Alameda residents fight housing plan to create 5000 homes: ‘We are fearful paradise will go away’

Every city in the state must put together a draft housing element that spells out how it will accommodate new homes. As part of the plan, Alameda officials are proposing allowing multifamily apartments throughout the city and are prioritizing placing denser housing on nearly 100 acres of shopping centers and near bus and ferry connections. They also are encouraging more accessory dwelling units behind single-family homes.

In the past, smaller cities including Alameda have ignored the mandates, bowing to resident opposition. But Alameda officials say this time the state will levy fines or withhold funding for city projects, like infrastructure, if they don’t plan for the required number of units.

But residents are worried about parking, traffic and a loss of “neighborhood character” if more residents are welcomed.

“People want us to do as little as possible,” said Council Member John Knox White. “If there were no state laws that required us to do it .. we would be building little to no housing at all.”

These battles over housing elements have occurred throughout the Bay Area and the state.

When officials in Atherton, an exclusive Peninsula community, proposed building townhomes to meet their state-mandated goals, some residents adamantly opposed the plans — urging the city to pay a $100,000 monthly fine instead. In neighboring Menlo Park, city officials want to build affordable housing on Sand Hill Road, the center of venture capital and some of the most expensive commercial real estate in the world, despite opposition from residents. Critics have said San Francisco — which must plan for 82,000 units — has a draft housing element that’s flawed and could be rejected by the state.

“Look at Alameda, it’s a perfect example of what happens everywhere,” Knox White said. He added that the draft housing element’s proposed density increases would impact only 40% of the city’s residential neighborhoods.

In the past, Alameda has ignored the state’s requirements to zone for new units and even has baked a rule into the City Charter that prohibits multifamily homes, Knox White said.

And Alameda tried to get out from under the state mandates this time around. The city was one of 28 in the state that appealed its regional housing allocation numbers, or RHNA, arguing that it is prone to flooding and severe groundshaking during earthquakes. But the state rejected it.

Allowing multifamily buildings would undo a voter-approved City Charter from the early 1970s that prohibits these buildings. In 2020, city officials tried to convince voters to remove that element from the Charter with a ballot measure, but it failed.

Nearly all of the 100 residents who gathered Tuesday evening at a golf course on Bay Farm Island — a city district separated by an estuary — opposed the idea of adding housing, particularly multifamily buildings.

Residents shouted down Andrew Thomas, the city’s director of planning and building, urging him not to comply with state mandates.

As Thomas laid out the city’s plans, residents grew visibly angry that their nearby shopping center could be home to 300 new units — the only major change to Bay Farm Island’s housing stock based on the draft housing element.

“This sucks,” one woman said, shaking her head.

“What if there’s no room?” one person yelled.

When Thomas responded, “There is room,” people angrily yelled in response.

Thomas said the city plans to prioritize housing in commercial corridors, like shopping centers, and around transit. Though Alameda doesn’t have any BART stations, it has access to bus lines and three ferry terminals, he said.

Thomas said he hopes that some of the residents attending the meeting will be open to adding second units, or accessory dwellings units.

“You’re joking, right?” one person yelled.

Phil Rigano, a retired general contractor from San Diego, complained that the city is already grappling with too much congestion on its roads. Residents nodded in agreement, complaining that it sometimes takes 20 minutes to get off the island.

Rigano said his concerns are rooted in safety. He asked Thomas what the solution is. Thomas said more buses.

“In other words, there is no solution,” Rigano said shaking his head. “I think we should start recalling people.”

Many residents were concerned that the island’s golf course would soon be transformed into housing. Thomas said a developer has submitted a plan to purchase the property and add 400 housing units to the nearly 9 acres of the club, but he said that’s not part of the housing element and any plans would have to go through an environmental review process.

Raychel Cooke, a 36-year-old nurse, also criticized the city’s plans. She told The Chronicle that it’s up to the state to build more housing, not cities. She said the state should focus on creating more RV safe parking sites and Tuff Shed programs, which are similar to tiny homes, for homeless people.

Cooke also suggested that the state dock a cruise ship at the port and transform it into housing — similar to an idea that Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan had in 2019. At the time, the Port of Oakland said it was only equipped to handle cargo ships.

Michael Marx, who has lived in Alameda for 38 years and is a retired consultant for Visa, said he worries about the traffic and neighborhood character. But, he said, he hopes the city and its residents can find a compromise so that no particular neighborhood feels a “disproportionate brunt.”

“We feel we live in paradise and we are fearful paradise will go away with these changes,” Marx said.

Thomas acknowledged residents’ concerns, but emphasized, “The consequences of not doing it are going to be much more painful.”

The city will hold another community meeting June 9 and must finalize its housing element by the end of the year.

Sarah Ravani (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SarRavani

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