Has Alameda’s new deal hacked the opposition to Bay Area housing construction?

An abandoned former shipping terminal sits behind a long chain link fence on Alameda’s north shore. The 32-acre lot has sat empty for a decade, home to a dilapidated dock, a few deteriorating buildings, and a large pile of dirt–a small piece of forgotten local history.

The empty industrial site, known as Encinal Terminals, is an outlier in an otherwise dense and bustling community. A neighborhood park is only a few blocks away. Within a few miles, there are grocery stores and shops. A safe bike path leads right up to the fence.

It may appear strange that such prime waterfront real estate could sit empty for so long in a Bay Area desperate for housing and open space. The property will now be developed as a result of a deal negotiated between the state of California and Alameda and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom just last week. The plan includes 589 housing units, with approximately 15% of them being affordable.

Alameda’s housing goals call for the construction of 5,300 units over the next decade, but new housing proposals are almost always contentious. Residents are concerned about increasing traffic congestion, and the limited number of lanes on and off the island raises concerns about evacuations in the event of an earthquake. Despite this, there was no significant local opposition to the Encinal Terminals project.

According to Michael Lane, State Policy Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, a non-profit public policy organization, Alameda’s success with Encinal Terminals is not the result of a shift in mindset toward building new housing. Lane, who has worked in the housing industry for decades, believes housing opposition is as strong as it has ever been.

“When you have existing infrastructure, you often have neighbors who oppose it,” Lane explained. “Anything that changes the existing neighborhood is frequently opposed.”

However, the Encinal Terminals deal demonstrates a housing development strategy used by Alameda to combat local opposition to new housing: build on abandoned land.

“People are worried about their neighborhoods, but we have these big vacant sites, so let’s start there,” said Andrew Thomas, Alameda’s Planning Director and Interim Base Reuse Economic Development Director. “We’re doing this as part of our housing component.” People understand that we need to make room.”

This is evident throughout the greater Bay Area. Residents in Berkeley have objected to planned development in a BART parking lot station. Housing mandates on the Peninsula have caused political turmoil in San Mateo City Hall. Atherton’s wealthy residents, including Steph and Ayesha Curry, have objected to zoning changes that could increase housing density in certain areas of town. According to a recent poll, one-third of Bay Area residents oppose the construction of “significant quantities of new housing.”

As a result, tapping sites that operate outside of what residents consider their traditional neighborhoods may mitigate local opposition. Building on existing sites also helps to preserve open space and allows developers to create denser, walkable and bikeable communities, which Lane refers to as “urban villages.”

“You get a second chance because some of our previous developments were much less pedestrian-friendly,” Lane explained.

Nonetheless, some housing advocates argue that, while Alameda’s strategy of focusing on low-hanging fruit for development may be the most politically expedient, it is not necessarily a long-term solution.

Abandoned sites and industrial spaces frequently necessitate ‘brownfield remediation’ before they can be developed, a concern that hampered the planned development of housing on the former Concord Naval Weapons Station. Encinal Terminals in Alameda will need to be demolished, and massive piles of dirt will be left on the site for six months to help compact the soil beneath. Furthermore, such sites are frequently located further from services and parks, posing an equity challenge for developers.

Most importantly, abandoned spaces are limited–there aren’t enough to meet the state’s housing goals.

“Even if we did develop all of our industrial sites, we would eventually run out of them and be back at this crossroads of how do we allow more housing in existing residential neighborhoods,” said Rafa Sonnenfeld, Policy Director for YIMBY Action, a pro-housing development organization.

Nonetheless, many investors in affordable housing will take wins wherever they can find them.

The development of Encinal Terminals was slowed due to arcane property lines that made comprehensive development plans impossible. The terminal was built in the 1920s out of marshland and was one of the first to use shipping containers.

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