Yesterday I went to the Alameda flea market with some friends. It’s held on an old airfield at a decommissioned military base directly across the bay from San Francisco on Alameda Island. It’s warm and sunny, surrounded by water, has breathtaking views of the city, and has direct ferry service to the financial district. The old military base is actually about the same size as the central business district and could easily accommodate an equivalent amount of development. That kind of expansion of the building stock would go a long way to ease the crazy high rents and housing shortage in the Bay Area.
There are problems with the site, of course. The property needs a military grade detox since the Pentagon played fast and loose with various kind of contaminants for decades. The territory is mostly landfill on marshland in an earthquake liquefaction zone. And the whole place is two inches above sea level in an era of likely sea level rise (natural or man made – doesn’t matter.) But there are engineering solutions for all these things, particularly since a very healthy market rate budget could be brought to bear by the private sector.
But the biggest obstacle to developing the site remains the general voting public in Alameda which consistently rejects all proposed plans by a margin of 85%. Round after round of concepts have been presented by multiple developers for twenty years, but the Alameda community never comes close to passing any of them. What the public wants is low density single family homes and as much open space and buffers as possible. But the economics of the required clean up and engineering demands high density and transit in order for the numbers to add up – unless each beige stucco tract house is to cost $10,000,000. No one in Alameda envisions the wealth and culture of San Francisco spilling across the bay. Instead, everyone just sees Oakland (read: poverty, crime, and “the wrong element”) invading their island. They simply aren’t having any of it. So the land continues to sit empty.
The stuff that has been build so far on little bits along the edge of the old military base has been big box retail (Target, Safeway, etc.), lots of road widening projects, ample free parking, some low density one story office parks, and a sprinkling of subdivisions. None of it will survive even a mild earthquake or moderate flooding. Personally I think the majority of this land will remain fallow for the rest of my lifetime and may never be developed. That doesn’t mean it’s saved as “nature” either. There’s nothing natural about this giant slab of polychlorinated biphenyl laced asphalt.
The rejection of sufficient new construction near the city continues to push development farther and farther away. Density and transit are despised by the suburban and rural populations on the edge of the metro area so low density homes, shopping centers, and office parks dominate the landscape. High land costs combined with low density translates to each home being very expensive. Freeway construction can’t keep up with the increase in traffic as commuters drive more miles in more directions in order to balance household incomes with household expenditures. Quality of life declines as commute times lengthen.
So that takes me to my general understanding of the greater Bay Area real estate situation. It’s like a balloon. If you squeeze the middle of a balloon the ends bulge. If you squeeze the ends the middle bulges. And if the middle and the ends are squeezed at the same time the balloon pops. An apartment in the building next door to me recently became vacant. The landlord paid the old rent controlled tenant $30,000 to leave. The new tenant is now paying $4,200 a month for that one bedroom 700 square foot apartment. That’s the sound of a balloon popping.