Has Measure A Outlived Its Usefulness?

Created to preserve the small-town patina of a city, Measure A put an end to multifamily housing. City leaders have found a way around the archaic restriction, but reforming the thing impetus for the housing crises doesn’t look imminent.


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Measure A was partly a response to the demolition and replacement of Victorian homes with apartments.

Photo by Chris Duffey

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Kofman Auditorium was a historically intriguing site for the city of Alameda to direct a crowd expected to be large and potentially unruly for a highly anticipated January council meeting on a possible rent ordinance. Officials said they moved the meeting from City Hall to the larger high school auditorium to avoid the sort of ruckus that occurred between renters and landlords during a November meeting that resulted in two arrests and directed the attention of the entire Bay Area toward Alameda. You see, Kofman has a history of being the place you don’t want to debate the third rail of Alameda politics—housing and its sibling, traffic.

Old Alameda Victorians being razed in the name of progress during the building boom of the late 1960s and ’70s had frightened many residents. The talking point of “preserving the city’s character” was in many ways born in this era, and still remains potent today. But when an Alameda developer named Ron Cowan sought to build a 10,000-unit housing and recreation utopia on Bay Farm Island, later known as Harbor Bay Isle, the sheer scope of the project startled residents.

Cowan’s project was eventually scaled back to fewer than 3,000 homes, but not before angry Alamedans filled Kofman Auditorium one night in early 1972 to register their strong opposition to the large-scale development. If city officials today believe that moving controversial meetings to Kofman is a way to quell civic unrest, they should consider how that worked out back then. A large-scale model of Harbor Bay Isle sat on stage surrounded by Cowan’s development team, but many Alamedans did not like the vision before their eyes that night and drowned out the presentation with yelling and catcalls. Some claim produce was lobbed on stage. Alamedans have been throwing hypothetical tomatoes at almost any attempt at development ever since—or at least until the city’s dearth of affordable, multifamily housing created legal issues.

Over the years, there has been a constant push-pull between Alamedans hoping to maintain the existing character of the city and those advocating for growth. The two camps had one of their first skirmishes in the run-up to the 1973 passage of Measure A, the landmark charter amendment approved by Island voters. Its passage effectively ended construction of multifamily housing for the next four decades and in many ways fueled Alameda’s current housing crisis.

 

During this time of fear among residents over rising rents and evictions—when blood is being spilled at City Hall and renters are picketing outside the homes of councilmembers who display pro-landlord sympathies—shouldn’t Alameda be rethinking Measure A? More than 40 years after its landmark passage, is it even working?

With the threatened loss of Alameda’s small town patina as a pretext, Measure A was strong because of its simplicity. Construction of multifamily development with more than two attached units were prohibited. From the measure’s inception up until 2010, numerous attempts at reversing or limiting Measure A repeatedly failed. Mostly notably, in 2010, 85 percent of voters overwhelmingly denied a push to allow an exemption from Measure A for developer SunCal’s plans for Alameda Point.

But if Measure A could not be overturned at the ballot box, it turns out it could be watered down by the City Council. In 2012, a pro-development council majority approved a “density bonus” ordinance that allowed developers to petition the state for waivers to develop restricted zoning areas in exchange for building affordable housing in Alameda. Density bonuses are a zoning tool that let developers build more densely than normally allowed as long as there is public benefit attached, such as the construction of public housing.

The seeds of the rancor that has hovered over political discourse in the city ever since arose from this action, which many Measure A supporters found underhanded. However, the pro-development council’s progress in turning on the new housing pipeline is undeniable. In the nearly four years since exceptions to Measure A were approved, Alameda has responded with a host of new housing projects. “The city has upped its game,” said Debbie Potter, the city’s director of community development. Some significant factors, said Potter, were the city’s density bonus ordinance, its Housing Element, last approved in 2014, and the “multifamily overlay” that facilitates additional housing, specifically, at Alameda Point.

In 2010, when the density bonus ordinance was being considered, the city decided that state law required it to greenlight more affordable housing. It had to devise a work-around for Measure A or risk a loss of large state grants. For instance, the Measure A restriction of 20 housing units per acre put the city out of compliance with the state’s mandate of at least 30 units per acre, Potter said. The threat of a lawsuit by a developer challenging the city’s zoning rules was also an impetus for the council to pass the density bonus ordinance. But, Potter maintains that Measure A is still a bit antiquated in terms of meeting current state and federal housing guidelines.

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