In a deserted corner of Oakland’s Estuary Park on Tuesday morning, a handful of press people, public officials and development executives joined Acting Governor Abel Maldonado as he put a final seal of approval on the ambitious Oak to 9th land development project. A portable podium and a folding table set a modest stage for the event, which was enacted quickly and without fanfare.
Maldonado, who is serving as governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger travels in Asia, signed an agreement to expedite the start of construction. The property in question is the waterfront property along the estuary south of Jack London Square, and will be rebuilt over the next two decades. The agreement is a land swap between the Port of Oakland, the Oakland Harbor Partners, and the State Lands Commission that creates a large parcel of land for the development to be built on. By law, a land swap such as this one must be signed by the governor of California to be valid.
Vice-Mayor Jean Quan and representatives from both Oakland Harbor Partners and the Port of Oakland were also on hand to give remarks and show support for the development plan.
“This is going to be one of the most prestigious and beautiful places to live in the city in the next ten to twenty years,” Quan said, as she discussed the planned mix of residential and commercial development projects the plan calls for in the 64 acres along the water between Oak Street and 9th Avenue. Plans include 3,100 new homes, creation or improvement of 32 acres of public parks, an extension of the Bay Trail, and two new marinas with restaurants and retail.
The Northern California-based Signature Properties, which along with real estate development firm Reynolds & Brown makes up Oakland Harbor Partners, will oversee the development. Signature president Michael Ghielmetti told the gathering he hopes this project will “breathe life into this side of the freeway.”
The lackluster press conference followed years of battle over the proposed Oak to 9th development, which became a matter of public controversy in 2004. After the project was initially proposed, groups with names like “Oak to Ninth Coalition” and “Oak to Ninth Referendum Committee” tried to halt it, amid a slew of concerns ranging from traffic and noise to building preservation. The Referendum Committee actively pushed a previously-designed template for refurbishing the waterfront, known as the Estuary Plan, which they asserted would answer all concerns raised by the corporate development plans.
The Oakland Heritage Alliance focused on the preservation issue, citing as an example the historical Ninth Avenue Terminal. Currently, Oakland Harbor Partners plans to turn the Terminal into a Maritime Museum and community center, with a side of retail. Other groups objected that the proposed new housing would be too expensive for many Oakland residents. (The current plan requires that 500 units of housing be available to families making $25,000 to $50,000 a year). Environmental concerns also came to the fore, with many activists voicing concerns about the impact that such a major undertaking would have upon the estuary and surrounding neighborhoods.
The next few years brought a barrage of legal proceedings, including two lawsuits against the City of Oakland. One was brought, and then dropped, by the Referendum Committee regarding their petition, which the city declared incomplete. The tension between developers and the committee was evident in an open letter by Ghielmetti, published in the Oakland Tribune in August 2007. In it, he accused the activist groups of using deceptive means to obtain signatures, and wrote that “it is not asking too much to ask the referendum proponents to comply with the few specific rules that assure for all of us that the referendum process is fair and equitable to all.”
The Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt brought the other suit, claiming that the city had not reviewed the developer’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) adequately. They won, but the victory was short-lived; the judge allowed the Oakland Harbor Partners to revamp its EIR, and eventually, revisions were approved.
Today’s ceremonies designated a winner in the controversy. Acting Governor Maldonado’s signature means Oakland Harbor Partners can break ground; the estimated date given today was as soon as 2011. Maldonado’s press release from the news conference says 7,000 construction jobs will be created, along with 1,000 retail jobs once that portion of the development is completed.
Quan and Maldonado also discussed tax benefits for Oakland, and Quan said she hoped a new A’s ballpark might move in nearby as well. “I let the governor know that this was important,” Maldonado said of an earlier conversation with Schwarzenegger. “It is important to create jobs for the people of Oakland, to make this a better and more beautiful place.”