Hidden Costs 

A developer's plans for a huge housing development in Alameda could snarl traffic there and in Oakland or be costly for the city's taxpayers.

A Southern California developer last week shared its sweeping new plans for a giant housing community on the former Alameda Naval Air Station. Officials for SunCal Companies spoke at a town hall meeting about the importance of building dense urban development, limiting suburban sprawl, and combating global warming. But they did not disclose that their proposed 4,200 to 6,000 units of housing will either cost local taxpayers tens of millions of dollars or snarl traffic throughout Alameda and downtown Oakland.

SunCal originally proposed building 1,800 single-family homes on the old military base, which the Navy decommissioned more than a decade ago. But company officials strongly implied last week that their original plan was no longer viable, and said the site was going to cost much more to develop than they realized. The land, they said, likely would liquefy during a strong earthquake and flood when ocean levels rise with global warming. Because of the extra costs of dealing with these problems, and presumably because of evaporating profits during the current housing downturn, SunCal officials said they needed to more than double the number of homes at Alameda Point.

Peter Calthorpe, a Berkeley-based consultant for SunCal, told the town hall audience that the increased density would generate only slightly more traffic than the previous plan. Concerns over bad traffic have been a significant issue because the proposed development would feed the nearby Webster and Posey tubes, two tunnels that link Alameda to Oakland. During morning rushhour, the Posey Tube clogs with traffic, backing up cars onto Alameda's streets. And during the evening commute, the Webster Tube backs up traffic into Oakland's Chinatown neighborhood. As a result, Alameda officials had concluded that Alameda Point could sustain no more than 1,800 homes.

But Calthorpe said the old Navy base could actually handle 4,200 housing units if its residents commute on AC Transit's yet-to-be-built Bus Rapid Transit system. And 6,000 units would be possible, he said, if the development included a cutting-edge elevated, electric transit line. Known as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, the system would feature small automated electric cars that ride along a monorail-like track. However, Calthorpe said SunCal would not build the 6,000-unit option if Personal Rapid Transit, which is to be tested this fall at London's Heathrow Airport, proves to be unviable. "It's an if, and only if" proposition, he said.

Regardless, most of the transportation costs would fall on taxpayers, and likely be substantial. Under the 4,200-unit proposal, Calthorpe said in a subsequent interview, SunCal would pay for Bus Rapid Transit only within its development. That could spell trouble for taxpayers, because Calthorpe acknowledged that Bus Rapid Transit won't work unless it extends beyond SunCal's development, throughout Alameda, through the tubes, and into downtown Oakland. In fact, SunCal's assumption that the 4,200-unit development will only create slightly more traffic than a 1,800-unit one is based on Bus Rapid Transit doing just that.

But Bus Rapid Transit is expensive to build. AC Transit's current plan for dedicated bus lanes and center-of-the-street platforms in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro will cost at least $250 million. Moreover, AC Transit is short on funds. The agency's board debated fair hikes earlier this year and has a property tax measure on the November ballot to make up for a budget shortfall.

As a result, it's not at all clear whether AC Transit could afford to extend Bus Rapid Transit from downtown Oakland through the tubes to the old military base. A system of that size would surely cost tens of millions of dollars to build. Nor is it clear that enough Alameda residents would ride Bus Rapid Transit to make it cost-efficient for the transit agency. "It's merely in the conceptual stage," Calthorpe admitted. "There's a lot of work to be done."

The same is true for the 6,000-unit plan. Again, Calthorpe conceded that SunCal would only pay the cost of the elevated electric line within its development. And again, he acknowledged that such a system would only work if it extended throughout Alameda, over the estuary, and into downtown Oakland. Such systems cost $12 million to $15 million per mile to build, which is much cheaper than light rail, he said. But while the city will receive a substantial tax boost from the sale of the SunCal homes, it would be nowhere near enough to finance an extensive new mass transit system.

SunCal's plans also would require a voter-approved amendment to Measure A, a thirty-plus-year-old law that limits housing density in Alameda and has been the electric third rail of island politics for decades. To build 4,200 or 6,000 housing units on the former base, SunCal would have to construct dense condominium complexes, which would violate Measure A. City Councilman Doug DeHaan said in an interview that SunCal told city officials that it plans to ask voters to amend Measure A on the November 2009 ballot. The city has not taken a position on the planned amendment or on SunCal's new housing proposal.

But for skeptics, the transit issues raise too many unanswered questions. "Who says Oakland will cooperate to run an elevated PRT line through Oakland?" Alameda activist David Howard wrote in an e-mail to Full Disclosure. "Who says Oakland will cooperate for Bus Rapid Transit lanes on surface streets on the Oakland side of the estuary? Who will pay for an estuary crossing for PRT?"

At this point, the answers to those questions are unknown. But this much is clear. Calthorpe and SunCal are right: More dense urban development will curb suburban sprawl and lessen the number of long commutes that add to global warming. Plus, their plans for mass transit on the old Navy base and throughout Alameda are intriguing. But before they develop their vision further, they owe both Alamedans and Oaklanders a thorough, honest, and upfront accounting of exactly how much Alameda Point's transportation needs will cost.

Suing to Kill the Tax

Even though the Oakland City Council decided in July not to collect a controversial increase in the city's Landscaping and Lighting Assessment District tax, a local activist who first raised questions about it has decided to sue the city anyway. In a lawsuit filed last month in Alameda County Superior Court, David Mix seeks to have the tax increase legally invalidated.

Mix, who is representing himself in the case, said in an interview that council members stopped short of officially overturning the tax increase, and he's worried they will later reinstate it. The property tax increase would have raised at least $12 million for street lighting repairs and upgrades, along with city park maintenance. Mix began asking questions about the tax after the council declared in June that it won voter approval. Mix had discovered that the city overcounted votes from the Port of Oakland.

Although Full Disclosure later confirmed Mix's assertions (see "Rigging the Vote," July 9), the council said it chose not to institute the tax increase because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a similar measure in Santa Clara County. In that case, the high court said such property assessment increases are actually new taxes that require a two-thirds vote to pass. In Oakland, the tax increase garnered 53 percent of the vote (counting the port's over-votes), far short of the 66.7 percent needed under the high court's decision.

Mix said he also wants the court to throw out the district itself, noting that it does not offer "a special benefit" to property owners as required under the recent Supreme Court decision. He argues that the district benefits all city residents, and as a result, it's a tax that never got the two-thirds votes it needed to pass in the first place.

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