Alameda needs to walk a fine line on Boatworks project

Tonight at Planning Board, the Boatworks Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will get its day in the sun. The plan, 242 housing units shoe horned on to an old industrial site with very little public open space and contrary to the General Plans goals for roadway design. (quick note to Planning Board, please, please, please insist that this project have a grid system rather than this pseudo-gate community proposed near our downtown.

Many neighbors in the area are hoping for half of this site being made into a park on the estuary (4.5 of the 9.5 acres) but the city has not ponied up the money to make that a reality and the owner, Francis Collins, has moved on. The site has been in litigation for years, with the city winning a pyrrhic victory in the last round. Which brings us to what appears to be the large unspoken drama with this project.

Collins sued the City under government code  65589.5 (the housing affordability act) which states:

A local agency shall not disapprove a housing development Project… for very low, low-, or moderate-income households, or an emergency shelter, or condition approval in a manner that renders the project infeasible for development for the use of very low, low-, or moderate-income households, or an emergency shelter, including through the use of design review standards…

Essentially, this act, which is colloquially known as the Anti-NIMBY law, says that if a project has 20% affordable housing or more, cities are very constrained in their ability to deny the project. There are a few exceptions one of which is not zoning or Measure A:

Inconsistency with the zoning ordinance or general plan land use designation shall not constitute a specific, adverse impact…

Collins, citing Boatwork 20% affordable housing, claimed an exemption, but Collins use of the density bonus caused the affordable housing percentage to drop below 20% and the courts ruled that the final amount of affordable housing is what counts. But they also pointed out that if Collins returned with a similar project that met the 20% threshold, they, that is the court, would approve the project right there in the court room, with the City on the hook for Collins legal fees and no say in the project’s design.

Which brings us to the compromise plan, which is discussed in the packet without all this boring legal background. Staff is encouraging Collins to create a plan that is more consistent with Alameda’s design guidelines (street grids, etc.) and about 2 acres of open space. (Less than some would like). The point, stealthy as it may be, is that the City has very few options and if the Planning Board just denies the project, it’s likely that Collins will march his amended plan back into the courtroom and have it approved with no say from the City. But if the City holds firm on something resembling the compromise plan, it’s possible that a non-perfect, but much better example will occur, with the community realizing many open-space and other benefits.

Under the density bonus law, Collins could build non-single family units in order to open the site up more and create a real roadway and open-space network. The Planning Board, followed by the City Council, will need to maneuver their way through this project carefully. Open space advocates would do well to realize what is possible, and how close they are to losing everything they want, save a five-foot walking path on the water.