Blogging Bayport Alameda

January 9, 2015

Realistic of the reals

Filed under: Alameda, City Council, Development — Lauren Do @ 6:09 am

One of Frank Matarrese’s talking points with regard to the Housing Element/Density Bonus/housing unit number (this is a much larger lengthier discussion) is about the “realistic capacity” number for each parcel that is in the Housing Element which describes how Alameda is going to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers.

The nut meat of his point is that the city, in its Housing Element, has indicated that a number “x” indicates the “realistic capacity” for these parcels so why are certain projects going above this realistic capacity number through the density bonus and the multifamily housing overlay.

I’ll admit this is a compelling argument for anyone that has their doubts about development in general and because Frank Matarrese never really comes off as shrill or as too much of a zealot, it’s easy to be convinced that he’s on to something.

Here’s the thing.  Frank Matarrese may be being a bit disingenuous about what “realistic capacity” means.  He’s relying on the dictionary terminology for “realistic” and capacity” and mushing that together.  He is not referring to the actual usage of the term “realistic capacity” and what it means in terms of the Housing Element.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development has a extensive backgrounder on how to measure “realistic capacity” and why it’s important that this number is included.  Here’s the Government Code section:

Government Code Section 65583.2(c) requires, as part of the analysis of available sites, a local government to demonstrate the projected residential development capacity of the sites identified in the housing element can realistically be achieved. Based on the information provided in subdivision (b), a city or county shall determine whether each site in the inventory can accommodate some portion of its share of the regional housing need by income level during the planning period, as determined pursuant to Section 65584. The number of units calculated shall be adjusted as necessary, based on the land use controls and site improvements requirement identified in paragraph (4) of subdivision (a) of Section 65583.

Further the backgrounder clarifies:

The element must include a description of the methodology used to estimate the realistic capacity. The element should not estimate unit capacity based on the theoretical maximum buildout allowed by the zoning [emphasis added]

The point of the “realistic capacity” number is so that cities and jurisdictions don’t game the system by attributing the max buildout number for each parcel to hit their RHNA numbers faster and with less parcels even though they know that a particular parcel will never use the max buildout allowed by zoning because of lack of political will or regulatory controls (like Measure A).

According to the HCD, cities can use previous projects to justify how they calculate “realistic capacity.”  So, for example, a city like Alameda which hadn’t built a lot of non Measure A compliant housing in the past, couldn’t then say that a parcel, like Del Monte, could have a “realistic capacity” of 380 units.  Because, a 380 unit Del Monte would be an anomaly and not the norm. Because, given Alameda’s Measure A, it would red flag the RHNA numbers if Alameda were to claim that a parcel, like Del Monte, had a “realistic” capacity of 380.

If City Staff has not explained this distinction yet to Frank Matarrese, perhaps they should.  Because I imagine that Frank Matarrese would want to present an accurate picture to the community of what the Housing Element numbers actually mean, particularly the “realistic capacity” number, considering that he has asked City Staff to bring back a moratorium on density bonus applications and about what density bonus means in terms of that land use table he wants Alamedans to further understand.



  1. this has nothing to do with realistic density required in order to turn a profit, but if the housing element satisfied the state with lower numbers for that parcel, then one could argue ( profit aside) that there is no reason to go beyond those numbers if you are concerned about traffic. I guess, in order to get affordable housing up, the density bonus comes in to play. The language doesn’t seem to be saying that it is not realistic to go above those numbers. Frank did say at the meeting that he had done lots and lots of study and asked many questions of staff, so if they haven’t explained it yet I’m a little surprised. If they have, he either doesn’t get it or is insisting on his original interpretation. After all, when he asked me at EDC meeting I crashed a million years ago to ask that we plan around “sustainability” Frank asked me what does sustainability really meant. Sort of a philosophical question I guess, but I seem to recall I said it means what the dictionary says it means, So here realistic has two meanings, one is literal from the gut and one a technical term. I wonder if in context such technical terms are written in italics, or if you need to be a trained planner to know what the intention is?

    Comment by MI — January 9, 2015 @ 7:55 am

  2. The “realistic capacity” has nothing to do with traffic impacts or really anything beyond: what sort of housing have you build previously to prove that this is the number of units that would probably be built on that site based on your land use controls, zoning, etc.

    For example, I believe the “realistic capacity” for the Chipman Terminals site is way higher than what was actually approved.

    But the point is to get as close as possible to hitting the RHNA numbers without fudging by claiming that one site could potentially hold 500 units when the reality is that a 500 unit project would never be approved.

    Comment by Lauren Do — January 9, 2015 @ 8:04 am

  3. By the way, MI, you might want to ask Frank Matarrese again today what his definition of “sustainable” is since he has a Council Referral regarding a “sustainable” budget.

    Comment by Lauren Do — January 9, 2015 @ 8:53 am

  4. Thanks Lauren for the education..service to our community.

    Comment by Gabrielle Dolphin — January 9, 2015 @ 9:32 am

  5. The density/element/moratorium discussion was confusing, and staff did spend quite a bit of time with Frank, walking him through everything. One glaring problem is that our process & rules documents aren’t clear. Kind of a typical “oops- here’s a problem, here’s the solution, write it in here” government-y thing that leads to documents that can be interpreted differently. The density bonus and inclusion of affordable housing in Del Monte fell into this category. Depending on where you start looking at documents, and if you don’t have a lot of experience reading contracts/regulatory code docs, it isn’t hard to come to the conclusion that the affordable got left out. And it makes for some cool conspiracy theory stuff.

    The affordable housing advocates worked closely to make sure that those pieces were not just included, but tied to milestones. Frank is correct that documents need to be consistent and clear; he ultimately voted against the repeal because the way the Del Monte agreements are written, the same result will be achieved and there was more to lose than gain by the repeal. For those who are worried that this will allow something “shady” to happen, I wouldn’t worry. This is going to end up being one of the most closely-watched & scrutinized projects we’ve seen in awhile. How could it not be?

    It may take some of the fun out of things, but clarifying all the documents and code will make take out most of the confusion. This is Frank’s area of expertise. It’s all about the data for him. I think that this action item for staff specifically ties to the bonus density language, but I’d expect him to take the same approach to any questions he has about the housing element. One of the things I admire about Frank is that he has a track record of changing his mind after seeing data.

    Comment by greenefree — January 9, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

  6. #5 is Alison (me). Is there a way to edit a comment that I’m missing? I keep forgetting to change my name.

    Comment by Alison — January 9, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

  7. Allison: Unfortunately, no way to edit comments after the fact. Only I have that power, mwahahahah!

    Here’s my difficulty with Frank Mattarese’s position on the Housing Element and the Density Bonus: if he were a new City Councilmember like Trish Spencer or Jim Oddie I could give him some leeway on not understanding the nuances of everything. However, Frank Mattarese sat on the City Council for eight years and on other Boards and Commissions prior to his eight years. His Council was the one that both punted on the Density Bonus ordinance the first time around 2003 or 2004ish and then went on to approve it five years later. He’s also been around for at least one Housing Element non-certification and so should understand the Housing Element terminology by now.

    I’m open to having the discussions about Housing Elements/RHNA/Density Bonus and whatever, but hopefully it will be a discussion with all the terminology fully explained and understood by all. Particularly our City Council.

    Comment by Lauren Do — January 9, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

  8. You’re right about Matarrese’s inconsistency, which is tied to telling people what they want to hear, until the mistress checks with the wife, then you have the drama. The City never got a certified Housing Element under his 8 years on the council and I don’t think it’s because he failed to understand that “realistic capacity” is not equal to “maximum capacity” for a housing, even under the Density Bonus Ordinance, which allowed the City to comply with state law. Having been a “fly on the wall” at multiple forums, he is starting to sound like Spencer, where he is telling one group one thing, and other group the opposite.

    Comment by Alan — January 9, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

  9. Lauren – totally agree about explaining terminology clearly, etc. Your comment about Frank’s previous experience reminded me that he raised that very issue himself in the conversation on Tuesday night. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was pretty much that he worked on the original, there were things that could have been caught at the time but weren’t and need to be corrected.

    It may be that I can relate; I’ve worked on many technical protocols where I spent a year buried in the details, reading and re-reading and participating in team reviews. A year or two later, I’ll need to access the document and something will pop right out that I can’t believe I and other the reviewers missed. Tunnel vision happens.

    I have a lot of respect for anyone who admits that they’ve made a mistake without trying to explain it away.

    For the record, almost any time* one of my posts doesn’t have my name, it’s because I forgot to change it. My personal standard is to use my name, especially when I am commenting about events or people.

    *’almost” because at some point, some where, I might be inclined to make an anonymous comment in some forum. Reserving the right and all that….

    Comment by Alison — January 9, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

  10. gee, Alison how will we know who you are if you’re posting anonymously?

    Comment by jack — January 9, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

  11. Jack, it would go like this, anonymous post, by Allison

    Comment by John P. — January 10, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

  12. That wouldn’t work John, our Alison only has one ‘l’.

    Comment by jack — January 10, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

  13. Hmm. Good point. I’ll put 2 “y”s in “anonymous.”

    Comment by Alison — January 11, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

  14. Suggested/required reading for DelMonte watchers:

    Comment by vigi — January 11, 2015 @ 8:29 pm

  15. #14 There is so much beneath the surface that needs to be exposed. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by A Neighbor — January 12, 2015 @ 4:33 am

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