Over the strong objections of the Laney College president, Laney College staff representatives, and Trustee-elect Nicky González Yuen, a lame-duck session of the Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees has authorized a free-of-charge, one-year agreement with an Oakland development firm to negotiate possible commercial development of certain Laney College and Peralta District properties.
The Trustee Board action, taken on a 5-0-1 vote at its Nov. 23 meeting, gives Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris the authority to draw up a contract with the Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA), which has been linked to controversial lobbyist Lily Hu, now under subpoena from a federal grand jury.
Outgoing trustee Darryl Moore, who was recently elected to the Berkeley City Council, abstained on the vote, saying that the board packet did not provide enough information on the proposed project, and that he thought it more proper that the incoming board make the decision. “The timing just didn’t seem appropriate to me,” Moore told the Daily Planet.
Four new trustees were elected to the board last month, and are due to begin their duties at the next meeting. Among those trustees voting to approve the SUDA agreement were board president Lynn Baranco and Susan Duncan, both of whom had elected not to run for re-election, and were serving in their last meeting as trustees.
SUDA president and CEO Alan Dones requested the exclusive negotiating rights from Peralta to put together a development plan for the Laney College parking lot and baseball field, as well as the adjacent Peralta District’s 8th Street administrative center.
While Dones was vague about what the final plans might be, he told trustees that the development plan would be anchored by administrative offices built for unnamed government agencies, but he also mentioned the placement of a medical center and “up to 1,000 residential units” on the property. Dones said he has already identified 500,000 square feet of office needs “in the area,” as well as potentially $150 million potential development of office space, housing, retail, and medical facilities.
Dones said that he knew of one public agency, which he did not name, which “could provide the bulk of the office space needs for the project.” He also said there was some urgency to beginning the negotiations with potential agencies, since “one of the agencies has some legal issues.” He did not elaborate.
Dones said he was initially approached to develop the plan four years ago by “a previous chancellor,” whom he did not name. Ronald J. Temple was Peralta Chancellor in 2000.
As an added incentive, Dones told trustees that the cost to Peralta of the one-year contract would be “minimal or none,” saying that his company was “offering to put up a non-refundable fee ourselves to underwrite Peralta’s costs in the evaluation process.” Dones said that SUDA was offering their services free of charge because “we think the investment will be good for the community.”
Outgoing trustee Duncan called SUDA plan “the best proposal [for surplus and underutilized land at Laney College] that I’ve heard in my 18 years on the board.” She said she hoped “the incoming board would realize that this is not taking away from their powers, but is getting them more information. This item is merely a first step. It’s not a final step or an irrevocable step.”
But that contention was disputed by trustee Moore, who said in a telephone interview that while the new trustee board is not bound to accept the development proposal submitted by SUDA at the end of the year, the contract prevents the new trustees from looking at any other long-term uses for that property during for one year.
“By being an exclusionary agreement, the district must work with Dones’ corporation,” Moore said. “They can’t work with any other developer or work on any other project during the duration of the contract.” Moore said that was true even if the district identified another non-commercial use for the property, such as putting up a library.
At last month’s meeting, Nicky González Yuen, who is replacing Moore as the Area 4 (Berkeley) representative on the Peralta board, said that he was withholding judgment on the merits of the SUDA development proposal.
“This may be a fabulous project,” he told the board. “But I’m not even sure what the proposal is that you have in front of you.” González Yuen objected to board approval partly because the item was listed on the board agenda as an information item rather than an action item, which meant that the public did not have proper notice of the vote. “If you move forward on this,” González Yuen said, “you will undermine the trust people have in this district.”
Although the meeting took place on the trustee’s regular meeting night, notice of the meeting was not posted on Peralta’s website, raising questions about whether the meeting had adequate public notice. An agenda for the meeting was also not posted online.
Odell Johnson, acting Laney president, also urged delay, telling trustees that he felt “at a disadvantage because I know absolutely nothing about this proposal.” Laney Faculty Senate president Evelyn Lord called it “extremely inappropriate for the board to proceed; it concerns me deeply that this is the first time I’ve heard anything about the proposal.”
Following the meeting, questions continue to be raised about how the SUDA proposal came to the trustee board in the first place. Trustee Moore said one of this objections to the proposal was that “the process wasn’t spelled out as to how this particular consultant was identified.”
Public documents and recent newspaper reports point to possible explanations.
A review of records from the City of Oakland—where SUDA recently signed a multi-million dollar deal to help develop the Thomas L. Berkeley Square four-story office building project in the uptown area—show that the company has been represented by lobbyist Lily Hu. Hu has been identified as the one of the targets—along with State Senator Don Perata—of a federal grand jury investigation concerning local government contracts.
The San Francisco Chronicle revealed last month that SUDA’s Dones has received a federal subpoena to appear before the grand jury, asking for information about Hu and Perata.
An article in the Oakland Tribune identified Peralta Trustee Alona Clifton, who voted for the SUDA/Peralta contract, as the president of a nonprofit that will be the official owner of the Thomas L. Berkeley Square complex.
The Tribune article also said that one of the companies slated to work on SUDA’s Peralta project was IPA Planning Solutions. The Daily Planet first reported in a story last month that IPA recently received a $90,000 three year contract to develop a Facilities Master Plan and Strategic Master Plan for the Peralta District, one month after IPA owner Ineda Adesanya stepped down from her job as Peralta’s interim Director of Physical Plant.›