Changing the Rules at Alameda Point 

The developer SunCal delays its planned initiative, but still plans to go through with its end run around city officials.

In the three months since the developer SunCal first sought to get its plan for the former Naval Air Station on Alameda's November ballot, this small town with a reputation for big disagreements has certainly lived up to expectations. The signature-gathering process escalated from mailers and mayoral endorsements, to petitioner misrepresentations and a movement to withdraw signatures, to an outright altercation after one signature gatherer shoved an Alameda Sun editor for daring to take her picture. The company that hired the petitioners boasts on its web site of once "Qualifying a measure in Alaska in under three weeks in the midst of minus 40-degree weather and an exploding volcano," but such acts of nature are apparently no preparation for weathering an Alameda development debate.

Now the drama has a new twist. Last week, SunCal decided not to submit those signatures to the city by its self-assigned deadline of June 15. Instead, the company announced that while it had gathered 8,083 signatures — more than enough to qualify the initiative for the November election — it would wait until later to submit them. So Alamedans may have to wait until early 2010 to vote on the measure that would amend the city's prohibition on most multiple-dwelling units to allow SunCal to build a mixed-use, transit-oriented community at Alameda Point. Currently owned by the Navy, the 1,078-acre Superfund site is in the slow process of clean-up and conveyance back to the city, which hopes to then turn the land over to SunCal for development and a much-needed infrastructure upgrade. But the Navy and SunCal are currently at odds over how much the property and its big-ticket bay views are worth, and the complexities of that negotiation are why SunCal says it set its sights on 2010.

"While our desire is to get this important issue before the voters as soon as possible, targeting a 2010 election is prudent and allows all parties time to complete the necessary discussions before this revitalization plan is voted on," acting SunCal project manager Pat Keliher said in last week's statement. The press release cited a need for more time so that the city, the developer, and the Department of Defense can hash out the particulars of the property transfer.

Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant agrees that more time is necessary. "Clearly we have to come to some understanding of what we are going to be paying for the property," she said in an interview. "This has to be our first priority in terms of this deal." But even though Gallant calls pushing back the initiative a "wise move at this point for everybody," her reasons for that position don't line up with SunCal's.

Gallant welcomes the extended timeline because she and other city administrators would rather not see this particular initiative go to the ballot. She notes that if the measure passes, SunCal will have set in stone a variety of issues that city officials would prefer to negotiate with the company. Gallant, a new hire to a non-political office in a city whose mayor, Beverly Johnson, has so supported the SunCal initiative that she recorded robo-calls urging its support, is insistent that vital parts of the measure take away Alameda's ability to "negotiate what we think is in the best interest of the city."

Unresolved financial issues aren't what stick out when you pick up SunCal's inch-thick, 1.5 lb, 288-page voter-sponsored initiative. Instead, the focal point is the development's New Urbanist vision of a planned community consisting of up to 4,346 residential units, 186 existing collaborative housing units, and 309 housing units from reuse of existing structures. The proposal also calls for 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 and approximately 145 acres of parks and open space, among other amenities.

But Gallant and her staff are more focused on the 42 drab pages that bring up the rear of the initiative: Exhibit F, the development agreement. A development agreement is a planning document that vests entitlements on a piece of property. Typically negotiated between parties, it includes details about what public benefits a developer will provide a city in exchange for the breaks it receives. "Even though a developer submits a request and says 'We want fee waivers, we are interpreting this, we are deciding that,' this does not mean the city agrees to it," Gallant said. "The city only agrees to it when those documents are prepared and submitted to a council for legislative action with staff's recommendation."

But SunCal has taken a different route. There is only one way to adopt a development agreement without negotiation, and that is through a voter-sponsored initiative. Essentially, in the process of taking the Measure A issue to voters, the developer is attempting to bypass the usual way of doing business and seeking to set a number of its own terms.

"It's pretty one-sided," said Assistant City Manager David Brandt. "They wrote it and it wasn't negotiated. Typically, if there was no initiative, they might have submitted a draft and we would have sent it up marked-up six ways to Sunday."

SunCal spokesman Adam Alberti, of the PR firm Singer Associates, said that while the developer understands that city officials might have preferred a negotiation, it wanted to present voters with a full plan. "We didn't want to ask them simply for an exemption to do some arbitrary thing that they couldn't trust — we felt that if the voters were going to be exempting the Point from something, they wanted to know what they were granting that exemption for

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