Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

West Oakland Development

Posted by Roobs on July 21, 2010

For some time I have been contemplating West Oakland development sites.  In college, I wrote a small research paper on possible effects of gentrification in West Oakland as it related to current development.  Most recently, I have talked with more than one person about developing some kind of research facility in the neighborhood.  I usually pointed to a bio-medical research facility but it was never set in stone that it had to be bio.  Nevertheless, I still think that it would be a great location for some new job sector to take root in Oakland.

There were three major development projects underway in West Oakland, two of which are still going (see map below):

  1. Central Station, a large-scale development project on the far side of West Oakland bordered by Frontage Rd., Wood St., 11th & 12th Sts and West Grand Ave.  Developer Rick Holliday of Holliday Development along with Pulte Holmes are creating a very nice community of up to 1,500 residential units and the restoration of the historic 16th St. Train Station for community events and projects.
  2. Oakland Army Base (aka “Gateway Development Area”), an even larger development project just across the freeway from Central Station.  This promises to bring in research and development facilities, film center, produce market and commercial space to the far side of Oakland.  I have some issues with this design, specifically part of the commercial use, but overall, a great plan that will compliment the Port of Oakland and it’s operations to better serve Oakland’s economy.

As you can see from the map, the third major project to occur in West Oakland at the corner of West Grand Ave. and Mandela Parkway called Mandela Grand Mixed-Use Project.  It was a massive redevelopment of the currently underused industrial parcels:

Developers want to turn the Pacific Pipe Factory building, and the grounds of the adjacent 240,000-square-foot abandoned American Steel Building, into a 13.3-acre mixed use development. Under the name Mandela Grand Mixed-Use Project, the development proposes “a mixed-use/mixed-occupancy project that would contain a residential, custom industrial/commercial, light industrial, and retail commercial activities in a cluster of buildings on the project site,” according to the report from the Planning and Zoning Services Division of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency. The project proposes light industrial uses on the first two floors of the proposed eight buildings, with 1,600 high-density residential units rising above it, among them three 300-foot residential towers.

(source link below)

From what I know of the project, it wasn’t terrible.  It was an understandable mix of industries in one site given West Oakland’s demographic make up in both population and business.  Unfortunately, the project has all but been abandoned.

In conjunction with the collapse of the housing market, the project faced an insurmountable hurdle in Oakland City Councilwoman, Nancy Nadel.  Because the project was a mixed-use, developers needed to get the site re-zoned from its current status as an industrial site.  Unfortunately, Councilwoman Nadel along with allies and the Dellums administration successfully blocks the re-zoning attempts claiming the project would hurt the local communities and continue to gentrify West Oakland.

Well, this was kind of a bummer.  The project would have brought some good jobs over the course of construction; a process to last 15 years.  That’s 15 years of good construction jobs.  Not to mention the business that the site would have brought on its own when complete.  But thats beside the point.

The point now is that there is still this pretty good piece of real estate that should be used.  But what to put there?  Should we resurrect the old project with its mix of industrial, residential and commercial?  Should it just be a massive residential complex with ground floor retail?  Maybe build more warehouses to support Port of Oakland logistics?  How about a bio-medical research campus – Oakland’s mini version of Mission Bay?

I’m not opposed to the Mini Mission Bay idea, largely because it was my first thought.  But I would want to look into a large mixed-use version of it.

My Thoughts (thinking out loud)

Like the original plan, I see a grand development with buildings on the periphery of West Grand Ave. and Mandela Parkway with ground floor retail.  This would give the neighborhood the opportunity it has lacked, at least thus far, to build local restaurants, cafe’s and shops in the most visible part of the development site along the major streets facing out.  The block between West Grand and 20th St. would serve more commercial and research oriented facilities.  The block south of 20th St. would be have an assortment of live-work lofts facing 19th Street and Mandela Parkway with more research facilities in the remaining space.

Of course, an important element to consider is the gentrification element. We have to keep in mind that Central Station is going to bring in an influx of new residents around the middle-class income level. Because of it’s location, it will likely be younger working professionals who will take advantage of the smaller lofts and young couples in the town houses who commute to San Francisco. Kind of like a mini Emeryville. But with this new population comes a new demand for different kind of jobs. Hence the research facility. The problem is that a research facility isn’t going to transition for a lot of original West Oakland residents who may not have income level to buy into the new developments going up. So how do we minimize this gentrification problem while still pursuing redevelopment opportunities that are for the greater good of the community and city as a whole? At this point, I can’t say I know how.

The easy answer is to require “affordable housing” on any new developments. The problem with that is let’s say I want to just build a bio-medical research facility on the entire site. Well, that has no housing component to it. Instead, I’ve created a source for high-skilled high-paying jobs in a community that, fair or not, does not statistically meet that profile. Therefore, the source of these new jobs is going to bring in the high-skilled employees who either chose to commute into West Oakland or buy into the new developments. Once they buy into the new developments they will require new services, such as the cute little cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, shops, etc. Oops, looks like gentrification has happened anyway.

Well, how about we develop the land with jobs that can be used by the local residents. Jobs like good industrial and warehouse jobs like the Oakland of yore. The problem with this is that Oakland is no the Oakland of yore. We need to keep an eye on the future of industry and the areas in which we build. Now, if you wanted to build a solar panel factory or wind turbine manufacturing plant or some other green-collar-Obama-eque industry in West Oakland, I’m all for that. It would be a good development and would definately benefit some of the West Oakland population. But would this be the best site to build on towards that end? Wouldn’t we want to build a site like that closer to, say, the Port and its rail and shipping facilities as opposed to in the middle of West Oakland where trucks would have to drive to and from? Exactly.

Again, I don’t pretend to know how to work this out. West Oakland remains probably the front lines of collaboration between planners, developers and socio-academics in order to best meet the demands of the community. So let’s figure out what we can put there because if there’s one thing I hate more than empty land or surface parking lots its abandoned industrial sites.

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