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Public Money Makes Kaiser Center Area Development Hot Spot By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday November 25, 2005

While the attention of the media, the Oakland City Council, and the Oakland Mayor’s office’s continues to center around the proposed $65 million Forest City retail-housing development project in Oakland’s uptown area, a rich development prize awaits in the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center area a few miles to the southeast. 

The reason? While projects like Forest City are dependent on subsidies from Oakland’s scarce redevelopment funds, there is a deep pool of public development money for the Kaiser Convention Center already in place and waiting to be tapped. 

Part of that public money would come through the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, whose Lake Merritt Station is only a few blocks away from the Kaiser Center. In 1999, BART entered into a partnership with the Unity Council of Oakland’s Fruitvale District to break ground on the $100 million Fruitvale Transit District, a mixed-used development adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station. Funding for the development came, in part, from federal transportation money funneled through BART. 

The selling point for the transit village plan for the federal government was that when shops and houses are concentrated around an area that is an existing transportation hub, such as a BART station, any new money allocated enhances the effect of the federal transportation money already given to the area. 

With the success of the Fruitvale Transit Village, BART is seriously pursuing such transit village development projects in other parts of its system, including the MacArthur, West Oakland, and Lake Merritt BART stations. 

But the bulk of the public development money available around the Kaiser Convention Center would come from Measure DD, the massive 2002 bond measure passed by Oakland voters in part to clean up Lake Merritt and its surrounding area. About $27 million of that Measure DD bond money is slated for restoration of the Lake Merritt Channel, a creek which connects Lake Merritt to the estuary, and which is adjacent to the Kaiser Convention Center. 

At the time of Oakland’s founding as a city in the nineteenth century, Lake Merritt was a tidal slough which drained several creeks through a large marshland into the estuary and, eventually, the bay. A drawing of the city in 1882, taken from Oakland, The Story Of A City by Beth Bagwell, shows that at that time, the mouth of the channel at the estuary was actually wider than the lake itself. 

In 1870, according to Bagwell’s book, Oakland Mayor Samuel Merritt persuaded the California legislature to designate the lake as a wildfowl refuge, which Bagwell calls “the first wildlife refuge declared by any legislative body in North America.” 

Shortly afterwards, the city fought off plans by the Central Pacific Railroad to fill in the lake to build a train station. The city acquired the lake in 1891, designating it as public park space, and in the early years of the 20th century built the 14th Street/12th Street interchange at the foot of Lake Merritt proper that partially covered the Lake Merritt Channel. 

The part of the creek which was still open was for the next hundred years in a a narrow strip of public parkland near the Convention Center, the Oakland Public Schools Administration Building, and the grounds presently occupied by Laney Community College, little known and little used by most of Oakland’s population. 

That all changed with the passage of Measure DD. Part of the $27 million Lake Merritt Channel restoration money will go towards removing the 14th Street/12th Street interchange cover, daylighting the channel from the foot of Lake Merritt to the estuary. The City of Oakland is also seeking another $9.5 million in California Coastal Conservancy money to supplement the daylighting project. 

When the project is completed, the Measure DD money is slated to restore the Lake Merritt Channel to its original configuration as the lower portion of a larger Lake Merritt, making it instantly one of Oakland’s most desirable and valuable waterfront properties. That property is surrounded by public parkland and public institutions. 

A project description on the City of Oakland Measure DD website says that under what the city calls the 12th Street Project “12th Street will be redesigned into a tree-lined boulevard with signalized intersections and crosswalks and a landscaped median. The redesign would create significant new parkland at the south end of Lake Merritt Park, remove unsafe and unsightly pedestrian tunnels, provide safer and continuous access for pedestrians and bicyclists along the perimeter of Lake Merritt, and improved access between the Kaiser Convention Center and Laney College.” 

Construction on the 12th Street Project of Measure DD is currently scheduled to begin in 2006, with completion in 2008. 

Acknowledgment of the potential value of the Lake Merritt Channel area began to surface this year when state appointed Oakland Unified School District Administrator Randolph Ward put out a proposal for OUSD to move out of its administration building,suddenly potentially profitable, and lease it to private developers. 

In the meantime, Oakland developer Alan Dones won approval from the outgoing Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees to put together a commercial development plan for the Peralta administrative lands and Laney College properties closest to the Lake Merritt Channel area. Dones later voluntarily withdrew his proposal from consideration after several months of contention and controversy. 

A large number of community organizations have been regularly meeting since 2004 under the heading of the Measure DD Community Coalition to share and receive information about projects under the bond measure. Included in those organizations are Urban Ecology of Oakland, the Jack London Aquatic Center, the Oakland Heritage Alliance, the Oakland Museum of California Foundation, and the Oakland Parks Coalition. The Measure DD Community Coalition is advisory in nature only, and actual decision-making on the Measure DD expenditures is being made by the Oakland City Council, with implementation by an Executive Team put together by the City of Oakland.