Livermore downtown affordable housing project moving forward
LIVERMORE — Livermore leaders have approved transferring a plot of downtown city-owned land to a nonprofit developer to build 130 affordable apartments.
The project, which has been in the planning stage for several years under the city’s vision for its downtown, has been held up for a year, in large part because of persistent legal challenges from a group of residents opposed to the plans.
The City Council unanimously voted May 24 to authorize the city manager to sign over the 5.5-acre parcel at the corner of Railroad Avenue and South L Street to Eden Housing of Hayward.
At the same meeting, members of the City Council dressed down the residents group, called Save Livermore Downtown, for what the council described as undemocratic, racist and classist efforts to undermine and stall the affordable housing project.
“There’s a desperate need for this kind of housing yesterday, if not sooner,” Councilmember Trish Munro said at the meeting.
The apartments will range in size from one bedroom to three bedrooms and will be spread among two buildings. The project also will include a roughly 31,000-square-foot public park, called “Veterans Park,” that will span the area between the buildings, city reports said.
After construction of the project is complete, Eden Housing plans to pay the city $7.8 million for the land over 55 years at an interest rate of 3%, according to city staff reports. The city also issued Eden a $500,000 predevelopment loan to Eden Housing in 2018, which will be paid back over the same timeline, city officials said.
The city will also pay Eden Housing up to $5.5 million to build Veterans Park, and the city will cover up to $4.3 million for environmental cleanup and safety work during construction of the project, city reports said.
Transferring the land to Eden Housing could allow it to compete for more grants and other funding to help build the project, city reports said. Eden Housing already has secured $14 million from Alameda County Measure A sales tax funds for the affordable housing.
The developer was also in line for tens of millions of funding through state tax credit financing last year, but later had to decline that funding because of delays caused by lawsuits and appeals Save Livermore Downtown, city reports said.
“Had we not been sued, this project would have been in construction right now, and we would have been welcoming 130 families to their homes next year,” Eden Housing’s president, Linda Mandolini said at the meeting.
“We feel like we are being bullied by legal action, simply to prevent people from living in this community who work here, who desperately need to find a place that’s affordable,” she said.
Save Livermore Downtown’s members include influential resident Joan Seppala, founder and publisher of The Independent, a local weekly newspaper.
Seppala is also the executive of the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center’s board, which oversees the Bankhead Theater, a few hundred feet from the affordable housing project site.
Jean King, also a member of the group, serves on the board of the performing arts center as well.
After the City Council approved the project in May 2021, the group filed a lawsuit asserting that the apartment complex plans were “inconsistent” with parts of Livermore’s downtown plan, and should not have been approved.
The lawsuit also alleged the city needed to do further environmental analysis regarding contamination on the site. But Alameda County Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled against the group in February, calling the lawsuit “almost utterly without merit.”
The group appealed the decision to a state court of appeal, and the case is pending. It’s unclear when it will be resolved, though the city attorney and other officials said they are confident the appeal will fail.
The group, going by another name at the time, also put a referendum on the ballot in 2020 trying to block the city’s plans for a hotel development downtown, but voters rejected it. The group also threatened other referendums over portions of the city’s plans for downtown.
At the meeting that began May 23, and was continued into May 24, King said the group is strongly opposed to the agreement with Eden Housing and the land transfer.
“The city is taking a lot of financial risk here in a project that most do not support,” she said.
“The agreement is a horrible deal for the city, and further demonstrates that the city is not listening to its residents,” she said. King also threatened potential further legal action.
But the council fired back, arguing Save Livermore Downtown is only aiming to delay the housing, and said most residents have expressed support for the downtown plans through elections, referendums and public planning sessions.
“The leader of their group has expressed to me and other council members and other members in the community, many times, that if nothing happens, she wins,” Mayor Bob Woerner said at the meeting.
“Having repeatedly failed at the ballot box, by two to one margins, they have now resorted to frivolous lawsuits to block progress,” Woerner said. “They have dramatically failed in court so far, and I’m confident that they will continue to fail in court and elsewhere,” he said.
“In the arguments used against this development, I hear the dog whistles of racism and classism,” Munro said. “Those who say, ‘I want affordable housing, but not there,’ do not want to believe they are engaging in this behavior, but let’s be real,” she said.
Vice Mayor Regina Bonanno said council members are listening to the whole of the city’s population, not just a “small, well-funded local group, who insists that they know what’s best for everyone, who think they should decide who gets to live where, and will seemingly stop at nothing to get what they want.”
“They’ve delayed the project, they’ve wasted taxpayer dollars,” she said.
“This has hurt the community,” Bonanno said, “but it hasn’t stopped this project.”