AlamedaWellnessCenter

Proposed site of the future Alameda Wellness Center, viewed from the inside

Alameda will hold a special election on April 9th to decide the fate of vacant federal land: shelter, or more lawsuits?

 On a sunlit grassy field in Alameda’s Crab Cove, high school students gathered for a rally as part of a Global Climate Strike calling for action on climate change. Across the street from the Visitors Center sits a dilapidated, vacant federal building that once housed offices of the U.S. Marshal and other federal agencies, which may or may not be the future home of the Alameda Wellness Center. The students were joined by local climate activists, the Sierra Club, and even newly-elected Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. But they had some uninvited guests as well: the Friends Of Crab Cove.

After plans for a medical respite center, resource center, and permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless seniors emerged, the neighborhood group raised tens of thousands from local property owners for a signature-gathering campaign and a ballot measure to rezone the property—which is still in federal hands—for Open Space. The Friends Of Crab Cove (FOCC) argue that the site should be used for an expansion of the Crab Cove park with money allocated by the 2008 passage of Measure WW, a countywide referendum which authorized bonds for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). A 2014 effort precluded a condominium development.

After Measure WW, the 7-acre parcel on McKay Avenue was split in two; EBRPD purchased one parcel, and plans to use property for a storage facility, but no park expansion. That purchase included a legal settlement barring EBRPD from interfering with the use of adjacent federal land. Representatives from EBRPD have stated, including in a letter to former Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, that the site is “not suitable” for park space. Nevertheless, the former Mayor was the sole dissenting vote in a 4-1 Council decision to zone the site for the Wellness Center.

At an endorsement meeting of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, former Mayor Spencer objected to the characterization of Measure B supporters as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), since nearby condominium residents did not have back yards. The Committee still voted to endorse Measure A and oppose Measure B.

The striking high schoolers did not welcome the Friends. “They’re against opening a homeless shelter here,” student organizers whispered to their classmates. “Ignore them. They’re not with us.” Some students, however, confronted the Friends’ table.

“There are other places, there can be other facilities,” said Liza Gabato Morse, an organizer with FOCC. “Not our Crab Cove.”

“People say that everywhere,” a student shot back.

“The problem that I have is that Measure B mainly backed by the owner of Neptune Plaza, and they did break campaign finance laws,” said Mackenzie Todaro, an Alameda High School student at the climate strike. Other students derided the group over the irony of offering single-use plastic water bottles at an environmental rally.

In response to complaints, the Measure B campaign provided late filings to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) showing $14,500 donated by the owners of Neptune Properties, from a total of $25,944 raised in the latest filing period. Morse explained that her group had never run a campaign before and was unfamiliar with the filing requirements. Perhaps also indicative of this inexperience, EBRPD issued a cease and desist order to FOCC after an earlier version of their website used an edited photo of the Crab Cove visitors center, which included the EBRPD logo. FOCC now uses a different cartoon crab logo in its literature.

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Measure B yard sign on Central Avenue in Alameda, one block from Crab Cove.

Crab Cove Vs. the East Bay

“I grew up poor, I grew up in public housing, and we have a big family so we couldn’t afford to go on vacation, so this is our spot for picnics,” Morse said in an interview. “This was our vacation spot.”

Alameda’s new City Council majority opposes the open space rezoning effort, but voted to hold a special election for Measure B on April 9th, with a competing Measure A reaffirming the plans for the Wellness Center, rather than wait for the 2020 general election. Three separate motions filed in court to postpone the election were dismissed by the presiding judges. Doug Biggs, Executive Director of the Alameda Point Collaborative nonprofit, which would be operating the facility, said that waiting until 2020 could have cost APC millions of dollars in property management costs and force them into a difficult position over their lease federal government.

Virtually every elected official currently representing that part of the East Bay has endorsed Measure A, and not B. “If Measure B passes, almost nothing is guaranteed,” said Vice Mayor John Knox White, who chairs the Yes on A / No on B campaign. “All we know for certain is that there will be no park.”

One possibility includes massive legal costs for the City of Alameda if Measure B passes. According to the City Attorney’s analysis of Measure B, because the rezoning could be considered a taking, “it is possible that APC or the federal government, depending upon who owns the property at the time, could bring litigation against the City for the loss in value of the property. Measure B would not change the ownership of the property, establish a funding source, or create a public park.”

Former Alameda Councilmember Barbara Thomas provided legal representation for the group, filing litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that is still pending.

Measure B supporter Therese Hall said that the courts should instead settle the group’s pending CEQA litigation first. “It was a very shabby environmental assessment that was produced,” Hall said. “What I do see as reasonable is the state of California purchasing this site as an expansion of a State park, and keeping EBRPD as the custodian.”

In an interview, Biggs dismissed the FOCC calls for park expansion as a “smoke and mirrors” unrelated to the park itself. “We’re not touching Crab Cove itself,” Biggs said, adding that CEQA litigation is “a very common stalling tactic.”

“We had to do an Environmental Assessment, which is the national equivalent of a CEQA review, and is far more robust,” Biggs said. “Neither the City or [EBRPD] had any comments.” 

“The original public notice did not include the word ‘homeless’—I think that’s a very serious problem,” said former Mayor Spencer, a supporter of Yes on B. “It didn’t describe what they’re trying to do here.”

“That’s discriminatory on its face,” Biggs said of this objection. 

Respite For Whom?

Part of the FOCC objections over the Wellness Center also focus on the population being served. Former Mayor Spencer, for example, argued that a facility open to Alameda County homeless residents should be more “centrally located” in Oakland or Berkeley, where most of the county’s homeless population is currently.

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Federal property on McKay avenue, side entrance

Vice Mayor Knox White, on the other hand, told a room full of supporters that Alameda is “part of the region, and we need to do our part to help the region.”

Alameda Point Collaborative and the Measure A campaign have repeatedly parried allegations that the proposed facility would be unsecured, and admit an untold amount of homeless residents from throughout the region. While the 90 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless seniors would be managed through Alameda County’s Coordinated Entry Program, Biggs said that APC itself would screen entrants for its medical respite center before being discharged from hospitals. Further, APC plans to hire at least two security guards for round-the-clock services, and operate the respite center as a “closed facility.” While the drop-in center wouldn’t turn anyone away, Biggs explained that supportive services for at-risk populations, such as rent subsidies and legal services referrals, would be geared toward Alameda residents. It would receive local city funding, not county funds, in order to target those services accordingly.

Of further concern to the Measure A campaign, the rebuttal submitted to their ballot argument conflates the local drop-in center with the county’s regional Coordinated Entry system for permanent housing, which Biggs insists will be discrete facilities with separate entrances. The rebuttal disparages the proposed “Regional homele$$ facility” and insists that “special interests” want the project for “indigent” patients, incorrectly characterizing one of the facilities as a “Regional Drop-In Center.”

When asked about the inaccuracy, Vice Mayor Knox White said: “There is huge latitude given to political speech...They carefully wrote a ballot argument that includes enough facts, but that reads in a way that is not factual.”

Therese Hall dismissed Biggs’ assurances of security and screening as an “impossibility,” remaining unconvinced despite having attended Biggs’ presentations. “It’s next to schools, it’s next to residences, it’s next to a sensitive wildlife area,” Hall said. “I don’t care that it’s a homeless population; the sheer number of people it will bring is going to have a terrible impact. We will not have the ability to police the area. The likelihood of them ending up in the park is very high.”

 “It is not consistent with the usage of the area,” Morse added. “We’re pretty upset that EBRPD is not taking a stand until the vote is done. We need this space. This is our place.”

 But a survey of Medical Respite centers throughout the country, conducted by APC in consultation with the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council (NHHC), found no evidence of encampments emerging after patients were discharged. The analysis of facilities in Boston, Seattle, Phoenix, Portland, Denver, and San Francisco found that an overwhelming majority of patients were referred to housing or longer-term medical treatment, and did not see an increase in encampments or loitering.

“[Patients] would need to self-discharge, just as they do from the hospital in order to leave the respite [center], but they would still be providing connection with a primary care provider, case management and housing resources, and transport back to their community of origin,” Biggs explained.

“The worst things I’m seeing are the stereotyping of potential residents, patients, and service users as having severe mental illness, of being drug users, of being violent,” said Measure A volunteer Gaylon Parsons. “All of those stereotypes are so harmful and cruel, and they're untrue, and when people do move in to the Wellness Center they'll see what their neighbors said about them.”

The Compassion Coalition

The Measure A campaign has strong support from the Alameda Justice Alliance, a coalition of progressive groups, labor unions, and faith organizations that defeated a landlord-supported charter amendment and elected a progressive-majority City Council in November 2018. All that momentum isn’t enough to guarantee their success on April 9th, since special election voter turnouts are notoriously low.

“It’s all about turnout,” Mayor Ashcraft said in an interview. “What gives me hope is, we are really a compassionate community. We opened a warming shelter at the end of last year. It’s run all by volunteers—you can’t even sign up now because every spot is filled from now until April. So that tells me those people would understand what we’re trying to accomplish at this [Wellness] Center.”

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Vice Mayor John Knox White (left) speaks at a Town Hall hosted by the Alameda Justice Alliance, while Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft (right) looks on.

 “There’s no argument that this isn’t needed,” added Vice Mayor Knox White. “There’s the argument about whether or not we take this opportunity, or if we don’t and some other amazing opportunity will magically appear. Of course, it never has.”

Mayor Ashcraft spoke at a Town Hall meeting held by the Justice Alliance at the site of the proposed Wellness Center, urging supporters to have a regional approach to their compassion, noting her recent appointments to represent Alameda on the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and League of California Cities as part of her own regional advocacy efforts.

Patrick Corder, a firefighter and President of the Alameda Firefighters IAFF Local 689 union, told the audience that a Wellness Center facility would save city resources that are otherwise spent on emergency response services for the Island’s homeless residents.

“We’re not doing our fair share as a city. There’s no resource that we have in the city that I can rely on regularly, where I can make sure people who aren’t housed in Alameda have somewhere to go,” Corder said. “We always have to refer them off the Island.”

Rasheed Shabazz, a local historian researching the history of tenant activism in Alameda’s black community, argued that the rhetoric of the Measure B campaign echoed the Island’s sordid history of racist segregation, redlining, and exclusionary apartment prohibitions. Specifically, 1970’s Measure A, which banned multifamily housing construction in Alameda for over four decades, was advertised as a campaign about “saving Victorian homes,” many of which are now worth upwards of $1 million.

 “When you look at how that’s framed, you see a similar argument that this is about saving our environment—'save our parks—for our children’,” Shabazz said. “Some of these same people I imagine are not concerned with the children who are homeless—the children who are sleeping in cars, in their classmates’ rooms, in living rooms.”

 Shabazz further echoed the Measure A campaign’s call for regional cooperation on homelessness. “My neighborhood does not end at the estuary,” he added.

For the Island’s intimate political community, the Town Hall was a star-studded affair, but one lesser-known figure stole the show. 

Tony Fernandez, an elderly homeless resident who was born and raised in Alameda, jaunted toward the front of the room to give his scheduled speech with a guitar slung over his shoulder, wearing a fedora and large sunglasses not unlike the outfit of his legendary former bandmate, Carlos Santana. After touring the world with more famous musicians than he could enumerate, Fernandez fell on hard times and returned to Alameda, the only true home he’d known. He stood as an unfortunate truth that even the Island’s most successful children can end up living in a car.

“We went to school with your children—we went to school with you,” Fernandez said. “We’re already here. This is our home.”

While representatives of Neptune Properties did not return requests for comment, an elderly homeless man sitting in a wheelchair could be spotted in front of the Neptune Shopping Plaza directly after the students’ rally, far closer than the half-block distance to the proposed Wellness Center. Already there, much closer than the proverbial “back yard.”

Join us for our next BeaconTalk: Affordable housing finance expert Fay Darmawi answers California's multi-billion dollar question: How do you pay for affordable housing

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