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Is It Is or Is It Ain’t a Suburb, Baby?

In oral and written statements to Alameda City Council members at the Alameda Re-use and Redevelopment Agency (ARRA) meeting last Wednesday, mass transit activist Jon Spangler and Transportation Commission Chair/mass transit activist John Knox White asserted that Alameda is not a suburban community. This may come as a surprise to many Alameda residents.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a suburb as follows:

1 a : an outlying part of a city or town b : a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city c plural the residential area on the outskirts of a city or large town

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language defines a suburb this way:

1. A usually residential area or community outlying a city.

Or you can pick from a number of definitions of a suburb from Google.

So by these measures, is Alameda already an urban area? Or is it a suburban community?

Consider location first: it’s obvious that the large central city to which Alameda is attached is San Francisco. Oakland and San Jose are secondary central cities in the broad San Francisco Bay triangle. Alameda is directly adjacent to Oakland and for practical purposes – commuting and access – is adjacent to San Francisco. Nobody would argue that Alameda is a central city in its own right. And Alameda is within daily commuting distance, by automobile, BART or the trans-bay bus of San Francisco.

Now consider housing and jobs. The City of Alameda Housing Element for 2001-2006 states that “Alameda is now considered a ‘housing rich’ community because it has more than 1.25 houses per job.” and it also states that 71% of the Alameda work force leaves the island each day to go to work. The City of Alameda Comprehensive Annual Financial Review for the year ended June 30, 2007 states that the top ten employers in Alameda employ only just over 4,700 workers, two of which are the City of Alameda and the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD.) AUSD ranks number one, employing 1000 people, and the 10th ranked firm employs merely 215 people. Clearly Alameda is a predominantly residential community.

Some definitions of a suburb speak of density – suburbs generally have lower density than the urbanized central cities to which they are attached. In Alameda’s case, the obvious central city comparisons are San Francisco and Oakland. The tables below are based on U.S. Census data for the year 2000 and shows the population and density, as measured by people and housing units per square mile, for the major cities in Alameda County.

Whether measuring density by population per square mile, or housing units per square mile, Alameda is clearly far behind San Francisco, and has much lower density than either Berkeley or Albany. In his written comments, Transportation Commissioner Knox White asserts that Alameda “is not truly suburban anymore than Berkeley or Albany are.” but the facts prove this assertion false.

But note that by either measurement, Alameda still ranks fourth among Alameda County cities when it comes to density. At 6,693 persons per square mile, and 2,931 housing units per square mile, it is higher than the median figures of 4,560 and 1,699 respectively, for those density yardsticks. And the 6,000 home proposal from SunCal puts the density for their Alameda Point development at almost 12,000 persons per square mile – well within striking distance of the average density of San Francisco. (See table below.) The current trend for Alameda appears to be in the direction of urbanization.

And this is why SunCal’s proposals for 4,000 or 6,000 homes are bad for Alameda. Factoring in 6,000 homes and an estimated 15,000 people for Alameda Point would firmly position Alameda past Oakland in terms of density, with an overall density of 7,272 persons per square mile or 3,137 housing units per square mile. The SunCal proposals, not just in terms of the figures for housing units and population, but when also considering the overall plan and design, would nudge Alameda further in the direction of urbanization. And that’s to be expected – SunCal’s planner Peter Calthorpe is an avowed anti-suburbanist. He thinks everyone should live in high-density neighborhoods without backyards or private open space. This would be a dis-service to Alameda residents who moved here to enjoy the benefits of a legitimate suburban lifestyle in proximity to San Francisco. Those residents should reject both SunCal proposals.

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