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Alameda to allow construction of new apartments

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For the first time in nearly 40 years, the city of Alameda has zoned large swaths of land for apartment buildings.

The City Council's vote paves the way for new affordable housing in the city, which residents have tried to block for decades.

The new zoning plan came eight months after a community group called Renewed Hope Housing Advocates threatened to sue the island city. The group argued that Alameda's ban on new apartment construction, which voters approved in 1973, violated California law.

“State law doesn’t say you can prohibit apartments on every single inch of your city,” said Laura Thomas, president of Renewed Hope Housing Advocates.

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Under state law, every city must have a general plan that outlines how and where it will grow. As part of those planning documents, a city must show where it plans to build both single-family homes and apartments, including affordable housing. If the plan does not comply with the law, the city cannot compete for state parks and transportation funds.

After last Tuesday's vote, Alameda has now zoned 17 locations throughout the city for developers to build a total of 2,420 apartment units.

Had Alameda failed to change its zoning rules, the city faced losing tens of millions of dollars in regional transportation funds over the next four years, City Manager John Russo wrote in a memo to City Council members before the vote.

The city could have also lost millions of dollars in state funding for local parks designed to support affordable housing.

And if Renewed Hope Housing Advocates filed suit, Thomas said, Alameda could have lost its zoning authority.

A number of Bay Area cities, including Corte Madero, Benicia, Fremont, Berkeley and Rohnert Park, have been sued for violating the same state law.

In January, the city of Pleasanton rezoned 73 acres to accommodate 2,326 units of affordable housing, after it was sued by the nonprofit group Urban Habitat. Pleasanton paid $2 million in legal bills before settling the suit.

“The penalties for not complying have ratcheted up,” said Andrew Thomas, Alameda’s planning services manager. “We didn’t want to go down a similar road, waste money and lose."

Alameda's City Council passed the housing plan by a vote of 4-0, with Councilman Doug de Haan abstaining.

Longtime critics of development on the island said they weren’t surprised by the decision or by the relative lack of acrimony that preceded it.

“We’re all getting old, and we’re all dying off,” said Pat Bail, a 70-year-old retiree who has fought to save the city’s ban on new apartment construction. She disagreed with the council's decision.

“The younger generation has a different point of view because they were not here back in the day,” she said. 

Alameda has changed dramatically since voters approved the ban on new apartments. In 1973, the island was a conservative military town that seemed a world away from neighboring Oakland, where the Black Panther Party was active and Symbionese Liberation Army had just assassinated the superintendent of the city's public schools.

Then, 90 percent of Alameda residents were white. By 2010, the city's white population had dropped to 45 percent, according to the U.S. census. Today, two of the five members on the city council are Asian Americans, and the mayor, Marie Gilmore, who is also a councilwoman, is African American.

The Naval Air Station, which was once at the center of the city's business and civic affairs, has been closed for 15 years.

Many of the sites zoned for new apartment construction are near the old military base, across the harbor from Oakland. Some of those sites once housed restaurants and other commercial buildings.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the president of Renewed Hope Housing Advocates. Her name is Laura Thomas


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