Jul 11 2022

OPINION: Piedmont: Do the Right Thing!

At its June 20 meeting, the City Council made two preliminary decisions regarding sites for the 215 or so low-income housing units state law requires Piedmont to accommodate. The Council removed the Vista Avenue tennis courts from the list of potential sites and added Blair Park. Both choices appear at odds with recommendations made, after months of study, by the city’s professional staff as well as its paid consultants and the citizen advisory committee appointed by the Council.

The Council argued that listing the tennis courts, recently upgraded with help from citizen gifts, for low-income housing would discourage philanthropic giving to the city.  The argument for including Blair Park was that Piedmont must use or lose its share of County funding for low-income housing and that the Park provides opportunity for relatively fast development.

A moment’s reflection, however, calls both these arguments into question.  Residents have given gifts to both the city and to the Piedmont Beautification Foundation to upgrade Blair Park.  Friends of Moraga Canyon, for example, funded a landscaping plan, commissioned by the city, for the Park.  Despite the plan, the city chose to leave the Park “as is.”  Why? City staff argued, among other points, that improving the Park would attract users and that traffic engineers had not found a way to safely separate visitors to the Park, particularly children, from high-speed traffic on Moraga Avenue.

The city did, however, allow the family and friends of Barbara Peters, who dedicated four decades of service to the city and its residents, to place a bench in her memory in the Park she worked so hard to protect.  This is the bench to which a councilperson referred when characterizing Blair Park disparagingly as “just a bench.”  Is there a more effective way to discourage philanthropic giving to the city than to have councilpersons publicly disparage gifts?

The argument that Blair Park presents a more timely or attractive opportunity for developers than the tennis courts also appears less than compelling.  Time will certainly be lost when residents and environmental groups appeal the use of parkland to meet housing requirements. The State does not encourage cities to use parks to meet housing mandates and no other city has done so. Piedmont, moreover, already has one of the lowest ratios in the Bay Area of parkland to residents.

Most of Blair Park that is not steep hillside is a former landfill.  No one knows what the landfill contains other than San Francisco Bay mud, likely to harbor mercury and other heavy metals, from the construction of transbay BART tunnels.  This circumstance will lead to time consuming testing as well as expensive and contentious mitigation.  Without testing and mitigation, the city may have to indemnify developers and future managers of the apartments against claims of building defects and toxic exposure.

Building 150 or 200 apartments in Blair Park will certainly require expensive and time-consuming realignment and extension of sewer, water, and power lines, not to mention the reconfiguration of Moraga Avenue to ensure traffic and pedestrian safety.  And how long will it take to negotiate responsibility for the liability that comes with managing traffic on Moraga Avenue and its interchange with the 13 Freeway during construction?

And, of course, any prospective developer will have to assess the cost of uncertainty likely to arise because some Piedmont residents assume, with good reason, that their City Charter requires a vote of the citizens to convert parkland to residential use.  The Council may claim that loopholes allow them to avoid such a vote, but residents may see it differently and seek time-consuming redress.

The tennis court site, on the other hand, is flat, within walking distance of elementary, middle, and high schools as well as of banks, churches, the arts center, and the local market.  Piedmont Park and the new aquatics center are as close. Water, power, and sewer infrastructure is on site.  No landfill or landslide risks require mitigation. And the recent completion of nearby large school facilities shows that the traffic disruptions of construction in the area can be acceptably managed.

Given the above, why would the City Council ignore the recommendations of its professional staff, paid consultants, and citizen committee and swap Blair Park for the tennis courts? Why would the Council concentrate low-income families as far from Piedmont schools, services, and social as well as civic life as physically possible?  Is convenient access to a tennis court more important to us than the isolation of 200 low-income families?

Our predecessors brazenly used city resources to drive minority families from Piedmont. They countenanced race-based restrictive covenants. And they allowed a private club to operate a city-owned swim facility when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required integration of publicly operated accommodations. Given this history, how will our, or a future, City Council dissuade an objective observer from judging the choice to isolate and stigmatize 200 low-income families as anything other than a continuation of exclusionary policy?

I believe most Piedmonters want the city to comply with housing mandates in a way that conveys the best of our values rather than the worst of our instincts. I urge the Council to honor those values as well as its own adopted policy of distributing affordable housing throughout the city.  Do the right thing for generations of Piedmonters – adopt the inclusionary recommendations of your staff, consultants, and citizens’ committee.

Ralph Catalano, Piedmont Resident 

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.

13 Responses to “OPINION: Piedmont: Do the Right Thing!”

  1. Council did take an abrupt turn with the Housing Element at the June 20 meeting. To those not familiar with the draft plan, it proposed to integrate low/moderate income housing into the building of new municipal facilities in the Civic Center. The feasibility of this idea has been questioned but if viable, the tennis courts are the most shovel ready and probably profitable site in our civic core. The draft plan also proposed to consider Blair Park for housing after sites in the Corp Yard area were considered. Council removed the courts and added in Blair Park. Why not move the tennis courts and corp yard to Blair Park and partner with a developer to build market rate housing in The Corp Yard area and low income at the tennis courts? Removing the tennis courts from consideration really prevents some creative housing solutions.

    And were the Housing Element to account for more units in the multi-family zone and from SB 9 lot splits these other sites might not need to be considered at all.

  2. It is physically not feasible to build a tennis court complex on top of housing, let alone affordable housing — this assumption in the draft Housing Element was simply off-base. So housing at Vista Courts would have to come by removing these facilities altogether, which is not something the draft element had considered. Doing away with the tennis and basketball courts next to the middle and high schools, and in an accessible location in the middle of town, is essentially a non-starter, and the Council was right to make this call.

    This is not an issue of Blair Park vs Civic Center. We need to think of higher densities along Grand Avenue and more smaller plexes in existing neighborhoods to minimize need for housing on parks and other public lands.

  3. Moving the corp yard to Blair Park makes good sense for several reasons including it would not induce pedestrians to cross Moraga where driver site lines are minimal. The police station could also go there. But putting tennis courts there would be very dangerous. Those could, however, be integrated into a plan for the corp yard site.

  4. I don’t see how considering housing in the civic center could not include some changes to the courts, if not at least putting them atop a parking garage. But that is not housing and need not be addressed in the Housing Element. Maybe in the upcoming EIR. Blair Park is terrible for pedestrian access but if HCD makes Piedmont add housing I think civic center better than Blair park, if properly scaled. Ralph’s suggestion has merit. Increased development in the multi-family and multi-use zones is the most sensible.

  5. We would not be able to meet police or fire response times if those stations were moved out of the center of the city to an edge location like Blair Park. Putting anything that is a high traffic generator — like a police station or tennis courts that high school students use at the edge of the city — will generate more vehicle miles traveled, reduce community accessibility to services, and are not sustainable solutions.

    The correct direction is higher densities in the mixed-use areas and smaller two- to six-plexes in existing neighborhoods, and not a Civic Center vs. Corp Yard vs. Blair Park issue.

  6. I agree we should be discussing density and duplexes but civic sites comprise the biggest percentage (32%) of HE units so some public land is going to be converted to housing. And all of the public sites are for low income housing. Of the three, which sites are best from a habitability, economic and sustainable standpoint? I’d say the Corp Yard, made available by moving the corp yard operations to Blair Park. Could the city apply its A- 1 funds towards this concept? Perhaps the high level feasibility analysis being conducted by staff will address this.

  7. the basketball courts in the middle of town are already gone thanks to the pool plan

  8. There is a petition to save city center.
    Would be helpful if the Piedmont is Home group would put out a brief summary detailing where the 587 units are placed. Hard to go through the almost 400 pages of the draft to find the information.
    Will the rezoning be put to a vote?
    What has Piedmont budgeted for this project?

  9. Dear Mr. Catalano,

    While I have not had the pleasure of meeting you, and please no disrespect to you at all, but your letter has prompted me to now say something about the proposed dense housing issues in Piedmont. There is so much talk and disagreement in our community about this housing issue.

    Piedmont is a very unique city in California not only in size at 1.7 square landlocked miles with no available land to build on, but as well in character of commercial and residential composition. It is basically a residential city with very little commercial area, unlike most other cities in California. The State of California Housing Elements specifically states that any increased housing is to support jobs and job growth. How many jobs do we have in Piedmont? California has lost significant population since 2020 and the decline is continuing so far this year. When I read the State and the ABAG plans, unless I have read them incorrectly, I see the word “region” used over and over so I’m not sure that each City has to build all of these housing units individually like the proposed 587 units for the 1.7 square mile City of Piedmont, but maybe municipalities could work together and housing units can be built regionally? I do not know …. Regarding the Piedmont Draft Housing Element, you refer to consultants who crafted these plans and are guiding our Piedmont leaders. I wonder if these consultants are invested in Piedmont like you and me and live here daily and afford the risks as taxpayers and residents on our quality of life?

    I truly understand and respect your position of not wanting dense housing in your backyard, Blair Park. Believe me, I wouldn’t either —- but I do not want dense housing on the Cory Reich Tennis Courts nor in my neighborhood either, in my backyard! I also respectfully disagree with your opinion about the tennis courts as a logical place for dense housing. At least this tennis court site was “temporarily” removed from the plan at the June 20, 2022 City Council meeting. The neighborhood in and around City Hall is much too dense as it is now. This neighborhood is overused. Not to mention all of the increased activity in recent years — but a few are, the new layout and larger massive size of Havens Elementary School and the two new high school buildings which were recently completed. These new structures have created a very dense and overbearing feeling of “buildings” or “walls” in the neighborhood, especially the new high school buildings. With this, the air flow in the neighborhood has been negatively affected. The aquatic center is in the planning stages to be constructed and the storyboards showed it to be much more massive than I believe the community is aware of? In fact, the parking situation for this new aquatic center has not even been addressed as of yet!

    I wonder if you and others are aware of the geothermal and soil condition and underground spring situation in that area of Piedmont including the tennis courts? I wonder who is aware of the years and years of ground studies by different engineers for different proposed development in the area? Past studies have shown that the residual effects as a result of ground movement by just irritating or redirecting the underground springs in the area along with rain water then hitting the ground, the possible liability of the City to homeowners not only in the area in and around City Hall but downslope towards Grand Avenue made other past development proposals questionable and impossible for the City to take on that risk. In the City files there should be different ground studies of the area in and around City Hall going back to “Grassy Fields” over 30 years ago by the then City engineers at the time, Harris & Associates, and by engineers brought in from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I’ve lived in my home near the tennis courts for 37 years, beginning when the neighborhood was quite a bit different than it is today. As a resident in this wonderful neighborhood, I was required to learn about NIMBY in Piedmont because for one reason there has been little or no coordinated planning between the City and the Schools for development in this part of Piedmont. Thus, result is that we have an overused neighborhood.

    As I see it, it’s important to remember that the issue is not Blair Park vs. The Cory Reich Tennis Center. It’s about building “any” dense housing in areas that will not affect nor increase “any” effect on residential property.

    There are a few established small commercial areas in Piedmont already much better suited for dense housing development than in a residential neighborhood such as yours and mine. Housing in these established commercial areas in Piedmont will have little direct impact or no increased impact on residential homes such as the Wells Fargo building property, the ACE Hardware building property, 1345 Grand Avenue property, the Shell Gas Station, and the Valero Gas Station, and maybe more that I cannot think of now.

    In my opinion, neighborhoods should not be “pitted” against each other nor should the residents be forced to fight to maintain quality of life and the small town atmosphere that makes Piedmont such a wonderful place to live. If we’re going to attempt to build any new dense housing units in Piedmont then the focus should be on maintaining the residential character of the community and focus any dense housing in these small commercial areas.

    With much respect,

    Michael A. Gardner
    Bonita Avenue

  10. Mr. Gardner,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my letter regarding the Piedmont Housing Element. Please be aware that my backyard is the corporation yard. I have accepted the fact that a majority of the market rate and low income housing units called for in the Element will probably be assigned there. My concerns about Blair Park arises not from anticipated impacts on my home of 31 years. Those impacts will come with the corporation yard development. My concern is for the families who would be assigned to the undeniably worst possible location in the city for low income housing. You and I have lived long enough in Piedmont to know that low income families living in Blair Park would be physically and socially isolated from what we love about our community. I hope you join me in imploring our City Council to do the right thing by giving these families a better chance to enjoy Piedmont as we have.

  11. While I appreciate the thoughtful exchange between Michael Gardner and Dr. Catalano, I disagree with Michael’s assertion that Piedmont has “no available land to build on.” Passed this year, SB9 authorizes lot splits down to a minimum of 1,500 ft and 3 units on each lot. The City has suggested that without lot splits four units are allowed on each lot. There are minimally 1,200 lots in town larger than 8,000 sf; 8,000 sf is the minimum lot size in zone A. The estate zone, zone E, by itself has about 220 lots and all are minimum 20,000 sf. Some estate zone lots are exponentially larger. Rather than look at dense low income housing in City Center, Blair Park, Coaches Field and church parking lots, SB9 allows a uniform integration of both moderate and low income housing throughout the City. The State Agency in charge stated in March 2022 that the potential of SB9 can be included, with correct analysis, in the next Housing Element Cycle. The City’s housing consultant has rejected the concept of incorporating SB9 housing potential.

  12. Thanks, Rick, for introducing that important data into the housing discussion. Conversion of these lots to more housing should be part of our planning for the next cycle. SB9 also allows conversion of homes to duplexes. One finer point – the consultant rejected SB9 because he said HCD had a high evidentiary bar for SB 9 projections. Piedmont should test that bar by submitting its own SB 9 projections. Other cities have. If rejected the city could then turn to civic center sites.

  13. The proposed changes to our city’s core, including building housing on the tennis courts, the grassy strip on Highland Avenue and the relocation of the fire department, would be a travesty and would forever change the character of Piedmont. While understanding the need to respond to the legislature’s mandate, the community would be ill-served by these proposals.

    I agree with the observation that moving the fire department to the outskirts of the city would be a detriment to public safety. Additionally, the residents of housing built in Blair Park would not be any more isolated than the residents of Maxwelton Road, Abbott Way, Echo Lane, and Nellie Avenue, and traffic safety concerns would be alleviated by a traffic signal. Rezoning on Grand Avenue to accommodate multi-family housing is logical. The infrastructure already exists, and it would be situated on the only existing street in the city that could accommodate the additional traffic, particularly if restored to four lanes.

    The proposal to alter the city center, which has the endorsement of individuals who are not city residents, specifically staff and the outside consultants, is insensitive. Moving the tennis courts away from the high school would be a detriment to the high school and raise its own safety issues. When I attended Piedmont High, PE included swimming and tennis at facilities across the street from the school. The school had varsity and JV men’s and women’s tennis teams. When my daughters attended PHS, the school fielded these teams as well. Is that no longer the case? How is moving these facilities away from the school a positive thing?

    We are not Woodside, whose residents are seeking to avoid the construction of housing by prioritizing the needs of mountain lions. Our 1.7 square miles of land already developed. The legislature’s mandate of 587 new housing units amounts to a 15% increase in households. (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/piedmontcitycalifornia/INC110220.) The only discussion regarding the impact that a 15% increase in student population will have on the schools is this observation in Appendix 6 of the 6th Cycle Housing Element, published in April 2022, which acknowledged the “limited capacity of the schools” to accommodate the anticipated increase in its population due to the proposed housing plan.

    Census data belies the claim that school enrollment has declined due to a reduction in children residing in the community. Fully 26.4% of Piedmont residents are under the age of 18. (Id.) Without a deeper dive into the numbers, this would suggest that there are 165 children per academic year which far exceeds that of the current high school per class population. The decline school population has more to do with quality which I found to be disappointing when my children attended the high school when compared to my experience thirty years earlier during a time when the city was far more economically diverse than it is now, so diverse that the girls were required to wear uniforms to mitigate the effects of economic disparity in the student population.

    The plan also acknowledges EBMUD constraints pertaining to water and sewage but proposes no solution. I did not see any discussion regarding the impact of that a 15% in households will have on other city services, such as police and fire, in the report. I’m in favor of providing subsidized housing for school and city service employees but not at the expense of the city center.

    Perhaps there is a solution that include a reasonable response to the legislative mandate which would include additional units without a major disruption to the city center. The Census Bureau reports that Oakland lost 5,526 residents in 2021 from the previous year. (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/oaklandcitycalifornia.) There is also a significant amount of unused and underutilized land in Oakland. Perhaps the needs of everyone would be better served by entering into a cap and trade type arrangement with the City of Oakland where the construction of new units would be subsidized in part by Piedmont taxpayers. This is not a nimby proposal; it is a pragmatic proposal intended to ensure that the character of the city center is maintained, and the people needing affordable housing get what they need.

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