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SPUR Talk: Developing the Oakland Waterfront

4:59 PM PDT on September 14, 2016

SPUR looked at the Brooklyn Basin and the transformative effect it will have on the Oakland waterfront. Image: Signature Properties.
SPUR looked at the Brooklyn Basin and the transformative effect it will have on the Oakland waterfront. Image: Signature Properties.

SPUR hosted a lunchtime forum today at its Oakland location to discuss the $1.5 billion Brooklyn Basin development. The panel, which was moderated by SPUR's Oakland director Robert Ogilvie, included Mike Ghielmetti of Signature Development Group, Matt Franklin of MidPen Housing, and Patricia Kernighan, who represented District 2 of Oakland during the authorization phase of the "Oak to Ninth" (now called Brooklyn Basin) waterfront housing development.

"I was 12 when we started," joked Ghielmetti about how long it takes to get such a large scale project going, to a chuckle from the audience. "The project is fifteen years in the making. It was originally port land, about 65 acres, largely divided from the city of Oakland."

Indeed, that's part of what makes the project so challenging. The Oakland waterfront, as the panelists bemoaned, is effectively chopped off from the rest of the city by the 880 freeway, the Union Pacific tracks, and BART's tracks and yards. "It's almost a half-mile from Oakland and the rest of civilization," said Ghielmetti. "We wanted to reunite this area by creating a neighborhood and linkages."

To do that, his development firm, the City of Oakland, and a variety of advocates set out to build some 3,000 new residences, with supporting services such as dry cleaners, coffee shops and, it is hoped, a grocery store. But first there was the challenge of cleaning up the soil, which, Ghielmetti said, was contaminated with pretty much everything short of plutonium. "What we inherited looked like this," he said, pointing to a picture of concrete and debris that still dots much of this landscape. "It was highly contaminated...heavy metals, hydrocarbons...we're still looking for Jimmy Hoffa out there."

The developers had to work with the "building trades, labor unions, and a lot of smart-growth advocates, environmentalists, and social justice advocates," he explained, to get the momentum to build the project.

It took about a year to bring all those groups together, explained Kernighan, who recalls how far Oakland has come. "It was called 'Oak to Ninth' before it was called Brooklyn Basin and when the project came forward it was a different time," she recalled. "Brown was the mayor and it was a more pro-development council. Brown was doing his 10K housing plan in’s hard to remember what downtown looked like twelve years ago. It was a wasteland. Nobody went there at night."

But in that environment, Kernighan and Ghielmetti looked for compromises so that, using only private development money, the project could move forward with the support of the diverse community. To satisfy those who wanted the whole area made into a park, they came up with a design that is roughly half green space and parks. "Shoreline Park will be larger than harbor green in Vancouver or Battery Park," said Ghielmetti. "This isn’t just going to be a grass field."

Then there was the question of affordable housing. "The affordable housing was the biggest challenge because it was hard to figure out how to finance it," said Kernighan.

"Brooklyn Basin will be a real demonstration project for the City of Oakland to show how you can have a mixed use, mixed tenure, mixed income project work successfully," said Matt Franklin of MidPen, the project's nonprofit developer specializing in affordable housing.

SPUR's Oakland director Robert Ogilvie, Mike Ghielmetti of Signature Development Group, Pat Kernighan, and Matt Franklin of MidPen Housing at SPUR Oakland. Image: Streetsblog.

As a result, some fifteen percent of the housing will be "affordable" housing of different classifications. An audience member asked, "What will that mean in practice?" Franklin said he expects it will cost about $600 a month for a studio, with a three-bedroom renting for about $1,800. As to the market rate units, those prices would be, of course, substantially higher. "There's no restriction on condo or rental," said Ghielmetti. "Probably it will take ten to fifteen years to build out... and I don’t see rents being much different than Broadway [in downtown Oakland]."

So what about the challenges of connecting the development with the rest of Oakland? Ghielmetti said the project will have water taxis and bus shuttles to take people to Jack London Square and the BART stations at Fruitvale and Lake Merritt. However, Ghielmetti, who described himself as a dedicated urbanist, added that most units will be within walking distance of Lake Merritt BART.

A map of the Brooklyn Basin project with its connections. Image: Oakland Planning
A map of the Brooklyn Basin project with its connections. Image: Oakland Planning

The developers also plan to include a Class 1 bike lane along the waterfront that will connect with the Oakland Waterfront Bay Trail. Additionally, Brooklyn Basin cyclists will be able to connect to Lake Merritt via the Lake Merritt-to-Bay Trail.

Ghielmetti said the project will also shape the Oakland Embarcadero in a pedestrian and bike friendly way, so it will look like the Embarcadero in San Francisco "minus the Muni tracks." Unfortunately, that means only Class 2 bike lanes--in other words, just paint and no real protection for cyclists. Given that San Francisco and Oakland are both fighting to add protected bike lanes and even the first protected intersection, one would think any new developments in the Bay Area would try to get protected infrastructure everywhere they can, the first time around.

That said, these developers are interested in creating green, livable, walkable spaces, and it's not too late to tweak a few things. The first apartments, said the panelists, will come online in 2019, with the project reaching completion in 2021.

Brooklyn Basin was the topic of today's lunchtime SPUR talk in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog.
Brooklyn Basin was the topic of today's lunchtime SPUR talk in Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog.

For more events like these, visit SPUR's events page.

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