Alameda, Oakland in fresh fight over traffic
Alameda, Oakland in fresh fight over traffic
More than a decade ago, Oakland’s city attorney sued Alameda over plans to redevelop Alameda Point. In the suit, his office claimed Alameda’s analysis of the proposed development’s impacts failed to adequately study and propose solutions for the traffic it would pump into Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Today that onetime city attorney, John Russo, is spearheading efforts to redevelop the Point as Alameda’s city manager. And as Alameda finalizes a new study of the development’s potential impacts, he is facing some of the same charges he lodged in his 2003 suit.
In a pair of letters, Oakland’s top planner and a coalition of Chinatown groups said Alameda’s plans for 1,425 homes and 8,900 jobs at Alameda Point will create more traffic and pollution in Chinatown than the Island’s recently released analysis of the proposed development’s impacts lets on. And they said Alameda needs to propose and fund fixes that will diminish traffic and keep Chinatown’s pedestrians safe.
“The redevelopment of Alameda Point is important to all of us in the Bay Area. However, it should not proceed at the expense of Chinatown,” the Oakland Chinatown Coalition wrote.
But Russo, who once represented Chinatown as an Oakland city councilman, said his former legal complaint against Alameda is “moot” because Oakland is planning so much development in the vicinity of Chinatown – about 15,000 new homes and tens of thousands of new jobs – that the impacts of developing Alameda Point will be inconsequential in comparison.
“They’re positing 10 times as much housing,” Russo said. “Why pick on us?”
Alameda, meanwhile, has fired its own salvo at Oakland, accusing that city of inadequately addressing the same traffic and pedestrian safety concerns in its analysis of the impacts of a planned development near the Lake Merritt BART station – even as officials from both cities say they need to work together to solve the traffic problems development will cause.
Despite the concerns, Alameda is pressing ahead with its efforts to certify the analysis, which will be used to inform the City Council’s plans for the Point. And city staffers are pushing to win approval from the Planning Board and council of a host of planning documents, including the environmental impact report, that would put many of the development approvals a builder would need in place. The Planning Board will discuss its recommendations on the documents on Monday, while the council is expected to consider approval on February 4.
But the settlement agreement Russo’s former office negotiated with Alameda allows either city to terminate it as of April – perhaps increasing the chance that Alameda could face a lawsuit seeking to stall the Point project.
“Anyone can bring a suit. That’s always a danger,” Russo said.
Critics in both Oakland and Alameda have blasted as unrealistic the city’s analysis of traffic congestion Point development could create on both sides of the estuary. Specifically, they have seized on a chart deep in the environmental impact report’s appendices showing that a completed Point development will feed just eight cars an hour through the Posey Tube during morning rush hour and that traffic across three of the Island’s four bridges will decline – results they have called “counterintuitive” and “unimaginable.”
They also questioned the model used by the city to forecast future traffic, which anticipated that commuters faced with backups at the Posey Tube would drive across Alameda to cross at its bridges instead.
Both the coalition and Oakland’s planning and building director, Rachel Flynn, expressed dismay that the analysis fails to offer solutions for lessening traffic impacts at eight Oakland intersections where they are expected to be significant, including three in Chinatown. Flynn said fees generated by the Point development should help fund pedestrian improvements in the affected Oakland areas.
Russo said the Point study’s impact findings in Oakland were based on Oakland’s studies for its own development plans, which say they would generate “significant and unavoidable” traffic impacts at the same intersections highlighted in the traffic analysis for Alameda Point. Those developments include the planned Brooklyn Basin development, which would put 3,100 homes and 200,000 square feet of retail space on Oakland’s side of the estuary; and a second effort, to build about 4,900 new homes and 7 million square feet of commercial and institutional space near Lake Merritt BART.
Alameda’s city staffers have accused Oakland of using a double standard in determining what level of traffic causes a significant impact and when fixes are needed.
“(W)e are concerned that the City of Oakland changes its standards on a regular basis to accommodate its planning or political agenda,” Alameda City Planner Andrew Thomas wrote in a December 19 letter commenting on a similar review of planned development around the Lake Merritt BART station.
While Chinatown groups that have taken issue with Alameda’s plans to redevelop its former Naval air station, they appear to have been silent or even favorable toward Oakland’s development efforts, despite the impacts they may pose. None of the three organizations listed as members of the Oakland Chinatown Coalition on a 2011 brochure touting a “public partnership” to develop the Lake Merritt plan expressed similar concerns about the traffic impacts of the Brooklyn Basin or Central Estuary developments when environmental studies were drafted, those reports show. (Comments on the Lake Merritt study have not yet been published.)
Representatives with the coalition and with Oakland’s planning department didn’t return calls seeking additional comment Monday.
City staffers charged with shepherding Alameda’s redevelopment effort have said that their primary strategy for dealing with Alameda Point traffic is to try to keep cars off the road. In their response to critics, city staffers have said that efforts to boost transit and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists should reduce the number of solo car trips the Point generates.
But the environmental study for the Point doesn’t quantify the potential benefit of those strategies. And a separate study found that the city’s goals to reduce trips from businesses by 30 percent and from homes, 10 percent – goals outlined in the 2004 settlement with Oakland – may be tough to achieve.
While traffic signal and roadway changes are proposed to smooth traffic are proposed in Alameda, none of those solutions have been proposed for Oakland, because the city can’t make those changes in another city, staff’s responses to letters critical of the environmental analysis say. Still, Russo said Alameda didn’t talk to Oakland about possible traffic solutions while drafting it.
An advisory group created by the 2004 settlement agreement to provide information on Chinatown issues with development at the Point and in downtown Oakland that was supposed to remain in place through the course the environmental review for Point development has not been actively involved in it, Russo confirmed. (He said city staff had “a lot of communication” with the leadership in Chinatown.)
Even as city staffers say they can’t control what happens in Oakland, they have made a fresh push for long-sought improvements to the roads that connect Alameda residents to the I-880 freeway via the Posey Tube. Alameda has sought the fixes for 17 years, Russo said, but has been unable to win Oakland’s assent on a plan.
The lack of a plan caused the state to withdraw funding from the fixes, which were once considered a high-priority project, Art Dao of the Alameda County Transportation Commission said.
Alameda had led the effort to come up with a plan for the fixes, which staffers have consistently said are needed in order for development to happen at Alameda Point. But Russo passed leadership of the project to the commission, which now sees the improvements as a regional need; staffers there set up an ad hoc committee with leaders from both cities in an effort to come up with a plan.
Russo said Alameda’s support of a new regional transportation tax measure voters will consider in November – which would include funding for the fixes – could hinge on getting a plan to make them together by this summer.
“The clock is ticking,” Russo said. “We gotta move. We can’t be here 17 years from now still talking about this.”