One climate-change related effort at Alameda Point was allowed to move ahead past obstructions by a 4-1 affirmative vote City Council on Tuesday night — while another climate-change related effort that had already begun at Alameda Point was halted indefinitely by a 5-0 negative vote by City Council.

  • Natel Energy, which researches and designs hydro-power systems that kill many fewer fish than existing dam turbines, was allowed to receive a use-permit to have equipment in an area alongside the Alameda Point building that the company owns.
  • The USS Hornet, which is a museum leasing space from the City of Alameda, was denied "landlord consent" to spray salt water into the air as part of a research study conducted by the University of Washington, SRI, and a non-profit partner.

If you were a national news reporter covering this meeting, you might say that Alameda City Council voted "for science" on the first agenda item and "against science" on the second agenda item.

I think that would be too much of a simplification. I'm more interested in the granular differences between the two agenda items — which perhaps almost served as yin and yang to each other.

I'm also interested in if the fate of these two agenda items can tell us anything more about the pattern of "distraction-driven governance" at Alameda Point and also "why we can't have nice things at Alameda Point."

So with an eye toward the granular, here are some ways the agenda items compared in their specifics and how they were received by councilmembers:

Dramatic arc

  • Natel permit: 📉 Residents and a local business owner argued loudly that Natel could not have equipment or storage around its building, as it would block views of San Francisco from a nearby winery. When the Planning Board heard this item, they approved the overall permit but added some restrictions on how often Natel could utilize the outdoor space — but those were felt insufficient by Vice Mayor Daysog and Councilmember Trish Herrera Spencer, who triggered a "call for review" of the permit. This maneuver delayed the permit, brought the matter to the entire City Council, and gave the Council the option to cancel the entire permit. Instead in the meeting, a majority of Council members approved the original permit and also removed the bit with time constraints. Even Vice Mayor Daysog joined in the affirmative vote. What began with a bang ended with a wimper.
  • Hornet landlord consent: 📈 The research team engaged an environmental regulatory consulting firm to advise on which public agencies the project would need to approach and what type of approvals would need to be secured for the project. The City of Alameda in its capacity as the landlord of the USS Hornet Museum was not on their list; the consultants advised that the demonstration project spraying some aerosolized salt water into the air would be just like most any other exhibit or museum activity, so allowed under the museum's lease and its administrative user permit. The city wasn't approached to grant "landlord consent" but a city representative was invited and attended the opening event. After the unveiling was covered by national news media, the topic grew in intensity. Two councilmembers mentioned learning about it first from The New York Times. Others have since found the topic, the correspondence packet on this agenda item grew to be 786 pages in length. Public commenters spoke to ""Greenlighting this project would make Alameda the first city in the nation to open the door to planetary tinkering" (among other heated comments). What began without much notice ended with an awful lot of notice.

Who's considered local?

  • Natel permit: 👍 Natel is a company that's been based at Alameda Point since 2014
  • Hornet landlord consent: 👎 UW is a university in Seattle
  • Hornet landlord consent: 🤷 No one talked about how SRI, another organization in the research team, is based in Menlo Park. It sounds like that's why the research team looked at sites in the Bay Area, in addition to the applicability of our local climate

How were the parties related?

  • Natel permit: Natel's investors own its building and therefore they are simply interacting with the City of Alameda to get a use permit, like any other owner of private property in the city. (Natel purchased 2401 Monarch Street from the City of Alameda in 2018, ending the city's "proprietary" role in the property.)
  • Hornet landlord consent: The museum leases from the City of Alameda; the city is its landlord.
Executing a new lease or selling city-owned property at Alameda Point currently requires a 4-out-of-5 supermajority vote by City Council. Let's just say that this can be a challenge for this current City Council. The consistently responsible members of City Council have asked staff to bring this issue to voters to fix.

For the purposes of the Hornet experiment, only a normal vote of 3 councilmembers in the affirmative would be required to give landlord consent.

Potential for lawsuits

  • Natel permit: 👍 While members of the public arguing against Natel being able to have some equipment and stuff outside their building may have been trying to imply they'll have good reasons to sue the city, Councilmember Vella identified one of the more realistic ways in which the city could have legal liability: if the city over-regulates what Natel (or other owners of private property) can do with its privately owned building, then it could be considered can a "taking."
  • Hornet landlord consent: 🤷 Councilmember Vella was concerned about the potential for the city to be on the receiving end of lawsuits related to the salt water sprayed into the air. Would a Proposition 65 warning be needed? Would notice need to be given to people walking on public land outside of the Hornet that they were being exposed? (These concerns seem quite hypothetical and farfetched, then again it probably only takes one person these days to read a national news article, travel to Alameda, stand up on the public sidewalk and then cook up a lawsuit about the salt mist they may have inhaled, especially designed to carry that topic all the way up to the Supreme Court.)

Who's covering the cost?

  • Hornet landlord consent: 🤷 The Mayor floated the idea of asking the research team to cover the city's cost to do this after-the-fact assessment of the experiment, including the city's expense at hiring an engineering firm to do a health/safety/toxicology analysis. (Council did not move ahead with that option, but I found it interesting that the Mayor would even propose it. Perhaps related to the earlier point about the Hornet research team not being considered local.)
  • Natel permit: 🤷 Neither of the two councilmembers who delayed the permit or the members of the public who advocated against the permit will assume any of the costs associated with the delay by Natel or the staffing required for the review by the city. That's just the local democratic process.

Expert advice

  • Natel permit: 👍 City of Alameda has a land-use and planning counsel, has an on-call expert for advising on the US Fish and Wildlife "biological opinion" concerning the endangered California least terns at Alameda Point, and has its own staff who are trained in CEQA, among many other land-use regulation and planning capabilities.
  • Hornet landlord consent: 👎 While staff had prepared a full report for City Council (including a report from the city's consultants on health, safety, and toxicology) within about a month of halting the experiment, staff's briefing was effectively for the City Council acting as a landlord doing its due diligence... not for City Council perhaps feeling put on the spot to also act as public-health authorities, biomedical regulators, and guardians of the bay and the coast and the natural environment in its entirety. (Staff had proposed that one potential condition of restarting the experiment would be securing from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District a written letter that BAAQMD either approved or did not feel need to regulate the experiment. But that alone was insufficient to councilmembers. Some council members suggested additional acronyms including BCDC and UCSF, not to mention other UCs...)

Public relations

Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft spoke to the distinction between the two agenda items in her own words near the end of the meeting:

"Let's just contrast [the Hornet experiment] with the previous agenda item that we had with Natel, and the by and large, comments and the backing were so strong. I understand what they are doing. I've been out there. It's clear. It's straightforward. It has levels of approval.

"[In contrast] we heard from some very high level folks at some reputable institutions just on our phone calls tonight. I Googled a couple of them. So the fact that there is that concern, concern from indigenous individuals, there are so many competing considerations we need to take into effect and I don't feel that you have made your case."

To a certain degree, I think the difference that may have had the most effect on the outcome was in public relations — Natel did it well, the Hornet team did not.

Just to be clear, it's unfortunate that Natel had to do so much and do it so well just in order to use an area outside the building they own to store some equipment and to conduct their work. The fact that Alameda has some residents, business owners, and 1.5 councilmembers who will take a fight like this so far that it sucks up this amount of resources from the city (as well as Natel) is not good. But it apparently just is what it is. Alameda's City Manager and staff are demonstrating their strategic ability at keeping on moving ahead in spite of these obstacles and distractions out at Alameda Point.

As for the Hornet experiment, instead of the Mayor or some councilmembers being invited to cut a big ribbon on the salt sprayers and then asked to do no more afterwards, they learned about it after the fact from a national newspaper — and that big-name newspaper brought along 786 pages of public comments to a meeting with a vote needing to be taken. I can't blame the five people who are paid a very small amount of money to offer their time to serve on Alameda City Council until 1:30 a.m. at night for not wanting to have been asked to vote to give their landlord consent to, to quote from one public comment, "a deplorable crime against the planet."

For all of the differences I've pointed out between these two agenda items, there is one thing they both have in common. The Natel use-permit is an everyday item best handled by the Planning Board. The Hornet experiment, even though it may be conducted on city property, is best regulated by relevant regulatory agencies at the federal and state levels. Ideally neither of these agenda items would have been brought to Alameda City Council for discussion or votes by the councilmembers.

Two climate-change related efforts at Alameda Point — and at Alameda City Council