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Transforming Abandoned Land into Vibrant Housing and Open Spaces

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Nestled along Alameda’s north shore lies an abandoned shipping terminal, a forgotten piece of local history encased in a weathered chain link fence. This 32-acre plot, known as Encinal Terminals, has languished in emptiness for a decade, a stark anomaly amidst the bustling community. Despite its prime waterfront location and proximity to amenities like a neighborhood park, shops, and a protected bike lane, the space has remained dormant.

In a region like the Bay Area, where the need for housing and open spaces is pressing, the prolonged vacancy of such valuable real estate might raise eyebrows. However, recent developments are set to change the fate of Encinal Terminals. A groundbreaking deal between the state of California and Alameda, freshly signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, is set to transform the site. The ambitious plan outlines the construction of 589 housing units, with approximately 15% designated as affordable housing.

Alameda faces a housing target of 5,300 units over the next decade, a goal often met with skepticism due to concerns about traffic congestion and evacuation capabilities in the face of seismic activity. Surprisingly, the Encinal Terminals project has encountered minimal local resistance, unlike many other housing proposals.

The success of the Encinal Terminals project doesn’t signify a shift in the housing development mindset, according to Michael Lane, the State Policy Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. He noted that opposition to housing projects remains strong, especially when changes disrupt existing neighborhoods.

Alameda’s strategy to counter this opposition involves leveraging abandoned land. Andrew Thomas, Alameda’s Planning Director and Interim Base Reuse Economic Development Director, explained, “We’re doing this in the context of our housing element. People understand we have to find space.” This approach extends across the Bay Area, offering a solution to address the reluctance to build in traditional neighborhoods. By repurposing such sites, developers can create denser, pedestrian-friendly communities that balance housing needs with open space preservation.

While this approach may seem politically convenient, it’s not without challenges. Abandoned sites often require extensive remediation efforts to ensure safety, and they may lack nearby services and green spaces, posing equity issues. Furthermore, these sites are finite, and eventually, the state will have to reckon with housing needs in existing residential neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, many proponents of affordable housing are celebrating the wins they can secure. The long-delayed Encinal Terminals project was hampered by complex property lines, eventually resolved by redrawing boundaries to facilitate development. This intricate process yielded a triple win: public access to waterfront parks and the Bay Trail, Alameda’s housing goals inching closer, and developers gaining opportunities for growth.

As the trend of developing on industrial land continues, Rafa Sonnenfeld, the Policy Director for YIMBY Action, cautions that challenges persist. The most fervent resistance often arises in affluent areas with access to amenities and green spaces. Avoiding these pockets of opposition could inadvertently deprive future residents of these benefits.

Sonnenfeld emphasized, “Our whole grassroots movement is trying to combat this exclusionary housing policy that is sort of the status quo.” Balancing the demands of development, community interests, and equitable access to housing remains an ongoing struggle, even when pursuing the path of least resistance.

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