Why we can't have nice things at Alameda Point

Why we can't have nice things at Alameda Point
From city staff presentation at March 5, 2024 City Council meeting

"We hope you're a man of your word," Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said with resignation in her voice at Alameda City Council's March 19 meeting.

That she — the member of Council most concerned with decorum and typically ready to cut off any overly personal slights — would softly say this to Vice Mayor Tony Daysog speaks volumes. Ezzy Ashcraft has served on City Council, city boards, and civic initiatives for decades; Daysog has been on and off and on City Council over multiple decades as well. They're familiar with each other — and yet at this late date, the trustworthiness of Daysog as an elected official is an open question.

The specific context for this comment was a seemingly mundane agenda item under the consent calendar with the following title:

Final Passage of Ordinance Authorizing the City Manager to Execute a Lease for a Portion of Building 22 with Gold Bar Spirits Company Inc., Located at 2505 Monarch Street, at Alameda Point, Alameda, California, for a Term of Six Years with One Extension Option for Five Additional Years. [Requires 4 affirmative votes]

And yet in between the affirmative vote at the "first reading" of this lease for a whisky-making business to move into a vacant building along Alameda Point's Spirits Alley and this "final passage," a mix of reactionaries had been emailing the members of City Council to nitpick the terms of the already approved lease.

The stated reasons for opposition are so trivial they almost aren't worth summarizing: the height and material of a fence, what type of equipment the tenant can store in the yard next to the building, whether this equipment is temporary or permanent.... As staff repeated to no avail, these matters are often handled in use permits issued and monitored by the city, not in the text of leases to rent property.

Approving leases for city-owned property requires a super-majority vote of 4 out of 5 councilmembers. Councilmember Herrera Spencer had voted against the "first reading" on March 5 but — sensing an opportunity to rekindle further opposition to the lease — she pulled the "final passage" item from the consent calendar to trigger further discussion by City Council on March 19. This move apparently thrust Vice Mayor Daysog into feeling insufficiently oppositional, and he took the bate.

Instead of following suggestions from staff and the City Manager of how he could direct staff to address specific concerns in negotiation with the tenant, Daysog eventually made a motion to edit specific language in the lease document. Late at night, he performed verbal "track-changes" on the lease. The City Attorney had to cut in and ask if Daysog intended to use the conjunction "or" or "and" — to which Daysog paused and eventually said he guessed he meant the latter (or the former? I can't remember either — that's why I don't edit legal documents verbally!).

By editing the lease, Daysog restarted the entire process and turned a final reading into a first reading. The best case scenario is that this adds perhaps another month or two before the tenant can move ahead with planning for their move, applying for their permits, and starting to order equipment; the worst case scenario is that the tenant is so pissed off and frustrated that they don't sign the sign and find another place to open their distillery in the Bay Area.

The specific context of Ezzy Ashcraft's comment to Daysog — "We hope you're a man of your word" — was that she tried to confirm with him that he wouldn't demand further edits on the second reading and final passage of the newly revised lease. That if she and the other two responsible Councilmembers joined to vote for his motion, they wouldn't just be fooled once again in a couple weeks, when he might yet again throw an unexpected wrench into the process.

The responsible councilmembers brim with frustration in the final vote, Councilmember Herra Spencer gloats, and Vice Mayor Daysog is just left trying to insist that no, he is not "shabby":

Pick your poison

What's worse: the way in which Councilmember Herrera Spencer's opposition to engaging with change is so predictable? or the way in which Vice Mayor Daysog's opposition is so unpredictable?

Both strategies gain power, or at least a sense of notoriety, for those councilmembers — and they gain a feeling of power for the handful of reactionary residents who email in their letters to oppose any and all change. But whereas Herrera Spencer's predictable opposition can sometimes be negotiated with or worked around, Daysog's unpredictable opposition is just unpredictable. Was he for it before he was against it? Did he intend the City Attorney to write the word "and" or the word "or" in the lease? Does any of this even matter to him?

During the City Council meeting, the City Manager said that she had reached out to the prospective tenant to gauge their reaction to the potential additional changes and delays. If I heard correctly, it sounds like the City Manager said the tenant literally responded with the word "whatever" — as in the way a teenager, or an adult for that matter, responds to stupidity.

Alameda Point isn't Disneyland

Even leaving aside character, there's also a very concrete point here: Herrera Spencer and Daysog's actions on leases for city-owned properties at Alameda Point are fiscally irresponsible. If the city doesn't have tenants, the city — and all of us taxpayers — are assuming even more responsibility for maintaining aging empty buildings and surrounding infrastructure. The end-game of Herrera Spencer's opposition and Daysog's nitpicking is unclear. Skimming through the handful of oppositional emails, I could almost discern two different sets of motivations:

  • Some opposition comes from one or two individuals who rent city-owned properties; at least one is being sued by the city for not paying their own rent according to the read-outs from closed session meetings of City Council; they seem interested in causing trouble anywhere they can around Alameda Point, probably just out of spite or maybe figuring it will distract the city from taking other enforcement actions.
  • More letters came from some of the same names as opposed the Wellness Center Project near Crab Cove; their form letter speaks to Alameda Point as a historical place where every existing "view corridor" is significant and must be preserved; a place of ecological significance where every physical change is not just run past the city's consulting biologist but also confirmed directly with the EPA (or Fish and Wildlife or whatever... Councilmember Herrera Spencer couldn't remember the agency or department's name during the meeting either); having a working business that serves real customers, has real employees, and has real equipment is apparently almost offensive in this setting of historic (or historical?) and natural bliss.

Treating Alameda Point as Disneyland feels all the more strange given that it was a working military airfield and port: The place couldn't have been that polished or attractive as navy crews flew and sailed off to fight in America's wars, returned to land, refuel, repair, and prepare to fight again. Sounds noisy, smelly, and polluted.

There are an oddly large number of Californians who have ahistorical visions of "de-growth" lodged in their heads. It's not an age-specific thing. You can find aging Boomers as well as 20-somethings who imagine motoring down Highway 1 all by themselves (no other tourists, taxpayers, employees or employers, or maintenance trucks in sight) or who imagine visions like Alameda Point as one big giant park with some well-tended historical buildings, lovely tidal ponds, and a bit of convenient parking just for a handful of visitors to arrive clad in REI gear.

Don't get me wrong. I'm an REI member myself. I also find the plans for the specific De-Pave Park site somewhat compelling. But nothing comes for free — especially not the amount of infrastructure work that needs to happen across large areas of Alameda Point. Moreover, major public facilities are not built just for a small exclusive set of occasional visitors who somehow never need to work, shop, or get treated by a medical specialist — it's by building parks, streets, trains, hospitals, water systems, and every other sort of infrastructure for large populations that we're able to collectively afford these amenities. Maybe Larry Ellison can live on a small Hawaiian island — the rest of us live in urban agglomerations for good reasons.

A working whiskey-making business can be a pleasant attraction for some residents and visitors, a productive use of an existing building, a place of employment, and a positive line on the balance sheet of Alameda Point. That Councilmembers Herrera Spencer and Daysog are trying all they can to undercut a productive combination like this calls into question any of their claims to be fiscally prudent or careful stewards of the city's resources.

Given the constraints of having to get 4 votes for leasing out city-owned properties, the city should probably just try to sell as many of the buildings at Alameda Point as possible.

With a politician as dependably oppositional as Councilmember Herrera Spencer and a politician as untrustworthy as Vice Mayor Daysog, this City Council is a shabby landlord for Alameda Point indeed.