Two Cities, Two Approaches to Waterfront History

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 04, 2006

While the controversy continues over the all-but-total destruction of the massive, historic Ninth Avenue Terminal as part of Oakland’s Oak To Ninth Development Project, the City of Richmond is quietly moving forward with the development of one of its waterfront areas that preserves the similarly historic Ford Assembly Building. 

Last month, Oakland City Council approved a deal with Signature Properties to build 3,100 condominiums on public waterfront property between Oak Streets and Ninth Avenues. The project includes demolition of all but 15,000 square feet of the 180,000-square-foot Ninth Avenue Terminal, a 76-year-old warehouse building that sits directly on the estuary with views of both the water and the wharves and sailboats along the Alameda shore. 

As part of its approval of the project, Oakland City Council directed the issuance of a new request for proposals (RFP) to preserve up to one-half of the terminal or, if that cannot be done, to require that Signature Properties preserve another 5,000 square feet of the original building under its current project. But at least one local preservationist, Oakland Heritage Alliance President Naomi Schiff, calls that position “illogical.” 

“If you issue an RFP to preserve the building while you issue several documents saying that such a preservation is not feasible, why should developers answer the proposal?” Schiff asked in a telephone interview. “But, of course, illogical positions have never been much of an obstacle in Oakland.” 

In response to Oakland City Council’s approval, a coalition of local organizations—including the League of Women Voters of Oakland, the Northern Alameda County Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Green Party, and the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt (CALM)—immediately launched a petition drive seeking to put a referendum on the ballot to block the development. 

In addition, two lawsuits were filed in state superior court last week against the project, one by the Oakland Heritage Alliance (OHA) that focused on the demolition of the terminal building. 

According to the OHA lawsuit, “the council’s decision to permit wholesale demolition of the terminal left OHA no alternative to bring this case to prevent unlawful destruction of this A-rated historic building, protect the most significant remaining monument to Oakland’s long and colorful maritime heritage, and remedy violations of the law.” 

Citing projects in the upper bay in Contra Costa County that advanced development while preserving existing historic maritime buildings, OHA President Schiff said that “if Vallejo and Richmond can do it, surely Oakland can save one lousy building.” 

The Richmond development Schiff was referring to was the Ford Assembly Building Reuse Project, a mixed-use project currently being developed on Richmond’s waterfront. 

In addition to keeping intact the entire 517,000-square-foot former Ford Plant, which once manufactured tanks for United States military forces during World War II, the Ford Project preserves open waterfront space along San Francisco Bay, including spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline. Included in the building will be office, live/work, research and development, light industrial, retail, and event and public gathering space. 

The Rosie The Riveter National Park has already mapped out space for a visitor center and museum on the section of the building closest to the water, and the Internet wine merchant Wine.com recently signed a lease as the building’s first commercial tenant. 

The Ford Project being developed by Orton Development Company of Emeryville is actually Richmond’s third attempt to preserve and restore the building, which Richmond Community & Economic Development Agency Director Steve Duran says “certainly wasn’t a slam dunk.” 

Duran says that Forest City, selected by Richmond after the city issued its first RFP on the project, dropped its project to turn the building completely into residential development “because it determined that the engineering costs were too much,” and Duran says that a second developer, Assembly Plant Partners, was “underfunded” and could not get bank funding for its proposal to develop the plant on an arts and cultural theme. 

The development head hopes that Orton, which has a long history of industrial building restoration throughout Northern California, will have better luck, noting that with the signing of Wine.com “he’s on his way.” 

Duran said the 23-acre waterfront property that houses the Ford Plant “is actually more valuable without the building. You can’t save all your historic resources. If you try to do so, you will stagnate and you won’t grow as a city. Like most cities in the Bay Area, there’s a tension in Richmond between the growing population and the lack of available housing. That’s always a tough debate. There was a lot of pressure to build more housing at that location. But the Richmond City Council decided that because of the significance and the beauty of the building, the restoration and re-use could be an economic catalyst for the Richmond waterfront area that would be far above the land’s current economic value without the building.” 

Orton could not be contacted for this story. But a recent New York Times article quoted company president Eddie Orton as saying that he is dividing the project into several segments. 

“It’s too big for any one use,” Orton told the Times. “We needed a manageable amount of space in each of the different segments so we wouldn’t overwhelm the marketplace.” 

The Times reported that Orton, who bought the property for $5.4 million in 2004, expects to have the building’s first phase fully leased by August. Orton estimated that the entire project would cost approximately $60 million, with $8 million coming from public financing. 

Orton is no stranger to Oakland. Following its establishment in 1984, the company’s first acquisition was the Vulcan Foundry near High Street and San Leandro Street, an industrial property that Orton turned into a highly successful artist colony and studio in a formerly depressed area of the city. The project also included the Vulcan Café, a Thai restaurant. The company has also developed the old Mother’s Cookies Factory on East 18th Street in Oakland, the Safeway Ice Cream Plant in West Oakland, and the 200,000-square-foot Temescal complex on Seventh Street in Berkeley. 

And this is not the first time the Oak To Ninth and Ford Assembly Building Reuse projects have been compared. 

In a 2005 feasibility study for adaptive reuse of Oakland’s Ninth Avenue Terminal, the University of California, Berkeley, City Planning 290E class devoted a section to the Ford project to demonstrate what might be done with the Ninth Avenue Terminal, writing that “the current proposal to destroy the majority of the Ninth Avenue Terminal fails to see the opportunities that lie within the adaptive reuse of the structure. Throughout the country, cities have successfully turned old waterfront industrial buildings into thriving centers of arts, culture, and commerce. 

These complexes help build a new and existing sense of place and history … Like the Ninth Avenue Terminal, the Ford Assembly Plant building was constructed on bay fill and has a unique vantage point over the Bay, with views of San Francisco. Another point in common is that both buildings are located in industrial areas that are being converted into more livable residential zones. 

Richmond residents recognized the uniqueness of the warehouse space by supporting its designation to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. This designation is making it possible for Emeryville based Orton Development to utilize a 20 percent historic preservation tax credit deduction on all rehabilitation expenses incurred during the development process. 

The UC Berkeley study added, “Orton Development will be accommodating the Bay Trail through orienting signage and a public access easement along the waterfront portion of the crane building’s wharf. A similar model could be employed at the Ninth Avenue Terminal, allowing joggers, cyclists, and walkers to walk along the Oakland Estuary.”