The Sierra Club and the luxury-housing developer

Northern Alameda chapter backs San Leandro project in a sign that the pro-growth forces are trying to take over the environmental group.

Are you a Sierra Club member who lives in Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Alameda, Piedmont or San Leandro? If so, you fall under the aegis of the club’s Northern Alameda County Group, which is nested within the larger Bay Chapter.

Be aware, then, that the NAC Executive Committee is currently dominated by a pro-growth coterie that’s exploiting the Sierra Club’s cachet to push a pro-development agenda that violates the club’s commitments to affordable housing, neighborhood integrity, and democratic governance.

If you’re a Sierra Club member who lives elsewhere in the Bay Area, you should also be concerned. The growth boosters on the NAC Ex Com include two men who wield considerable influence in the Bay Chapter, Igor Tregub and Andy Katz. Tregub also chairs the chapter Executive Committee. Both he and Katz sit on the Bay Chapter’s Political Committee, which makes the Sierra Club’s endorsements of political candidates and ballot measures. In the Bay Area, where the club claims nearly 60,000 members, and environmental values are widely embraced, Sierra Club endorsements carry a lot of weight.

(UPDATE: Tregub tells me he has stepped down from the Political Committee, which only makes advisory recommendations on endorsements.)

A crowd packs the San Leandro City Council chambers to oppose the project. Photo by Stephen Cassidy.

This is an alarming trend for the club; already in San Francisco, Yimbys have tried to take over the local chapter (and so far failed). But the pro-development forces know that placing people on the boards of all-volunteer organizations is not that difficult. There’s little doubt that “smart growth” advocates are trying to shift the influential Sierra Club in their direction, locally and nationally.

1388 Bancroft Avenue, San Leandro

The motives of the local leaders were on display on the evening of January 28, when, after a perfunctory discussion, the NAC Ex Com voted 5-3 to send a letter to the San Leandro City Council expressing partial support for the controversial housing development at 1388 Bancroft Avenue. The developer wants to replace the existing office building with a new rental apartment building comprised of 43 luxury units and two officially affordable units.

Since the project was on the council’s Feb. 4 agenda, the letter had to be drafted, reviewed, revised, approved, and sent in a bare week—in other words, before the Ex Com would meet again in late February.

I went to the January 28 meeting to comment on the NAC’s peremptory treatment of another item on the agenda, development at the North Berkeley BART station. But it was the group’s similarly cavalier disposal of the San Leandro project that captured my attention. Until then, I’d never heard of 1388 Bancroft. I got the impression that, except for Tregub and outgoing NAC Chair Andy Kelley, neither had members of the Ex Com.

The collective ignorance was understandable. For one thing, Kelley had only posted the evening’s agenda online on the afternoon of January 28. He was acting under duress: he’d stepped into the chair’s position after his immediate predecessor in the office had abruptly departed. On January 28, Kelley happily voted with the rest of the Ex Com to have Berkeley Councilmember Sophie Hahn succeed him as chair. Hahn then presided over an agenda that she had not set.

More important, the NAC Ex Com relied on a single informant who championed the project. At the meeting, the case for endorsing 1388 Bancroft was made by Tim Frank, a Berkeley resident and self-described “sustainability consultant.” A representative of the sheet metal workers union spoke briefly in favor of the project, but it was Frank who carried the ball.

Frank often speaks at public comment before city councils, regional agencies, and other public entities, urging the approval of developments. He’s been cheering on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s frightening CASA project since its inception.

On January 31, I emailed Frank asking if he’d been paid to advocate 1388 Bancroft. He replied:

I have no economic tie whatsoever to the developer of 1388 Bancroft in San Leandro. The same is true of 2190 Shattuck, which I supported at the Berkeley City Council hearing this last Thursday. These are very green transit-oriented development projects that will be built by union labor. Spending a few hours supporting these projects is a small contribution towards the larger goal of creating a greater and more equitable economy.

What you should know about me is that I am Director of the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, and am the board chair of Good Jobs First, both of which are organizations that support economic development strategies that emphasize good jobs and make our region more sustainable. This has been my vocation and passion for more than two and a half decades.

I emailed back: “Thanks for the ambiguous reply. I asked whether you were paid to advocate a Sierra Cub NAC Group endorsement of 1388 Bancroft. Tom Silva [the landlord-applicant via his business, Eden Realty] aside, were you paid to speak in favor of the project?”

To date, Frank has not responded.

The Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods is not incorporated as a tax-exempt nonprofit in California, so there are no public filings showing anything about its finances. On its website, the group seeks donations, but says they are not tax-deductible. I asked Frank where his group gets its money; he has not responded.

The NAC Ex Com buys Frank’s pitch

At the Ex Com meeting, Frank first stated that he directs the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, chairs both the board of Good Jobs First and the Sierra Club’s National Challenge to Sprawl campaign, and is helping the national club update its infill development policy.

He then pitched 1388 Bancroft. He highlighted the project’s access to transit—the site is on two bus lines, he said—its unbundled auto parking and bike lockers (tenants will have to pay extra to park on-site) and its GreenTRIP certification from TransForm; and noted the developer’s promise to use union labor.

After NAC Ex Com member Chris Jackson observed that only two percent of the units at 1388 Bancroft would be affordable, Frank said that the city had a shortage of luxury residences, but that market-rate housing “hasn’t penciled,” meaning it hasn’t did not yield the returns that developers demand. He also said that San Leandro’s inclusionary ordinance requires that 15 percent of the units in new housing developments be affordable, and that the city has not been “supportive of multi-family housing.”

Nobody pointed out that the last two of these claims do not compute. In today’s Bay Area, no city has an ample stock of low-income housing without having required that new developments include a substantial amount of such housing. In fact, San Leandro has supported multi-unit housing.

As Frank spoke, I Googled “1388 Bancroft.” Up came an article describing neighbors’ concerns about parking. In the ensuing discussion—initially everyone in the room was invited to make a comment—I mentioned those concerns. They elicited no interest from Ex Com members, who went on to pass a motion to send a letter to the San Leandro City Council that supported aspects of the project that were consistent with Sierra Club policies.

Voting Yes were Tregub, Katz, Kelley, Jonathan Bair, and Aaron Priven. Xavier Johnson was not present but later weighed in with a Yes. Voting No were Hahn, Jackson, and Toni Mester.

The unrecognized opposition

A bit more Googling also turned up the email address of the group that was fighting the project. The next morning, I sent the group a brief report of the Ex Com’s action. About an hour later, I got a reply from one of the neighbors, Stephen Cassidy. Cassidy said he’d been a member of the Sierra Club “on and off over the past 15 years,” and that he’s currently a member who “strongly support[s] the club’s mission” and “donate[s] to the club on a monthly basis.” He also said that from January 2011 to December 2014, he was mayor of San Leandro.

Cassidy wrote:

When we hear neighbors are opposed to a particular project, some immediately conclude the neighbors must be unreasonable, from the filter that any local opposition to a project is irrational and intended simply to protect the narrow-minded interest of the immediate neighbors who do not want change (or worse).

The 1388 Bancroft does not fit this mold. Context is critical.

He went on to provide that context: In 2016,

the San Leandro city council revised the San Leandro Zoning Code to allow new housing in areas of San Leandro formerly and exclusively reserved for offices and commercial uses, including at 1388 Bancroft Avenue (the property at the corner of Estudillo and Bancroft immediately across from Bancroft Middle School). We, neighbors of 1388 Bancroft Avenue, supported this change.  Our support helped expand sites for housing in San Leandro.

While new housing was encouraged, the City set limits to ensure that no project would be too dense or too large for the neighborhood. Specifically, projects were limited to:

  • 24 units per acre (which means 31 units at 1388 Bancroft)
  • A parking ratio of 2.25 parking spots per 2-bedroom unit
  • 10 foot setbacks
  • 30 feet in height

In response, the developer sought to build a project far in excess of these limits, close to 75 two-bedroom units, nearly 50 feet tall and with grossly inadequate parking. It was so deficient that city staff opposed the project. See https://sanleandrofocus.blogspot.com/2017/11/city-staff-analysis-of-1388-bancroft.html

Critically, the developer said he could not afford to build any project that was smaller.  However, the developer reversed course and withdrew his proposal.

Fast forward to the present, the developer is back with a smaller project. City staff is recommending that they be set aside for a “Planned Development” to be built at 1388 Bancroft Avenue.

The 1388 Bancroft Avenue Planned Development is better than what was first proposed but remains in violation of the 2016 expanded and pro-housing provisions of the city zone code.  The new plan calls for an apartment complex containing:

  • 45 units at the site … 50% denser than allowed
  • 55 parking spaces … less than half of the required number
  • 4 foot setbacks on Estudillo … 60% less than required
  • 37 feet tall … 23% taller than allowed

The affordable housing component of the planned development is a fraud.  The developer has another apartment on the opposite side of San Leandro that is decades old and serves the low end of the market. He plans on adding two units of affordable at this site, eg not at 1388 Bancroft.  And he will write a one-time check to the city to satisfy its in lieu fee for affordable housing units. That’s how he gets to claim 4% affordable housing at 1388 Bancroft. The reality is there will be no affordable units on the property. Many of us object to the project for this reason. We welcome affordable units at the site.

1388 Bancroft is not within the City’s Transit Oriented Development zone. It will bring significantly more cars to the neighborhood, as almost all units will be 2-bedrooms with 2 baths priced at the highest end of the market. In many cases, 4 adults owning 4 cars will be occupying units.

Furthermore, we have the right to rely on the assurances and promises of our city officials.  Integrity matters.  Approval of the 1388 Bancroft Planned Development without modification would create the precedent that any project, no matter the location, how dense or tall, or the lack of sufficient parking, could be built in San Leandro as long as it is labeled a “Planned Development.”

We continue to support housing at 1388 Bancroft and would be willing to compromise but the project must be brought closer to the zoning code restrictions.

I forwarded Cassidy’s email to the Ex Com members whose email I had at hand: Hahn, Kelley, Tregub, Katz, and Mester, stating that, except for Kelley, “it was clear” that before January 28, none of the Ex Com members had heard of 1388 Bancroft. I added:

I understand why it was placed on the agenda. I do not understand why the majority voted to send a letter to the council, given that you heard only one person advocating its approval. To support a project such as this, with a long and controversial history, without hearing from opponents, and after a short discussion which could not possibly suffice for anyone involved to understand the situation, was wrong.

I suggested that they reconsider sending a letter to the San Leandro Council endorsing any aspect of the project. I also left Tregub a voicemail.

No reporters allowed

Nobody took up my suggestion to reconsider the letter. Tregub, however, emailed a reply that addressed two other matters. First, he said that “three separate people reached out to me about placing this on the agenda, including former San Leandro Councilmember (previously endorsed by the Sierra Club) and longtime member Michael Gregory.”

Then Tregub tried to nail me for violating Sierra Club rules. “[D]id you attend the meeting as a member as a reporter?” he asked. “As you know, our policy welcomes members but does not allow reporters to attend our meetings, so I guess it sort of depends which hat you wear (since you’re both). Thanks for clarifying!”

I was indeed aware of that policy, which however I find nowhere in the Sierra Club’s posted rules and bylaws. If, like me, you’re both a journalist and a Sierra Club member, before attending a club meeting, you have to decide which hat you’re going to wear. What’s unclear is whether club rules forbid non-journalist members from reporting what they witness at club meeting. Tregub and his pals on the Ex Com were well aware of my dual identity, yet they said nothing at the meeting, and Tregub only raised the issue after I revealed that I’d contacted opponents of 1388 Bancroft.

For the record, I attended the January 28 meeting and am writing here as a Sierra Club member; and this is an unsolicited, unpaid op-ed, the likes of which are routinely composed by non-journalists who happen to belong to the Sierra Club and are published by varied media outlets.

I emailed back that who asked to have 1388 Bancroft placed on the agenda was irrelevant, and that the issue was why he and others who voted for the letter did so,

given that only one side of the story was presented—and that, as Stephen Cassidy’s email made clear, even that side was partially presented. On Monday evening, the NAC Ex Com was not qualified to take a position. Why, then did it do so?

I also noted that the national Sierra Club has adopted the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, and I cited the first three:

  • Be inclusive
  • Emphasis on Bottom-up organizing
  • Let people speak for themselves

“It’s striking,” I wrote,

that you offer no response to Cassidy’s argument. Instead, your concern seems to be that I will write critically about what transpired on Monday evening. Why aren’t you worried that what transpired contradicted club policy—not only the Jemez Principles of democratic decision-making but also the club’s stated commitment to affordable housing and neighborhood integrity?

This, by the way, is the same Igor Tregub who ran for the District One seat on the Berkeley City Council last year. Voters in that district may recall his reiterated enthusiasm for community input regarding development at the North Berkeley BART station. When it came to 1388 Bancroft Avenue, such enthusiasm was nowhere to be seen.

The Ex Com’s letter to the San Leandro council

On February 4, the NAC sent a letter to the San Leandro City Council regarding “the Planned Development at 1388 Bancroft Way” [sic] signed by “Andy Katz, Member, Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee.” It differed, however, from the one that the NAC majority had approved. Rather than endorsing aspects of the project that complied with Sierra Club policy, the letter stated: “We have not taken a position on the project.”

Indeed, except for the opening reference, the letter didn’t mention 1388 Bancroft at all. Instead, it “comment[ed] on relevant land use and housing policies” embraced by the Sierra Club:

[T]o address regional sprawl, promote environmental justice, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use patterns should be designed to prioritize walking and biking, reduce vehicle miles traveled (MVT) increase public transit use, enhance the economic viability of public transit and decrease private motor use (auto mobility).

“In particular,” the NAC wrote, “zoning should:”

  • Promote desirable, affordable, dense, and equitable mixed-use infill development;

  • Integrate pedestrian-oriented amenities into residential neighborhoods;

  • Promote affordable housing;

  • Eliminate minimum parking requirements to encourage shifts to biking, walking, scooting, carpooling and transit;

The Northern Alameda County Group of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club supports infill, mixed-use, relatively dense development within urbanized areas that encourages transit, walking, and bicycling and that minimizes private automobile parking. We also support greater density where appropriate, and at least 20% of the housing must be affordable.

We request that the San Leandro City Council integrate these principles into planning and zoning matters.

Most of these principles are ones that, according to Tim Frank, were incorporated into the proposed development at 1388 Bancroft.

The blatant outlier is the stipulation for a minimum 20 percent affordable housing. A glance at the project’s history makes clear that no way would developer Tom Silva agree to follow that injunction. When the NAC Ex Com voted to send the letter, it was ignorant of that history. But it knew that the developer had proposed only 4 percent affordable housing. You’d think that would be a deal breaker—but no. 

Dense TOD trumps all

I surmise that in today’s Sierra Club, the purported benefits of dense, transit-oriented development—above all, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—trump everything else, including the concerns about neighborhood quality of life set forth in the national Club’s adopted policies about the “Urban Environment”:

Protection and Enhancement of the Quality of Life

  1. Protection and enhancement of the quality of urban life by preservation of our architectural and cultural heritage.

  2. Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption; rehabilitation of housing and community facilities; jobs creation; a safe and healthy workplace environment; and elimination of “redlining” practices.

  3. Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes.

Not incidentally, the urban quality of life concerns, including the reference to “unreasonable economic and physical disruption,” specified above do not appear in the national Club’s draft “Urban Infill Policy” that’s currently under review.

Dense, transit-oriented development sounds great in the abstract. Done right, it’s great in reality. But doing it right means respecting reality, not trampling on it. Even the NAC letter urged “greater density where appropriate.” If members of the NAC Ex Com had attended the San Leandro Council’s hearing on 1388 Bancroft, they would have heard dozens of speakers explain in vivid detail why 45 units at this site, which is across the street from a middle school, was not appropriate; and why, as Cassidy indicated in his email, the proposed development would likely flood the already congested immediate, Estudillo neighborhood with cars owned by the project’s residents. With the developer estimating rents for the two- and three-bedroom units at $4,000 a month, the proposed 45-unit project would be likely to house far more than 45 residents. There’s no way to prevent any of them from owning a car. What’s more, the latest research indicates that densification inflates land values and the cost of housing in surrounding areas.

After listening to that testimony, the majority of the San Leandro Council made it clear they would not approve a 45-unit development. Mayor Cutter made a motion to approve a 39-unit project. The motion was seconded but withdrawn before a vote was taken. Some councilmembers said they wanted the affordable units to be onsite. Everyone lauded the “greenness” of the project and hoped that it could be built. The developer asked for a 90-day continuance to address the council’s concerns, and the council unanimously granted his request.

To my knowledge, nobody on the NAC Ex Com bothered to attend the meeting. Tim Frank did attend and speak at public comment. Defying the time limit, he had to be cut off by the mayor as he was holding forth on “climate catastrophe.”

To be sure, we are confronting climate catastrophe, at least a catastrophe for the fragile ecological niche in which our species evolved. But that daunting fact does not justify poorly informed, stealth decision making that ignores the threats of “unreasonable” growth, especially by an organization that is professedly committed to democracy and urban quality of life.

What Club members can do

Sierra Club members who live in the nine-county area under the jurisdiction of the Bay Chapter need to pay attention to the actions of the Club officials whom they’ve chosen to represent them. There’s nothing members can directly do about Frank, who’s a consultant.

But Tregub, Katz, Kelley, Bair, Priven, and Johnson were all voted into office. If they want to retain their positions in the Club, they will have to run again, either in 2019 or 2020.

Club members should ask that the national Club’s draft “Urban Infill Policy” be placed on the agendas of local group and the Bay Chapter Executive Committees in a timely fashion—the policy is supposed to be finalized this spring—so that, in accordance with the Jemez Principles, members can “speak for themselves.”

Zelda Bronstein is a longtime Sierra Club member who helped found the Northern Alameda County Group in the early Nineties.