Sunset for Suncal in Alameda

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Alameda Island resident and community organizer Gretchen Lipow says the effort to oust developer SunCal, which threatened to sue the city last night when it was clear the jig was up, began two years ago.

“We divided the city into grids and went out and walked the streets, starting when SunCal brought their initiative out,” Lipow recalled, referring to Measure B.

SunCal, which was Alameda chose in 2007, after other developers including Lennar pulled out of the competition to be the island’s next master developer, succeeded in alienating many city residents, when it introduced Measure B, which included multiunit housing, a provision that violated a 1973 law banning anything larger than a duplex on the island.

And SunCal then succeeded in alienating city staff over its failure to provide promised transit plans and financing details, as the Measure B vote approached. In the end, Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson and Councilmember Frank Matarrese both withdrew their support for SunCal’s measure, which bombed in February, losing by 85 percent.

Meanwhile, Lipow and other community members began working on an alternate plan, in recognition that it’s hard to fight a plan if you don’t have a counter plan in its place.

“I won’t call it a vision because that word has become horribly abused in this process, but we have been working on an alternate idea that we felt was much more compatible with the nature and land out there, in what is a somewhat isolated area,” Lipow said.

She recalls how at the time the community first got together to fight SunCal, the developer had not yet put what she calls “their anti-slow growth measure” on the ballot, but that when they did, the move only helped to crystallize all that was wrong with the developer’s approach.

“They tried to take the political decision-making out of the hands of the city,” Lipow said. “Talk about a land grab.”

Lipow says the community she represents did not agree with the developer’s “vision” for the former Alameda Naval Air Station.
“We do not see it as a condo village,” Lipow said. “That makes no sense. It’s a Superfund site that is still being cleaned up.”

Lipow said that along the way, folks on Alameda Island began to ask who was going to pay for SunCal’s proposed redevelopment plan—and realized that payment for a plan they didn’t want was going to end up coming out of their own pocket, and yet, there was little certainty if anything would ever end up being built.

“It’s all based on redevelopment bonds and speculation,” Lipow said. “And we see what’s going on in San Francisco, where the city is now saying they can’t get anyone to invest in the [Candlestick Point-Shipyard] deal.”

Lipow recalls how the community investigated SunCal.

“We found that its financial background is abhorrent,” Lipow said. “Since 2008, SunCal has filed about 30 bankruptcies and there are a hundred lawsuits against them. They collapsed with Lehman Brothers.”

Lipow points to a disturbing lack of information about SunCal’s financial partner, D. E. Shaw, who allegedly runs an underground hedge fund.

“No one knows this guy,” Lipow said. “There has never been on a single piece of correspondence between Shaw and the city.”

Asked if Alameda’s ouster of SunCal opens the door to other and perhaps equally spurious developers, Lipow said, “The community is now organized enough to have meetings, and we understand we need to come up with something.”