For years, Alameda seemed like the land that time forgot: sleepy diners, bars that opened at 6 a.m., stretches of wide road flanked by picturesque Victorians. But 2007 may be remembered as the year when Alameda left that legacy behind. No longer a quiet hiding place on the edge of Oakland, Alameda is well on its way to becoming a bona fide shopping, arts, and entertainment destination. And finally, many of its citizens don’t appear to be ardently opposed to it.
This year alone, Alameda saw the building and near completion of the city’s old movie theater — a historic renovation of a single screen and the addition of a seven-screen multiplex, adjacent a new, multistory, 241-space parking garage. Slated to open by May, the theater will likely be the city’s biggest attraction, especially for folks across the estuary whose nearest choice is Jack London Cinemas. (A wine bar and upscale burger joint will accompany the theater next year). The Bridgeside Center, between the Park and Fruitvale bridges, was remodeled and opened a sprawling, sparkling Nob Hill Foods. And Alameda’s formerly depressing mall, South Shore, with its posh new look and name, “Alameda Towne Center,” ushered in an Old Navy, TJ Maxx, and, most recently, a Bed Bath and Beyond. Next comes Borders bookstore, shoe retailer Nine West, massage chain Massage Envy, and Zeytini Restaurant and Bar. It’s almost like being in Walnut Creek, or at least Emeryville.
Equally noteworthy, if less flashy, was the opening of the Rhythmix Cultural Works, a community arts center fashioned from a decaying industrial building. Housing an art gallery, 200-seat performance space, bookstore, classroom, and artist residences, Rhythmix was the first project to take advantage of the city’s 1998 work-live ordinance.
All this development hasn’t gone unchallenged, of course. A group called Citizens for a Megaplex-Free Alameda thrice tried and failed in court to halt the construction of the multiplex and parking garage. They argued that the large multiplex would compromise the historic theater and the nature of downtown, and called for the city to do an environmental impact report. And a resident also failed to stop the construction of Rhythmix on the basis that it violated Measure A, a 1973 voted-approved amendment to the city’s charter that prohibits the construction of multi-unit dwellings.
The island’s biggest development opportunity remains Alameda Point, formerly the Naval Air Station. Since acquiring the land a decade ago, city officials have struggled to even talk about what to do with it. Development of the area hit a snag when the city’s longtime partner, Alameda Point Community Partners, withdrew in September 2006 amid a slowing housing market and rising foreclosure rates. But the robust competition to replace Alameda Point Community Partners, and the ultimate selection of SunCal Companies, who are also developing hundreds of homes at the former Oak Knoll Naval Center, helped put the project back on track. A series of community meetings is being held until May.
Renewed discussion of the future of Alameda Point has led to debate about whether the area should be exempt from Measure A’s restrictions. Opponents argue that with development comes added traffic, the potential to put independent stores out of business, and a threat to Alameda’s quiet charm. But supporters say more development and the inclusion of multi-unit housing will create a more diverse, affordable community. It also would boost sales tax revenue, which, according to a recent report by the city manager, is only the fifth-largest source of the city’s general fund revenue. Compared to other cities in Alameda County, Alameda is the third lowest sales-tax generator.
In May, the city’s planning board formed an ad hoc subcommittee in order to discuss having a meeting to discuss Measure A. Even the creation of this subcommittee was appealed, prompting the addition of three of the appealers to the group. “We had a professional facilitator come in and help them through with that process because the feelings are very strong,” recalled Deputy City Manager Lisa Goldman. “I wouldn’t say there was a 100 percent consensus on what the committee members came up with. … They got a little bogged down in some of the details.”
Still, this discussion represented a huge milestone. “It’s definitely been the year of the great Measure A debate,” said blogger and resident John Knox White, also a member of the city’s Transportation Commission. “The community is finally saying, ‘Let’s talk about this.’ That’s a big change from when I first moved here. Anybody who dared say, ‘Let’s talk about this’ was just hammered.”
Alameda has long been known for its preservation activists, most notably the pro-Measure A group Action Alameda. Increasingly, citizens duke out their views online, where a plethora of civic-minded bloggers, such as Lauren Do’s Blogging Bayport Alameda and Knox White’s Stop, Drop, and Roll, follow the action blow-by-blow. Even that was challenged within the last year. David Howard of Action Alameda filed a defamation suit against White for a comment on his blog in which he called Howard a “stalker.” The case was eventually taken to small claims court, where a judge dismissed it.
The low point came when some linked the Halloween murder of teenager Ichin-khorloo “Iko” Bayarsaikhan to development. (Three teens from East Oakland are charged with her murder.) One commenter on Do’s blog, David Kirwin, wrote, “I’ll say she was killed by the ‘big johnson of growth,’ an apparent reference to Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson. Less stridently, Howard wrote on ActionAlameda.org, “In the past three years alone, roughly $30 million dollars in tax payer money has been re-directed away from the general fund and basic city services, and into the redevelopment agency. Could that money have funded extra patrol officers in Washington Park on Halloween night, when the 15-year old girl was shot and killed? Possibly.”
Despite these lowlights, many Alamedans see a silver lining in ’08. “It is on this wave of change,” says blogger Do. “Some people might think it’s negative, but I think a lot more people think it’s positive. And I’m really positive about the future of the city, too.” Even Howard agrees, to an extent. “I think it’s nice to see the Towne Centre kind of get a face lift,” he said, adding, “We can have some houses — some less than 2,000 houses at Alameda Point would be a good number. And light industrial use; we can have some more of that.” Goldman says the city’s main drag, Park Street, is “thriving.”
While it’s likely Alameda will see more traffic with increased development, the real loser may be Oakland. A recent report by a consultant for the redevelopment of Broadway Auto Row revealed that the city loses $1 billion annually to other Bay Area cities. With retail at Jack London Square floundering, Alameda now beckons, and the Towne Center and a new multiplex only increases the appeal.