's profits, unless the developer compensates by developing at even greater density. In May 2007, the City Council briefly considered replacing the first partnership with a venture between Catellus and Lennar. Ultimately, the city selected SunCal, an Irvine-based homebuilder, as the master developer of the 700-acre new community. To date, SunCal has not announced the number of units it intends to build.

On the positive side, Alameda Point is almost a blank canvas as a residential community (many of the military buildings have already found new commercial users) and could be a demonstration of forward-looking planning, as well as a notable new source of housing in the Bay Area only a short ride from a BART station. Following some initial design work by ROMA, the local base reuse authority hired influential urban designer Peter Calthorpe to draw up Measure A-compatible and non-Measure-A alternatives.

SunCal knows it must tread lightly in any major undertaking, particularly in the Bay Area. So far, SunCal has played its good-neighborhood card skillfully, even if the developer's preference for the denser, single-family-plus-multifamily option can be faintly discerned through all the smiling neutrality. At a PowerPoint presentation made public during a December meeting with Alameda residents, the developer tried to clarify the differences between Alternative A (as in Measure A) and the more progressive Alternative B. Admittedly, these diagrams are little more than land-use maps, but this limited information is still compelling. The most eye-catching feature of the map of Alternative A is how much space must be devoted to home building; the amount of potential park space, although still decent, is reduced drramatically. The preservation of historic buildings is also limited.

Alternative B shows the advantages of combining single family homes with multi-family development. The greater intensity of development allows for a greater amount of park space, including what appears to be a green promenade that connects, or nearly so, parks on the both the north and south ends of Alameda Point. The second scheme also has room for neighborhood-serving retail, which the developer touts as environmentally friendly, because residents would have little need to drive elsewhere for basic needs. Alternative B's additional bus stops make it more transit friendly than Alternative A. (A PowerPoint presentation on the two alternatives is available here.)

Measure A's notion of a bedroom community is outdated and may not deliver the quality of life that its framers envisioned. The danger of insisting on this literal, picture-book image of suburban life is that the lot sizes of the houses on Alameda Point could grow very small, and, as one local website put it, the result would be cookie-cutter houses on postage stamp-sized parcels. The result would be Levittown, not Mayberry.

These comments should not be interpreted as an attack on suburbia or single-family housing. The culprit here is inflexibility, not any type of housing or neighborhood. Single-family housing is indeed desirable, but not in isolation from other forms of housing in a way that would create or enforce segregation by income. The mix of uses is sustainable in Alternative B, because it means that people can shop on foot or bicycle if they desire. Alternative B promotes flexibility and choice of housing type, of transit mode, of outdoor recreation and is a reflection of experience and the complexity of actual urban life.

Knowledge delivers a knockout punch to nostalgia. Alternative B is the winner.