The Loooong Road to Change

May Great Story by Patrick Pelegri-O’Day, 2017-18 Bay Area Climate Fellow

I’d heard about Alameda Point, the shuttered naval base covering Alameda’s western side, since I arrived in Alameda. I couldn’t have missed hearing about it – my Public Works office is in an old Navy building. I didn’t understand what Alameda Point *meant* to the city, though, until very recently. Alameda used to be a military town. Its culture, economy, and residents were intertwined with the Navy base since its construction in the 1940s. All that changed in 1997, when the base closed. The city immediately lost a huge chunk of its population and economic foundation. At first, the base closure was the cause of much excitement – there must be a huge revitalization and redevelopment on its way!, people thought. Instead, the base stagnated for decades. Attempt after attempt failed to secure a developer who could transform the base, reinvigorate this side of the island, and bring jobs and people back to the island’s western end. Finally, after 21 years, a development project was secured for a portion of the base. They started demolition last week.

I didn’t really “get it” until I was at the groundbreaking ceremony for so-called Site A, the 68 acres of mixed use development that will be the first stage of the base’s transformation and revitalization. It seemed like every political leader in Alameda was there, from leaders of the CBOs to Council members to City department heads. I learned two things that day, standing on the concrete expanse of the base, with San Francisco bulging toward us and the cool, salty Bay breeze blowing in. (Well, three things – the third being that when they say “breaking ground”, they actually mean people posing with shovels over a pile of dirt.)

Of the bigger lessons, one is simply how many people it takes to get a big development project done in the Bay Area, especially one that has a significant amount of affordable housing. Federal agencies, State agencies, regional agencies, and local agencies all collaborated on this, as did nonprofit partners at various levels, funders, developers, community members, and Cityy staff. It was overwhelming how many people had put so much time into this. The other big lesson is that if you want to do something transformational, you might need to spend a loooong time doing it. Jennifer Ott, the current director of Base Reuse and Acting Assistant City Manager, has spent her nearly her entire 15 year career at the City trying to get this project done. 15 years. Trying and trying and trying again. The tenacity, vision, and creativity it took her to get this thing done boggles my mind. I don’t know how I’d ever have patience for that. But maybe when the next big thing comes across my plate, I’ll remember her and be more likely to stick it through.

A project like this may seem trivial from a zoomed out lens. There’s so much housing need in the Bay Area, and this is is just one project. To the people who make up this community, though, it is so, so important. Maybe that’s the lesson, more than anything else: When you’re working at a community level, the small is large. These projects take a long time because they’re a big deal. We transform our built environment so quickly now it seems normal to do so, but maybe these radical changes to our communities deserve the years and years of effort it can take to push them through.

Anyways, philosophizing aside, a huge congratulations to Alameda and to Jennifer Ott. (And to our equally indefatigable city planner, Andrew Thomas.) You did it! Now onto another long road – seeing this many-faceted development project through implementation.