Public Comment

Commentary: Another Transit Village in the Pipeline

By Robert Brokl
Tuesday April 18, 2006

At a March 15 EIR Scoping Meeting, Oakland City Planning Commissioner Michael Lighty described the recently unveiled plans for yet another transit village—this one at the MacArthur BART station—as “radical.” He wasn’t being strictly dismissive, defending developments at BART stations as “logical.” But even he allowed that this project with “signature” twin towers, one 20 stories, the other 22, abutting Hwy. 24—was a bold move by BART, the City of Oakland redevelopment agency, and a private development company headed by Shea Homes.  

The project contains some 800 units of housing. In addition to the exclusive twin towers of for-sale condos, 20 percent of the housing units will be rental units priced “below market rate” in a separate building. BART would lose half of its 600 parking spaces, but another 1,030 parking spaces for the housing would be created. Thirty thousand square feet of retail is envisioned—fast food outlets are the norm at the prototypical Fruitvale Transit Village.  

As with the Ashby BART project, the hype about the crying need for the project—“The hole must be filled, the original violation caused by BART MUST be fixed”—is cloaked with self-righteous smart-growth rhetoric. Certainly there are reasons to question why the MacArthur/San Pablo/Broadway Redevelopment Area was created in the first place in the early 1990s. with little fuss. It was not, as state law requires, an area “so irredeemably blighted that neither government financing nor private investment could fix the problem.”  

But, since bureaucrats need to bureaucrat and developers must develop, their next move is to really lock in redevelopment by issuing bonds and incurring debt. And what better way to do that than for a massive housing project?  

And what better time to do it with our nation at war over oil, and people quite rightly concerned their flatland home may become beach front property. Lighty’s comments were made at the first stage of the long EIR process, in which the impacts of a proposed project must be identified, and alternatives and mitigations to harmful impacts considered. Shadows cast by the twin towers seven stories higher than the downtown Oakland Federal Buildings, loss of parking, increased traffic, a project that’s oriented to the more upscale Telegraph side and that turns its high rise back to the less gentrified San Pablo side, etc. are some obvious problems.  

But many of the speakers in support, and several commissioners, could only focus upon the oil crunch and the supposed cure-de-jour: density. One speaker said the towers could be even taller “ since over ten stories you didn’t really notice anyway.” Commissioner and attorney Anne Mudge grew positively lathered up over the need for more density because of the gasoline shortages to come. Pro-redevelopment advocate Christopher Waters, the operator of the Nomad Cafe, allowed that a long-term solution needed to be found to cure our dependence upon foreign oil, but that density was the only remedy in the short run. The more the better.  

The starry-eyed density huggers might have at least Googled Shea Homes before leaping into bed with them. Shea Homes is the largest privately owned home builder in the United States. The BART project is a departure from their specialty of single-family and attached homes in “new home neighborhoods” (read “sprawl”) on such areas as wetlands, prairies, ridges, and ranches, concentrating on such Sunbelt areas as Southern California, Arizona, and Colorado.  

Their Shea Parkside project at Huntington Beach close to the border with Mexico is being fought by advocates for restoring the area for coastal wetlands and watershed, as a filter for polluted urban run-off. Their Highlands Ranch—” the largest master-planned community in Colorado”—on former prairie (and eradicated prairie dogs) southeast of Denver, covers 22,000 acres with over 80,000 residents. The July 21, 2003 Denver Business Journal quotes the June/July issue of Denver’s 5280 Magazine describing Highlands Ranch as “Denver’s worst housing development. It’s just plain ugly. Highlands Ranch is the symbol of what’s wrong with sprawl in Colorado.” Shea Homes also touts their McMansions at Adeline’s Farm near Temulca and their 50 gated, “executive ranches” on Hunter’s Ridge in Fontana: “Panorama—the name says it all! Ideally situated atop a ridgeline...occupying the last and best location...”  

There’s no correlation between densifying the urban core to save agricultural or wilderness land and curb sprawl—Shea Homes does it all happily!  

After such a warm embrace of high-rise density, Shea Homes, BART, and the redevelopment agency must be kicking themselves they haven’t asked for even more towers and units. None of the supporters mentioned the additional burdens placed upon the school system in receivership with teachers currently threatening to strike, the controversially understaffed police force, and a bus system that’s already inadequate and doesn’t go to Costco or other places the residents—many of whom have presumably and patriotically given up their cars—might need to go to.  

Colland Jang, an architect member of the Planning Commission, did soberly suggest the EIR must consider other alternatives for the site such as office development but, in reality, the only brake on the project is the market. After all, Oakland Planning Director Claudia Cappio told this writer not that long ago that “Oakland was not in a position to say ‘no’ to projects.” Jerry Brown came into office as mayor fighting the Landing condo project that he considered too close to his “We the People” building at Jack London Square, even arguing the case in court as co-counsel with environmental attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley. He lost that case, The Landing landed, he moved, and in his ongoing reinvention jumped on board the development bandwagon: promoting the “10K” influx of new residents downtown and the flood of condos. Only developer/lender unease about whether the market for condos is already tapped out will put the chill on this BART project.  

But then, in the current climate, buildings pop up like mushrooms after a rain, and disappear without lament as quickly. In 30 years or so, if this latest transit village is built as planned and the market shifts and it becomes an eyesore, well, something else can take it place. And the rhetoric about “smart growth,” “green,” and urban density will likewise have been replaced by other catchwords that well-meaning urban strategists have devised and that developers and profiteers commandeer for their own ends.  


Robert Brokl is a North Oakland resident.