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Vaudeville Comes to Alameda City Hall

Despite a nagging cough and a cold, Peter Calthorpe put on an impressive performance before Alameda City Council last night, presenting his draft development plan for Alameda Point to the council members sitting as the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority (ARRA).

Transitville, Alameda PointSunCal’s Pat Keliher played the straight-man for Calthorpe as the two of them joked and yukked it up at the rostrum during the presentation. Unfortunately, the act is a tired old routine that too many of us have seen before – developer comes to town, promises to solve all the transportation problems their project will create, if only, please, please, the city authorizes them to build umpteen thousand houses. Then, after the houses are built, but before the mass transit solutions are provided, the developer exits town, leaving new and long-time residents with a transportation mess. It’s happened before in Alameda – ask Bay Farm Island residents who are still waiting for the 66th Avenue extension to connect Harbor Bay Parkway to I-880. You can still see the proposed extension on platt maps in the City of Alameda Planning Department. Theirs is a well-known schtick not just in Alameda, but in wider planning circles: promise whatever it takes to get the project approved, sell the dream, and then make your money and get out.

In an interview in the East Bay Express last week, Peter Calthorpe explained that SunCal would pay for the cost of mass transit solutions only within their development. But last night, SunCal’s Keliher told the ARRA board they would pay for the cost of the transit solutions right up to BART. More schtick. Let’s see it in writing, please. [Ed. Note – at the time of writing this article, the video from the ARRA meeting wasn’t yet up on the City of Alameda website to verify Mr. Keliher’s exact words, but he kind of weasel-worded for a minute until Councilmember Doug deHaan could extract a direct answer from him.]

Calthorpe also trotted out the line about PRT being so much cheaper to build than light rail, on the order of $12 to $15 million per mile. But it’s hard to understand where that estimate comes from – based on Heathrow Airport’s system, presumably. But there are no existing built reference systems here in California from which to ascertain an empirical cost-to-build estimate, and certainly no reference systems built to California’s seismic and human safety requirements. The California Public Utilities Commission treats PRT, or ‘automated guideway systems’ the same as light rail or heavier rail systems like BART. While Calthorpe sells PRT as having a very narrow, low-profile elevated guideway, (still more schtick!), it’s probably safer to assume it will look more like the elevated BART railways than not. And you can bet the first PRT system to be built in California – and Alameda’s would be the first at this rate – will suffer huge cost overruns and ultimately cost a lot more than the nicey-nice estimates Calthorpe throws around today, as designers and builders climb the experience curve of building PRT to California regulations.

And anyone concerned about the prospect of SunCal excavating potentially contaminated soil from other locations on Alameda Point to build up the grade by four feet should have stayed for George Humphries discussion with the ARRA board about the Restoration Advisory Board’s recent letter to various agencies hammering the Navy’s proposed clean-up plans. According to Humpries and Dale Smith, also from the RAB, Alameda Point is about the least well-characterized contaminated site within the Navy’s portfolio, and the Navy itself is proposing to dig-up contaminated soil from some locations and move them to a single, concentrated site on the former base. The location would have a high concentration of a variety of radioactive isotopes, the source of which must be more than just “luminescent airplane dials” according to Dale Smith. SunCal, understandably, is trying to save some cost and the trouble of over 100,000 truck trips into Alameda to carry some 2.5 million cubic yards of dirt, but is it really worth the risk spreading contaminants to try to excavate soil from other locations on Alameda Point?

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