Did the Castro Valley MAC undermine a 199-unit affordable housing project before it was even proposed?

Castro Valley Municipal Advisory Council members Sheila Cunha and Chair Marc Crawford during a meeting Monday night at the Castro Valley Library.

A proposed 199-unit affordable housing and retail project that may be the largest in Castro Valley’s history is meeting resistance from the unincorporated area’s de-facto municipal government even though an official application has yet to be filed with the Alameda County Planning Department.

The Castro Valley Municipal Advisory Council (CVMAC) took the unprecedented step of reviewing the preliminary project to be proposed by the First Presbyterian Church during Monday’s meeting.

Rodrigo Orduna, assistant Alameda County planning director, said the request by CVMAC Chair Marc Crawford to place the proposal on Monday night’s agenda for a “pre-application” discussion had never happened before.

Crawford said First Presbyterian’s interest in redeveloping the swath of land on the busy intersection of Grove Way and Redwood Road is “just too big to be ignored” and his intent was to bring the issue to the public’s attention. He also claimed the church’s leaders were attempting to “keep things from us,” by not conferring with the CVMAC beforehand.

First Presbyterian leaders recently reached out to the Alameda County Planning Department seeking comments from staff about potential technical pitfalls in the process, said Orduna. But later, Crawford recounted  that he first learned of the church’s plan to redevelop the site during an informal conversation with Orduna.

The preliminary proposal includes moving the existing Trader Joe’s at the corner of Redwood and Grove to a new building on the same property and, in later phases, to construct 199-units of affordable housing in a partnership with the non-profit Eden Housing.

“Why are we doing it. We’re a church,” said Ron Kilby, an elder at First Presbyterian Church. “It’s about what’s right for the community.” Long-time residents can no longer afford to live in Castro Valley, said Kilby, adding that their proposal attempts to address the lack of new affordable housing in the area.

However, the property is not zoned for housing, Crawford said Monday before issuing his opposition to any zoning change. “Do we abide by our general plan or not?” He also questioned whether the site, which is roughly a one-half mile from the BART station is, in fact, part of the Castro Valley Boulevard downtown area. Crawford, however, said he would support commercial development on the property.

CVMAC member Shannon Killebrew said the council is acting prematurely in discussing a project that is likely to evolve and change when it eventually goes through the planning process. “Perhaps when they are ready to present it, it might look different.” She added, “We might be creating public bias in a plan that hasn’t even been formulated.”

In an interview following Monday’s night meeting, Crawford said he does not believe his comments in opposition to the church’s plan represents a preconceived bias that could later be potentially challenged in court by the future applicant. When asked specifically about Killebrew’s comments, he said, dismissively, “She’s new. She doesn’t know anything yet.” Killebrew was appointed to the CVMAC last November.

All members of the CVMAC are appointed by Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley. Their recommendations are advisory only.

Advisory or not, Crawford has attained significant clout as its chair, often directing the CVMAC’s actions in a unilateral fashion and with little direct push back from his colleagues. For example, during an earlier agenda item, Crawford enumerated his own recommendations to county staff without a motion from his colleagues before asking for a vote.

Several public comments were critical of Crawford and what they believes is his attempt to subvert the early stages of a plan for affordable housing in Castro Valley. “There’s a process here that is wrong,” said Kelly Abreu. “This is a kluge. This shouldn’t be happening.”

Michael Kusiak, a Castro Valley resident and advocate for reforming the CVMAC as an elected body, said Monday’s meeting again reveals Crawford’s outsized authority and what he termed, an “agenda of one.”

“I think what this points out is how important policy issues is a function of one person’s will,” said Kusiak. “What this leadership and council is suggesting is there’s an extra benefit to the informal process,” he added, referring to suggestions by Crawford that the church should have consulted with CVMAC members early on. During the meeting, Crawford told the church’s representative, “Your process will go faster if you include the MAC.”

Sentiment that First Presbyterian is attempting to subvert the advisory board’s authority was also voiced by other CVMAC members. This is not the first project brought by First Presbyterian to CVMAC in recent months with an eye toward easing the housing crisis in unincorporated Alameda County. A pilot project to help the homeless with up to a dozen “tiny homes” on the church’s property was approved by the council recently.

Some CVMAC members, however, felt the church’s newest proposal undermines trust they believed had accrued during the tiny homes approval process. CVMAC member Sheila Cunha called the church’s actions “dishonest.” Another, CVMAC member Chuck Moore, added, “It’s hard to believe that you don’t have a trust factor with the church.” The antipathy toward the church, said CVMAC member Ted Riche, may be misplaced, instead, suggesting affordable housing provider, Eden Housing, is the malcontent in the matter.

According to the First Presbyterian Church, new affordable housing units in Castro Valley won’t be ready for another three years, at minimum. With a raft of new pro-housing bills introduced recently in the state Legislature, it is likely pressure for affordable housing projects like the one being proposed in Castro Valley will increase.

In particular, Senate Bill 50, the high-profile legislation aiming to decrease restrictions for creating high-density housing within a mile of transit hubs, could weigh heavily on the church’s proposal, due to its close proximity to BART.

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