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Oakland Council Looks at Giant Waterfront Project By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Friday March 31, 2006

The Oakland City Council took its first formal look at the massive Oak Street to Ninth Street waterfront development project Tuesday night, hearing presentations both from the developers themselves and an overflow crowd of organizations and Oakland resi dents that spilled over into two downstairs hearing rooms at City Hall. 

Interest in the issue was so high that the clerk noted that 110 people filled out speaker card requests after coming to the meeting. That was in addition to representatives of several organizations that had consolidated their presentations to the Council in blocks of time. 

At issue is a 64-acre parcel of land that sits on Oakland’s estuary south of Jack London Square, bounded north and south by Fallon Street and 10th Avenue, and on the east by Embarcadero. 

The land is currently owned by the Port of Oakland. The proposed 3,100 residential unit, 200,000 square foot commercial space development would dwarf the 850 residential unit, 29,000 square foot commercial space Forest City devel opment currently underway in Oakland’s uptown area.  

One of the major issues of contention in the Oak To Ninth controversy is the developer’s proposal to destroy some 90 percent of the Ninth Avenue terminal, a 1,000 foot by 180 foot, 47 foot tall structu re built in 1930 by the Port of Oakland.  

Many local organizations and individuals want to preserve the terminal building. 

A study released last year by the University of California, Berkeley, City Planning 290E class, “Historic Preservation in Califor nia” noted that “few buildings along Oakland’s waterfront remain standing that capture the spirit of the Port of Oakland’s early history. As shipping methods have changed and modernization has occurred, the last vestiges of the historic working waterfro nt have been wiped away by new construction.” 

“Today, one of the last landmarks from this earlier era to survive is the Ninth Avenue Terminal,” the class study continued. “In fact, the Ninth Avenue Terminal is the last of the break-bulk terminals constructed as a part of the Port of Oakland’s massive modernization and improvement program during the later half of the 1920s. The Ninth Avenue Terminal is unparalleled in its importance to the built heritage of the Oakland Waterfront. This massive structure, constructed between 1929 and 1952, offers the community a variety of opportunities to create a lasting landmark and civic resource right alongside the San Francisco Bay.” 

While the initial CEQA study on the development was prepared almost two years ago, in the spring of 2004, and the project has been going through a series  

of public processes, including Environmental Impact Report scoping review, hearings before Oakland’s Design Review Committee, the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, as well as a series of small public meetings sponsored by the developer, public interest in the project is just beginning to mount. 

The development won Oakland Planning Commission approval on March 15th. It now faces a series of hurdles before City Council, including certification of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) report, amending the city’s landmark Estuary Policy Plan to accommodate proposed changes in the type and density of housing that the plan a llows, creating of new zoning for the area, and reaching an agreement with Oakland Harbor Partners, the creation of the homebuilders Signature Properties and Concord commercial developers Reynolds & Brown.  

Oakland Planning Director Claudia Cappio told C ity Councilmembers Tuesday night that the Oak To Ninth plan provides a “somewhat different vision of housing than is presently in the estuary plan.” 

The project has already needed special state legislature even to get this far. According to a report by W aterfront Action, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to public access to the city’s waterways, “under the provisions of the California State constitution, the Public Trust lands now located within the planned Oak to Ninth project cannot be used for h ousing and other non-trust uses. The project property includes over 75 percent Public Trust land, so the Port [of Oakland] arranged for Senator [Don] Perata to carry legislation to trade the ‘after acquired’ Public Trust lands within the Oak to Ninth are a for another site in Oakland of equal or higher value. The bill was approved by the Governor September 15, 2004.”  

At one point at Tuesday’s hearing, Oakland Harbor Partners president Michael Ghielmetti noted that both opponents and supporters of the de velopment had worn yellow t-shirts to the meeting with message announcing their respective positions. 

“I hope this is an omen that we can work out our problems,” Ghielmetti said. 

But consensus seemed far away, as representatives of such organizations as the Oak To Ninth Community Benefits Coalition blasted the proposal for everything from its affordable housing and public space provisions to its changes to the existing Estuary Policy Plan. 

Oak To Ninth coalition members said that they wanted an agreeme nt between the city and the developers for 20 percent onsite affordable housing, that the majority of that affordable housing be made up of two- and three-bedroom units for families with children, and that they be within reach of families with income unde r $50,000. 

The coalition also asked that construction of the project be set up so that 300 Oakland residents can be hired as building trades apprentices. 

Fernando Marti, an architect with Asian Neighborhood Design, wanted guarantees that the promised op en space in the project would actually be available to the public. 

“Who are all these parks and amenities for?” he asked. “Are they only going to be for the condominium owners, or are they going to be for all of Oakland?” 

That concern for open space was echoed by former Oakland City Councilmember John Sutter, who said he was “speaking on behalf of the Estuary Policy Plan,” which was adopted as part of Oakland’s General Plan in 1999 and is supposed to dictate what can and cannot be built along the city’s waterfront. 

“What good are the plans if we don’t follow them? The [Oak To Ninth] proposal does not follow the [Estuary Policy Plan] in so far as open space is concerned. The Estuary Plan calls for 35 acres of open space in this area. This [development] plan calls for about 21 acres of new open space.” 

His voice rising, Sutter told Councilmembers to “give us the parks that we were promised. Give us the parks that we voted for.” 

Sutter mentioned the passage of Measure DD, the 2002 water bond measure tha t called for new open space and public park development along Oakland’s waterfront area. 

And Steve Canada, a resident of 5th Avenue near the proposed project area, said, “I am not anti-development, but I have serious concerns about this development.” 

Canada said that he had come to several presentations by Oakland Harbor Partners “and I’ve seen different parts of this project get moved around like pieces on a Monopoly board. I’m concerned that this moving around will continue once this project receives council approval and the project is out of Council’s reach.” 

Infighting over the proposal has already reached City Council, even before Council began formal deliberations on the idea.  

Members of a Grand Lake area organization were circulating an e-mail earlier this week from 3rd District Councilmember Nancy Nadel, a candidate for Oakland mayor in the June elections. 

“I think the city and the port approached this project backwards,” Nadel wrote. “We should have done a specific plan and then found devel opers who would do what we want. When I asked the planning director why that wasn’t the process as outlined in the Estuary Plan, she said that it was less expensive for the city and port to ask the developer to do a plan. And that’s what they did. The res ult is a project that uses too much open space, has buildings that are too tall for the waterfront, tears down an historic building without studying whether it could have a good use, and minimally includes affordable housing. In its current state, it is not a good deal for Oaklanders. The developer will make 17% profit just on the land deal alone—we don’t know what additional profit will be made on the build-out.” 

Nadel’s e-mail concluded that “this is one of the last big parcels of public land and we shouldn’t just give it away.” 

Organization members were also circulating a response from District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who wrote, “There are certainly plenty of issues raised by the Oak to Ninth project, but I am getting the impression that to o much of the commentary is based on inaccurate facts. … Nancy is incorrect that the proposed project ‘tears down an historic building without studying whether it could have a good use,’ The staff report includes a 25 page, in-depth study of 5 reuse scenarios for the Ninth Ave. Terminal with projected costs and incomes. It concludes that none are financially feasible, but please read it for yourselves, analyze the numbers and draw your own conclusions.” 

Kernighan said that “I am still weighing the good and the bad on this project. There is a lot of information to consider. I understand that there will be divergent views on the value of the project, but let’s all at least get the facts before we make up our minds.” 


Photo by Stephan Babuljak 

Transmerdian Warehouses employee Thomas Ma cleans up water inside of the Ninth Avenue Terminal Building in Oakland. A UC Berkeley study called the structure unparalleled in its importance to the built heritage of the Oakland waterfront.