SPUR Talk: Developing the Oakland Waterfront

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 downtown…it’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.

  • ZA_SF

    Why yes, I suppose putting more yuppies and transnational investments in direct risk of sea-level rise this century is a “climate adaptation” strategy – to leverage public emergency response funding, that is.

  • joechoj

    Was their any discussion of transit enhancements for the area? Specifically, how would the Broadway Circulation project serve this area? Last I heard they were looking at potential bus & streetcar solutions. There’s an unused, but serviceable rail bridge crossing the Lake Merritt channel right near 5th Street. Seems like a beautiful way to re-purpose old infrastructure.

  • Prinzrob

    “cyclists will be able to connect to Lake Merritt via the Lake Merritt-to-Bay Trail.”

    I think you mean the Lake Merritt to Bay Trail Bridge project (see http://www.LM2BT.com), which will thread the needle between the Lake Merritt channel and the waterfront through Caltrans, BART, EBMUD, Union Pacific, and Oakland Fire Department right of way. This project is probably 5 or more years out, though, as it can’t start until the existing Embarcadero bridge replacement is finished. After that people biking and walking will indeed be able to get from Brooklyn Basin to Lake Merritt entirely on paths and probably even faster than by car.

    Folks are also working to get those Class 2 bike lanes on Embarcadero converted into Class 4 bike lanes before implementation, which will connect to buffered bike lanes on Oak/Madison being installed right now to the Lake Merritt BART station. I foresee this being a very popular bike share route in the future.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    How are the bike paths on both sides of the channel going to actually work? The graphic doesn’t make a lot of sense. How does the path cross the railroad? Is it actually going to take land out of the OFD training site? Why doesn’t the graphic depict the existing 4th Street Drug Addict Recreation Area ^W^W^W^W^W class 1 path linking the end of 4th street to the channel? Where can I find the master plan?

  • robo94117

    The walk to Lake Merritt BART is just over a half mile. Not unreasonable.
    The development really needs to minimize parking and promote transit, car share, and cycling to be truly “smart.” Otherwise it’s dense “dumb” growth.

  • Flatlander

    Tangentially, I wonder if it’s too late to rethink the Class 4 designation. Until Class 4 came along, it was in descending order of separation from traffic: Class 1 – fully separated path, Class 2, bike lane. Class 3, bike route with no separation from traffic. I think now is the time to rip off the proverbial band-aid and call separated bike lanes Class 2, conventional bike lanes Class 3, and bike routes Class 4.

  • Prinzrob

    The website shows options for a bridge landing on both sides of the channel, but only one of those two options will be selected. My guess is that it will be the west side of the channel, as that will better connect up to Lake Merritt via a path being built now under the new 10th Street bridge and a surface level crossing planned at the 7th Street bridge.

    The bridge will go over the train tracks and under the freeway. Like I said, it really threads that needle. The plans have evolved since these were produced in 2014, but you can find some animations as to what this alignment will look like from a bridge user perspective here: http://www.lm2bt.com/animations/

    All the other fun details about this project that you will ever want can be found in the big EIR document here, released in February 2016: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/ceda/documents/memorandum/oak057218.pdf

    As for the tent camps, I think the appeal of that location is in part because it is somewhat isolated and deserted. Once the bike/ped connectivity between the lake and the estuary is improved this will no longer be the case.

  • Prinzrob

    I think the “Class 4” designation is mostly for planners/engineers to use, as referring to “cycletracks” or “protected bikeways” is more useful when communicating with the public.

    While a designation in order of level of protection makes sense, it would also involve a lot of confusion when dealing with older documents produced before this update. As such I think “Class 4” makes the most sense and is here to stay.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That plan is pretty bad. A 6-foot pedestrian path is not enough for a major connector. 8 feet would be enough for two pairs of people to pass, but 6 isn’t.

    The animations aren’t very realistic either. I’m sure UPRR is going to insist on a taller fence than the one depicted.

    In fact I’ll be pretty shocked if this project turns out anything like these drawings. Usually we get something gross with a bunch of switchbacks and chain-link fence that goes all the way over the top.

  • Prinzrob

    The entire pathway width is 16.5 feet, and how that is divided between bike and pedestrian space is not yet fully determined. The EIR does indicate that the bridge path railing will be up to 10 feet while passing over the train tracks, and 3.5 feet elsewhere. A switchback alignment was not studied in the EIR, so if the project is to happen it will be one of the alignments studied.

  • joechoj

    “will better connect up to Lake Merritt via a path”

    As I understand it, the new 10th St bridge project will extend the paths on both sides of the channel all the way to reconnect with the twin paths on the Laney College side of 10th St. (Do you know otherwise?) As such, path alignment shouldn’t influence the decision of the East vs West bridge option.

    When you say “surface level crossing planned at the 7th”, you mean the lower level where the path currently runs under 7th? (Just want to make sure you don’t mean street-surface level.)

    Finally, do you see any possibility to connect the bike path to the Victory Court terminus in the future, rather than 4th St? At present it’s such a terrible route to ride: not just unpleasantly close to the freeway, but unduly circuitous. A Victory Court connection would provide much more direct access to the Bay Trail and Jack London Square.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I don’t think you need an EIR to produce lousy pedestrian facilities. You only need an EIR to build nice ones.

  • Prinzrob

    Yes, the plan for the 10th Street bridge includes path connections on both sides of the channel. However, the 7th Street bridge project will close the often flooded path under the bridge on the west side of the channel and replace it will a street level, signalized crossing through the median of 7th Street (some folks are also talking about a ramp from the water to portage kayaks past the flood gate there). There is a little work planned for the dark and narrow path under the 7th Street bridge on the east side, but not enough to make it any more appealing or keep it from flooding frequently, so I don’t see that side of the channel as being the preferred alignment.

    I don’t think a path connection to Victory Court or reopening that low access bridge across the channel are being considered as part of this bridge project, but I agree that additional access points would be useful.

  • joechoj

    Portage? I thought a big feature of all the planned bridgework was that you’d be able to paddle all the way from the Lake to the Bay, once they convert the west side pathway under the 7th St bridge to an open water course. (See 2 old schematics found on the project page below.) Is that no longer happening?


  • joechoj

    Portage? I thought a big feature of all the planned bridgework was that you’d be able to paddle all the way from the Lake to the Bay, once they convert the west side pathway under the 7th St bridge to an open water course. (See 2 old schematics found on the project page below.) Is that no longer happening?
    http://www2.oaklandnet.com/Government/o/PWA/o/EC/s/MeasureDD/OAK025953 https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/65b7b0a39aea8a12fef4ad92e76f2d4662245b180a14c7199fd96ce076352941.jpg
    (North is to the left in image)

  • Junious Williams

    It is interesting that SPUR would convene a discussion of the Oak to Ninth Project and not invite a representative of the Oak to Ninth Community Benefits Coalition which negotiated with the developer and the city to provide 465 units of affordable housing and and estimated 300,000 hours of new apprentice work on the project and $1.65 mllion to Oakland non-proifits to prepare residentsfor entry into the trades. Seems like more than an oversight but a deliberate decision to avoid any discussion of Oakland’s only third party community benefits agreement covering a development project in Oakland. Seems like a major missing part of the story

  • Prinzrob

    I’ve seen that proposal but haven’t heard any progress in almost a decade. The Measure DD Coalition is meeting on Monday evening if you would like to follow up on it: http://www.waterfrontaction.org/dd/index.htm#coalition

    I agree that paddling from the lake to the estuary is a great goal, but even after the 10th, 7th, and Embarcadero Bridges are upgraded, there’s still the low train bridge, EBMUD pipes, and the old access bridge to deal with south of the freeway, in addition to general sea level increase. I’ve kayaked under them before but it can require quite a bit of limbo skills even during low tide.

  • Victoria Fierce


    Come on. Nearly every single project in Oakland gets a third party community benefits agreement. Look at all the recent developments in Chinatown: 14th x Alice, 13th and Webster, 13th and Alice. All of them have agreements brokered by former mayor Quan’s daughter.

  • joechoj

    I was able to find out from the Waterfront Action folks that the plans are still in the works. The design process will resume in 2017, and will take into account both channel and bike path connectivity. They’ll still be able to close the channel, but they’re working with the flood control district to ensure the channel bypass stays open most of the time, and only closes during flood conditions (which is not the case today).

  • Prinzrob

    That’s great news, thanks for looking into it!



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