Is It Time To Abolish The City?

Today I want to share with you two tales about three cities. After reading this, you may wonder whether or not it is time to abolish the city/town concept and replace it with more seamlessly integrated regional government. The more time I spend researching equity, social justice and housing and transportation policy, the more I strongly I feel that this needs to happen. The first tale takes us to the north end of the island of Alameda.

Alameda Point: Lawsuits, Failed Referendums, Millions of Dollars Spent and No New Housing to Show For It


Alameda Point plan: 1600 new homes, lots of retail space and a wildlife refuge. All 19 years in the making.

Military personnel called the drab northern corner of Alameda Island a home until a wave of federally driven base closures gave the City of Alameda a chance to convert the dirt and scrub weeds into housing and commerce.  We are 19 years out from the publication of that first, fateful planning document outlining the City of Alameda’s vision for the parcel.  And yet, several lawsuits and elections later, the area known as Alameda Point (referenced herein as AP) remains largely desolate.  This is the sage of Alameda Point:

  • 1996Alameda releases a reuse plan for Alameda Point Naval Air Station
  • 1997Alameda Point Naval Air Station closes
  • 19972001: Plans solidify, city hires “Alameda Point Community Partners” as master developer.
    • Plan calls for 1600 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of commercial development
  • 2003: Residents in Oakland’s Chinatown organize and sue over concerns about traffic impacts (the road connecting AP to the highway system runs right through the heart of Oakland’s Chinatown)
  • 2004: As Asian Health Services vs. City of Alameda heats up, the city backs down and agrees to go back to the drawing board to come up with a better plan
  • 2005: City of Alaemda unveils revised “AP Station Area Transportation Plan”
  • 2006: City releases 5-year plan to finish project by 2010
  • AUG 2006: Navy finalizes price for land: $108 million.  “Alameda Point Community Partners” balks at the cost and backs out.
  • 2006: City begins search for new developer, finds SunCal
  • 2010: SunCal proposes “Measure B” which would reform existing land use laws to enable building 3,000 units on the site (much higher than the previous plan for 1600)
  • 2010: Measure B fails in Alameda (85% vote NO)
  • 2010: A councilmember  violates open meeting laws by leaking planning documents to the public; SunCal publicly attacks/blames city manager for fallout
  • 2010: A newly-elected mayor gives SunCal the boot.
  • 2011: The military decides to give the land away for free
  • 20112014: Alameda returns to original plan
  • 2014: An Oakland Chinatown coalition threatens another lawsuit.
  • 2014: Alameda’s city manager, an attorney who once helped Oakland sue Alameda over AP the first time, now defends the project and signals he will continue to move forward

The irony is a bit obvious: an attorney who fought to kill the project earlier is suddenly a champion of the project as of this writing (Feb. 2014). It gets to me. So here’s my challenge for you:  What went wrong? I’ve been documenting quite a few case studies of failed housing projects for my research. What stands out to me about this project is the roll of inter-jurisdictional conflict and how it all but ensured that once this plan finally got off the drawing board (again) and into the public eye (again), it would get dragged down (you know . . .).

Something to consider:  if Alameda and Oakland were one city, would the lawsuit(s) have occurred?  If they were one city, then this unified city government’s elected leaders would be required to balance the needs of ALL their existing constituents (Oakland and Chinatown) with the pros and cons of generating more tax revenue (from the development).  Would government, working as one jurisdiction and within one process, be better able to balance competing pressures and achieve a more broadly amenable plan?

Because right now, Oakland’s leaders really have no incentive to allow this to go through–they won’t benefit.  And Chinatown’s residents won’t benefit either, as the tax revenue will stay in Alameda (beyond getting funding for traffic improvements in Chinatown paid for by the development).  Sure it’s possible that if Alameda were a part of Oakland a lawsuit could have still taken place, but I think it would have been a lot less likely, as the incentive structure for Oakland’s city and community leaders would be quite different.

Mountain View: Their Housing Development Plan is Called “San Francisco”

Someone recently wrote a great piece on why San Francisco should sue Mountain View.  Apparently the sleepy bedroom community/Tech Mecca wants to add space for up to 20,000 more jobs, whilst only providing up to 5,000 new housing units.  So commute times are going to go up and up (even though they have already been going up and up) because those other 15,000-19,999 workers are going to have to drive in from somewhere else… (Let’s face it, most of those 5,000 units will never be built–so we’re talking about up to another 19,999 cars driving into that area). Meanwhile many of the nearby cities have been fighting the current regional government tooth and nail over increasing their housing supply, meaning these new workers are going to be driving in from quite far away.

So who are these city council members in Mountain View?  And how big are the political coalitions of the illustrious statesmen advancing this plan that will impact several million people?  The highest vote-getter in Mountain View’s latest city council election won only 6,181 votes!  People running for undergraduate student government here at U.C. Davis routinely win more votes than that, but  do not then go on to pass development plans with region-wide implications for congestion and housing costs. (Of course they are just students, but you get what I mean and frankly.. after having a few of them intern for me I wonder if they might make better decisions for the long haul.)

I spent a good half hour trying to find a simple map of Silicon Valley showing the cities with labels and this is what I could find.  Can you point out Mountain View on a map?

It’s the orange-ish colored polygon to the upper-left of San Jose. (A question for you to pocket for later: do any of the jurisdictional boundaries in that map make any sense from a planning, topographical or ecological standpoint?)

So why is Mountain View doing this?  Its simple.  Tax revenue.  But that revenue won’t be shared with the communities that will have to absorb all those new workers into their housing markets.

So suppose all the cities in Silicon Valley were merged into a more comprehensive regional government:  wouldn’t a regional government, if it wants to get re-elected, approve business expansion where there is also adequate housing available, or barring that, where there is at least room to build nearby housing?  It wouldn’t impact who got to share in the revenue (although the revenue would be more  equitably distributed than if it just stayed in Mountain View).  Yes, Linkedin and Google might prefer to have their workers crammed into one area, but at the same time, their employees are filling office buildings up in San Francisco while still maintaining their Silicon Valley presence. So they can clearly manage with campuses spread across the region.

It’s time to seriously consider abolishing the municipality in its current form here in California and replacing it with something larger and more regionally driven.

References on Alameda Point

Alameda Point Community Partners, “Alameda Point Conditional Acquisition Agreement” Alameda, CA, September 20, 2006,

CBS San Francisco. “Alameda regains control of former navy base, plan redevelopment,” CBS San Francsico (San Franciso, CA), June 4th, 2013,

Community Improvement Commission of the City of Alameda.  Adopting the five-year implementation plan: fiscal years 2005/06-2009/10 for the Alameda Point Improvement Project. Alameda, CA: June 20th, 2006

Dieter, Irene. “Case of the disappearing park strikes here again,” Alameda Sun (Alameda, CA), Nov. 8 2013,

EDAW, Inc. NAS Alameda Community Reuse Plan prepared for Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority. Alameda, CA: 1996.

Ellson, Michele.  “Alameda, Oakland in fresh fight over traffic,” The Alamedan (Alameda, CA). January 7, 2014

Hegarty, Peter, “SunCal attorney says Alameda could face lawsuit,” Inside Bay Area (San Francisco, CA), July 15, 2010,

Lee, Henry. “Alameda, SunCal settle for $4.1 million,” San Francisco Chronicle  (San Franciso, CA), Dec. 19 2012,

Mara, Janis, “Housing element adopted after passionate debate,” Marin Independent Journal (San Rafael, CA), Nov 20, 2013,

McDonough, Susan, “New lawsuit aimed at Alameda Point,” Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), Jan. 14 2004.

San Francisco Business Times, “Alameda Point Community Partners wins 775-acre development project,” San Francisco Business Times (San Francisco, CA), Aug. 10, 2001

Bianca, “SunCal threatens to sue Alameda city manager”, San Francisco Business Times (San Francisco, CA), July 14, 2010,

White, John Knox, “SunCal submits a new plan for Alameda Point,” San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, CA), March 23, 2010,

Published by mattdpalm

Doctoral Student UC Davis USDOT Graduate Eisenhower Fellow 2014-2015

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