Alameda Point VA Project – Final Environmental Assessment Released

VA Alameda Point aerial view toward SF

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Navy jointly issued their final Environmental Assessment on November 18, 2013 for the VA’s proposed Alameda Point outpatient clinic, offices, and columbarium cemetery.  The report found that the 112-acre project on the northern part of the former Naval Air Station airfield would cause no significant impacts to the environment.  The environmental review culminates years of debate over the project’s potential impacts on the endangered California Least Terns that nest on the nearby runway, and paves the way for the Navy to transfer 624 acres of the airfield to the VA in 2014.


The VA began looking at the Alameda site in 2004 for expansion and consolidation of services from undersized and scattered facilities, which are currently leased by the VA until 2018.  More than 9,000 veterans are enrolled in clinical services in the Oakland/Alameda area, with patient visits up 50% in the last five years.  Approximately 543 veterans will be seen at the Alameda Point outpatient clinic each weekday and 70 on Saturday and Sunday.  The VA anticipates employing a staff of 250, including 26 physicians and 34 nurses.

VA Lobby, looking toward San Francisco.
VA Lobby, looking toward San Francisco.

The VA will also establish a new national cemetery at Alameda Point.  The two closest national cemeteries in San Bruno and San Francisco’s Presidio no longer accept new interments.  Currently the closest burial options for Bay Area veterans are San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella and Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon.  The new columbarium cemetery will initially be 20 acres, with the remaining 60 acres built out in increments until completion in 2116.  Approximately six services will take place Monday through Friday. 

Columbarium in foreground, clinic/office building in background.  Looking east, with Oakland Estuary on left.
Columbarium in foreground, clinic/office building in background. Looking east, with Oakland Estuary on left.

Traffic and Transportation

The VA and Navy evaluated seven intersections in Oakland and four in Alameda, as well as the Posey/Webster Tube and segments of I-880, for traffic impacts.  The report noted that two Oakland intersections and the Atlantic/Webster intersection would be performing at unacceptable levels regardless of the VA project because of other Alameda Point development.  The assessment states, “The minimal additional traffic resulting from the Proposed Action would not, cumulatively, make the already unacceptable intersections significantly worse.”  

The VA plans to operate a 24-person shuttle bus service between Alameda Point and the 12th Street Oakland City Center BART station every half hour, seven days a week.  Extending AC Transit bus line 31 to the clinic would provide additional service if the transit agency decides to add service.

Wetland Mitigation

Several acres of seasonal wetland will be impacted by the VA’s project and will need mitigation, either through on-site replacement or paying into a wetland mitigation bank.  The VA has not reached agreement yet with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a mitigation plan.  However, the VA has stated that their preference is to “enhance and expand existing conditions” at the Runway Wetland on the southeast corner of the runway area.  Plans will be finalized before issuance of any permits for the VA’s project.

Alameda Point Runway Wetland in foreground, suitable for wetland enhancement as mitigation for wetland loss on VA developed area.
Alameda Point Runway Wetland in foreground, suitable for wetland enhancement as mitigation for wetland loss on VA developed area.

Nature Reserve, Least Tern Management

Most of the VA’s runway area will remain undeveloped.  Initial plans allowed for periodic emergency preparedness training on the undeveloped area.  The new plans allow training exercises only in the VA’s developed area about every 14 months between mid-August and April 1 when the terns are gone.

The influence of years of lobbying by the Golden Gate Audubon Society and open space advocates for wildlife stewardship in the undeveloped area is reflected in the VA’s final report.  The VA states, “The remainder of the 512 acres of the Transfer Parcel will remain as a preserve for the California Least Tern or open space, with no plan for development, and will be available to wildlife for future generations.” 

The VA will construct a 2,500-square-foot Conservation Management Office (CMO) near the entrance to their property.  The CMO will provide office space for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, meeting space for educational programs and volunteers, and public restrooms.  The VA will fund the management of the Least Tern colony and the undeveloped area.

The winglike roof lines on the CMO and the main clinic/office building were inspired by the Least Tern colony and the site’s history as part of the Alameda Naval Air Station.

Conservation Management Office, with meeting room for nature education and Least Tern volunteer activities, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office.
Conservation Management Office, with meeting room for nature education and Least Tern volunteer activities, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office.

Public Access

As part of their project, the VA will construct a pedestrian/bicycle/vehicle roadway along the northern border of their property all the way to a public viewpoint on the western shoreline.  The roadway will include power, water, and sewer utilities that will be available for the city or a region-serving public park operator on the Northwest Territories to make connections to.  The city will be granted a shoreline easement for constructing the Bay Trail.  The VA will also be constructing a new north entryway to Alameda Point and laying oversized infrastructure, which the city can use, along Redline Avenue out to their site.

Raising Elevation

The VA plans to bring in over 400,000 cubic yards of clean fill material to raise the elevation of their site by as much as three feet, bringing the highest elevation to 13.5 feet above Mean Sea Level.  Plans are based on a 2009 Bay Conservation and Development Commission sea level rise prediction of 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches by 2099.  The 18-month construction project is expected to begin by 2016 and be completed in 2017.

The VA is made up of three administrations:  Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration.  All three will have offices at the Alameda Point VA.

The complete Environmental Assessment is on the VA website.  A 30-day final public comment period began on November 18, 2013.

Looking southeast.
Looking southeast.

VA Alameda Point landscaping #2

VA exterior

VA Alameda Point landscaping

Conservation Management Office

Phase 1 Plan VA Alameda Point

Cemetery Main Entry

Columbarium courtyard
Columbarium courtyard

Cemetery Entrance

Memorial Wall at Columbarium.
Memorial Wall at Columbarium.

VA Project Site - Alameda Point

Wildlife refuge gets the ax in VA development at Alameda Point

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) received a green light from the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Fish & Wildlife) for their Alameda Point clinic and national cemetery project in late August.  Fish & Wildlife issued its biological opinion, which focuses only on the impacts to the least tern colony that nest on the previously proposed wildlife refuge.  While they agreed with the VA that the project would adversely affect the least tern, they concluded their review by saying the tern colony’s existence is not placed in jeopardy by the plans.

The area labeled “VA Undeveloped Area” used to be labeled “Wildlife Refuge”

The opinion includes a description of the VA’s planned uses for the 511 acres, labeled “VA Undeveloped Area,” that will not be used for the clinic or cemetery.  The description makes clear for the first time that the national wildlife refuge envisioned by Fish & Wildlife in 1998 is dead.  Other than the 9.7-acre nesting area for the terns, the remainder of the tarmac, taxiway, and runway pavement will be used for emergency training exercises during the non-nesting season (August 16 – March 31), and set aside to be used as a staging area during emergencies and natural disasters.  Two ammo bunkers will be used to store emergency supplies.

The VA has been working with the Navy since 2005 to take over the proposed 549-acre wildlife refuge.  Previous talks between Fish & Wildlife and the Navy ended over disagreements about environmental cleanup.

Still, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the main advocate for a wildlife refuge, held out hope for a full-fledged wildlife refuge.  Their website has a conservation page dedicated to the Alameda Wildlife Refuge that lists one of their goals as:  “Achieve transfer of land from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to create the Alameda National Wildlife Refuge.”

A colony of the endangered California Least Terns has been nesting here for decades.  The VA’s project stalled last year over proximity to the tern nesting site, but was revived when a compromise plan emerged that will move the clinic facilities and part of the cemetery northward away from the terns.  Due to the terns’ status as an endangered species, the VA needed clearance from Fish & Wildlife for their project to proceed.

Another indicator of the downgrade from wildlife refuge to surplus land with a small bird sanctuary is the amount of parking for the VA’s Conservation Management Office – the Nature Center – to be built next to their clinic.  It will have ten parking spaces.  In contrast, the 1998 Fish & Wildlife plan for a national wildlife refuge included visitor projections that ranged from a low of 46,000 to a high of 113,000 annually.

Fish & Wildlife’s funding projections in 1998 dollars were $848,000 for initial capital costs, and $299,000 per year for full staffing.  The Fish & Wildlife refuge plan called for wetland restoration, screened observation platforms for viewing and photographing wildlife in the wetland area, improving habitat quality for songbirds, and removal of non-native grasses.

Photo above shows weeds killed with herbicide.  Eliminating weed growth in areas like this one to the southeast of the nesting site creates an important roosting area for adult terns and for their chicks learning to fly.  This area is favored by the terns because of proximity to the nearby water in the Alameda Point Channel.  Areas to the far west and north of the nesting area, on the other hand, are poor candidates for weed removal and better candidates for grassland establishment.  New grassland is not part of the plan for managing this area.

The VA’s plans call for removing the mostly non-native grasses that have grown between the hundreds of pavement slabs.  Herbicides and sealing the pavement cracks are listed as options.  They have no plans to eliminate the pervasive non-native ice plant or to plant native grasses.  Grasslands in the outlying areas of the refuge can provide habitat for prey species like small rodents that would be attractive to birds like hawks that might otherwise focus on the nesting terns for a food source.  Wild grasses are also used for shelter and foraging by common visitors like the killdeer, a shorebird that spends its time on the ground.

Above:  Pockets of grassland on the the far west and north parts of the wildlife refuge offer ideal habitat for prey species that would relieve pressure on the tern colony from avian predators like hawks.  Areas in between these grassland pockets are covered with pavement that would better serve the terns’ welfare if it were removed and converted to grassland.  Much of the remnant pavement is significantly farther away from the tern colony nesting site than the aircraft hangars.

The land transfer is expected to take place next year after other environmental documents are approved.  The City of Alameda will have to approve the change in location for the VA project.  The city is currently slated to receive the 220-acre area on the northwest part of the runway area along the Oakland Estuary – the Northwest Territories – where the VA clinic and part of the cemetery are planned.

Alameda’s city council must approve an amendment to the no-cost conveyance agreement with the Navy signed last year.  This will allow the Navy to keep 70 acres of the Northwest Territories that it will then include in the Navy-to-VA transfer.  Approval of the land transfer by the city council without conditions for establishment of a wildlife refuge will effectively amend the community reuse plan adopted in 1996.

A shorter version of this story was first published in the Alameda Sun.

More photos and commentary 

Above is a typical view of the vegetation-free zone around the tern nesting site.  This view is looking southeast toward the Alameda Point Channel.  Beyond the cleared pavement is the area shown in the article above with all the weeds killed.  

Photo above shows taxiway next to grassland in north part of wildlife refuge.  Instead of removing weeds between pavement cracks, the pavement itself should be removed and a contiguous band of grassland established for predators to hunt in.  A mismatched hodgepodge landscape is not scientific wildlife or ecosystem management.

Hodgepodge landscape such as the above in the far western area of the wildlife refuge is not helping the terns to thrive.  The ice plant does not offer the habitat quality that grasslands would offer.  And the adjacent patchwork of pavement does little if anything to simulate a beach habitat favored by the terns for nesting.  Grasslands here would do more to help the terns by providing prey for avian predators than by leaving it as is.  Leaving this amount of pavement to capture heat rather than capture carbon is at odds with climate change science.  This particular area is only a stone’s throw away from the water and could easily accommodate pockets of wetland supplied by water via an open culvert.

This wetland in the above photo is on the interior of the wildlife refuge.  It is not seasonal – it’s permanent.  This photo was taken on September 16, 2012 when all seasonal wetlands on the refuge and adjacent Northwest Territories were completely dry.  The water source can only be from the Bay via the tide.  The VA’s columbarium cemetery footprint currently includes this wetland, which is not officially mapped as a wetland.

This stand of willows above is a favorite area for songbirds.  It may be compromised or completely removed for construction of the VA clinic.

The photo above shows the Runway Wetland at the southeast corner of the wildlife refuge in mid-September 2012.  This area looks like a small lake during most of the year.  The southern edge of this wetland comes within 20 feet of the Alameda Point Channel and could easily become a year-round wetland if an open culvert were created in the seawall.  No plans for such environmental enhancements are likely to emerge for land that is labeled “VA Undeveloped Area.”  Not one additional acre of wetland is being suggested for the area formerly known as the wildlife refuge – a failing grade in environmental stewardship.

Killdeer love the wildlife refuge and the habitat shown in the photo above.  Only about a dozen pair nest here, but for reasons not entirely clear, between one hundred and two hundred killdeer arrive in the winter and can be seen roosting on the tarmac area.  Killing all vegetation between the pavement slabs would destroy valuable bird habitat.