By Meghan Hall
Over the course of the last market cycle, the first place developers and real estate professionals have sought out opportunity has been the Bay Area’s vibrant downtown cores, with their close proximity to major employers, housing, amenities, transportation and vast talent pools. However, a different type of opportunity has presented itself throughout the region as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has been actively working to redevelop several of its own properties. In Oakland, City officials and BART are inching closer to breaking ground on the West Oakland BART Transit-Oriented Development Project after several years of negotiations. Proposed by Oakland-based Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA) and China Harbour Engineering Co. Ltd., the project is in the design phase of development after the City issued its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project in January.
SUDA and China Harbour have proposed to demolish the existing 451-space West Oakland BART station surface parking lot and surrounding circulation and construct three new mid-rise and high-rise buildings. 75,000 square feet of ground-floor retail uses, some of which will be located under the BART tracks, and 762 residential units are also proposed, of which 30 percent will be affordable. 382,460 square feet of office space is included in the plans, as is another 400-space underground parking lot.
“My interest as a BART director, as a mom, as a transit-dependent person, is to support a project that provides opportunity for low- to moderate-income people to stay in their community, for there to be a rich cultural scene in that space and for the neighborhood to have jobs that are outside of San Francisco for the people in that community,” said BART’s District 7 Director Lateefa Simon. Simon was elected in 2016 but recently moved from West Oakland when she could no longer pay rent herself due to the City’s rocketing housing prices.
Floor plans detailed in public documents show that in addition to local retail, designated art space and a food market with an innovation hub on the second story, a pharmacy and co-working space will be incorporated into the development. A brew pub off of the main plaza and a convenience store on the corner of 5th St. and Mandela Pkwy. are also denoted in floor plans. Connecting the residential, office and BART station will be a public ground level open space comprised of a plaza and other circulation areas totaling 89,073 square feet, while additional outdoor space will be provided via private and common decks.
According to City Planning, there are no details currently available on the project’s construction schedule and phasing. Estimates provided by the City indicate that buildout would last at least 14 months. BART’s website states that the current project schedule calls for construction to begin in 2020. However, projects on BART property are known to have long timelines; the BART Board of Directors had originally contracted China Harbour and SUDA to develop the project on the 5.58-acre site back in December 2014, and a Community Advisory Committee organized by the development team has been meeting since the end of 2016, when the negotiating agreement between the City and development team was originally set to expire.
“The process has seemed really slow because the developers have been working with community members, almost brick by brick, to design a schema that implements everything that BART wants but also what community members deserve,” said Simon.
In the end, officials and BART hope that the project will help to catalyze the renewal and recovery of West Oakland, whose economic viability was hugely impacted by highways built through the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. Historically, West Oakland was predominantly a Black neighborhood with a strong jazz and blues scene. The construction of the Nimitz and Cypress Freeways disconnected the neighborhood from downtown, and combined with the displacement of thousands of residents due to the construction of housing projects, including the Oakland Main Post Office, the effects of economic decline, already in motion after World War II, were heightened. In 2008, West Oakland was hit hard again, with roughly 5,000 foreclosures that further displaced its population.
“Development is scary for people who have lived in West Oakland,” explained Simon. “It is clear that redevelopment over the past 45 years has shattered much of the life blood of the neighborhood.”
Despite reservations about development, last night’s Planning Commission meeting was well attended by the West Oakland community, during which the development team presented its plans to the City.
“I’ve been in the game of racial justice building for a long time, and I’ve never seen — not ever — that many African American folks in a room pushing for a project, especially a high-density one,” said Simon. “It was landmark.”
The Planning Commission voted 6-0 to move the project forward, citing that the project, which was designed with the help of architecture firm JRDV Urban International, was well-developed, and that the intense community support expressed during the meeting warranted approval. The commission had a few clarifying questions regarding funding for the project and whether the units would be geared toward families or single occupants. However, with a grant application deadline soon approaching, the Commission felt it was important that the project moved forward.
“I’m happy they gave the nod, because this community project, in terms of how it has moved forward, should be the standard of how large, density-based developments are built,” said Simon. “I hope the Planning Commission continues to look at this process as a blueprint for how projects can change the landscape of a community, and how to pursue them with the least harm.”
BART is currently pursuing several other projects on its properties, including the Walnut Creek transit village, which broke ground in 2017, more than a decade after initial plans for the property were suggested. The redevelopment of Oakland’s Lake Merritt BART Station, located just 10 minutes away by car from its West Oakland counterpart, is slowly moving forward. BART’s Board of directors selected San Francisco-based Strada Investment Group and Oakland non-profit housing developer East Bay Asian Local Development Corp. (EBALDC) in the fall of 2018 to spearhead the project. Strada and EBALDC were selected nearly six years after BART had originally chosen TRG Pacific Development to redevelop the site, again underlining the careful pace at which BART-oriented projects move forward.
“We have to demand, even at this stage of negotiations with a progressive developer, that this project actually becomes West Oakland, not West Oakland becomes the project,” said Simon. “I’m excited that there is another level of accountability with this development, because it is public land. We have a higher level of community ownership to affect how this project moves forward, which is extremely exciting.”
SUDA did not immediately return The Registry’s request for comment.