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Proposed lakeside apartment building would have 37 stories, giant solar panels

on December 10, 2010

After meeting resistance three years ago to a proposal for converting a lakeside parking garage into a 37-story apartment building, a local real estate developer is back with what he says is a greener, more innovative plan for the project.

Mark Borsuk, managing director of the San Francisco-based Real Estate Transformation Group, has dubbed his proposed building, in glossy new promotional plans, an “energy harvester.” New plans for the building’s design include a 14,000 square-foot solar panel on the south façade of the building, which is the size of three basketball courts.

The condominium high-rise, with 243 condominium units ranging from studios to three bedroom apartments, would go right on top of a 1920’s-era at 1443 Alice Street. Each unit would be equipped with a grey water system, which uses recycled wash water for toilet flushing. The garage would stay intact and have charging stations for electric vehicles.

Borsuk, who was born in Oakland, said his family has owned the Alice Street property since 1945. “We felt the time was coming to where we could help Oakland express itself into the new century,”  he said. “It’s our way of expressing our confidence in Oakland’s future.”

Since the project is still in its preliminary stages, the building and operational costs for the “energy harvester” have not been projected, Borsuk said. “The project still needs to go through the entitlements process including the California Environmental Quality Act review,” he wrote in an email to Oakland North.  “The review requires an environmental impact report along with public comments. Upon completion, the Planning Commission will vote on the project.”

The new plans have not reached any city officials yet, but they have been published in media releases, informational emails to the community, and on a website. According to a May 25, 2007 article in the Oakland Tribune, Borsuk put the earlier project on hold after strong community opposition was voiced at a Commission Design Review Committee meeting. “To me the comments suggest that we’re too far ahead (in our thinking) for this type of project,” Borsuk was quoted as saying in the article. The 2007 plan featured a similar design—37 stories with 240 to 245 residences—but without the grey water system and solar panels.

But even with its redesign as a futuristic energy-conserving building, some Oakland residents have questions about how realistic and environmentally sound such a structure would be. Noami Schiff, a board member with the Oakland Heritage Alliance, said that although she appreciates that the Borsuk is enthusiastic about the project, a lot of hard work would have to go into proving that an almost 40-story building could have a good environmental score card.

The alliance, as a group, has not yet taken an official position on the project, since the plans are preliminary and there have not been any formal proposals made to the city, Schiff said. But she does have her own opinion about it. “To get an email from a developer like that is not actual information,” she said. “That’s PR [public relations].”

Schiff said that she has not received any information about the project, aside from media announcements. She said she also concerned about whether such a large-scale development could truly be environmentally beneficial. “I have noticed that a lot of developers have jumped on the ecological bandwagon,” she said. If the project does move forward, Schiff said, she plans on being involved along the way. “I will question it,” she said. “Just because someone says something is green doesn’t mean it is.”

Borsuk’s group contracted with Built Ecology, a private environmental design group, to study the emissions levels, energy, and water usage envisioned in the development plans. The study concluded that the harvester building would consume even less energy and water than that required for the Platinum Standard—the highest level of energy conservation and environmental design in the rankings set by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The LEED rating system, which is set by the U.S. Green Building Council, evaluates design, construction, and operation performance of green buildings. The project is also expected to operate more efficiently than CalGreen Title 24 standards, which are evaluated in the same way at the state level.

LEED’s carbon dioxide emission standards for a building with the size and population of the proposed one are 769 tons per year and the Title 24 standards are 976 tons per year. According to the project’s web site, the building will use only 592 tons per year.

Further, reductions in water consumption would come through a grey water system that will use recycled shower, dish washing, and laundry water for toilet flushing. Water usage in the building is set at 12,000 gallons of water per day, while LEED Platinum standards have set water usage for a building of this size and residential population at 18,500 gallons of water per day.

But in addition to environmental issues, Schiff said there are several concerns that need to be addressed if the developer moves forward with the project. The building site would be near the Hotel Oakland, which has been designated as an official city landmark, according to the Oakland Heritage Alliance web site. The former hotel, which now serves as a senior living facility, would likely be affected by a new high-rise in the area.

Oakland City Council member Nancy Nadel, who opposed the original plan when it was introduced in 2007, said she is aware of Borsuk’s new project. “My opinion of the project has not changed,” Nadel wrote in an email to Oakland North. “Because it is the aesthetics and envelope of the project that is at issue, not its greenness.  The project is across the street from a beautiful historic building, the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.  The project is part of an historic neighborhood with a height range that is dwarfed by the Borsuk project mass—that is not good design.”

Image: Planned design of Real Estate Transformation Group’s “energy harvester,” a 37-story apartment building at 1443 Alice Street. Image courtesy Mark Borsuk.


  1. Samantha on December 10, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    It certainly is visually appealing, despite how out of place it looks among the other buildings. Building upward and not outward is definitely on the right track (along with the grey water tanks and solar panels). With the vast amount of environmental technology available today though I think they could take it even farther. How about adding a green roof? I also question how affordable the units would be. In a city like Oakland it is important to ensure there are a certain number of affordable units in every new residential development.

  2. OakGrrl on December 10, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Ms. Schiff and the OHA tend to be against anything that represents progress and adds density to Oakland. The city is trying to achieve a vibrant 24/7 core but if we oppose every development that brings people to the city than we will never achieve that goal.

    As to the affordability comment, the poster needs to realize that the developer expects a certain return. The more affordable units that are demanded, then the fewer units total as the market units will need to be bigger than the affordable units to entice someone to buy. This is not a seat on a plane, you are not going to pay 2x as much as the person next to you for the same unit. You are going to want more.

    If Oakland wants to play in the big leagues we need to be leading edge in development. And thanks to years of disinvestment and no investment we have the land to make bold stmts. It is time for us to act. Old folk need to move to the side and let the man go through.

  3. Jaded on December 11, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I hope this project can move forward, since I am an ardent supporter of all new development downtown. I see no reason for every building in Oakland to have a requirement for “affordable” housing as long as affordable housing is balanced and created in the neighborhoods where it makes sense (on transit corridors)

    I like the design as is, but I’d like to see it in combo with other planned buildings in the area to see if i looks out of place.

  4. charles chaloeicheep on December 22, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    The project is targeting a high level of sustainability that incorporates aggressive energy, emissions and water reductions. I hope that the city and the public recognize that this isn’t green washing but rather the reality of our future buildings and cities.

    I work for Built Ecology and live in Oakland. Built Ecology has a track record of delivering high performance green buildings. I am excited to see my city and my company involved in this type of high density, low impact development that focuses on reducing demand for, and generating its own supply of energy and water. Hopefully, as the project moves forward, people will continue to recognize the benefits of this type of sustainable development.

  5. courtney Miller on January 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Tall buildings in the right place are especially important in car dependent California. Driving is our most egregious greenhouse contribution. I support this development proposal, despite the solar access impacts. I haven’t studied the shading characteristics, but feel we have to get away from incrementalist eco-greening that says 7 or 8 stories is going to create the walkable city that we need VERY QUICKLY to reduce the auto-insanity. Yes, we’re not going to stop climate change by one project, in one state, or one country. We’re giving people the option to be less energy dependent, thus making the region and state healthier and economically competitive. The key statistic is the parking ratio.

  6. Max Allstadt on February 4, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Ms. Schiff and Ms. Nadel’s concerns about proximity to historic buildings are misguided.

    Oakland’s historic preservation community gas a strange notion floating around it: They think that building big and modern anywhere near a historic building is somehow a threat to history. This simply isn’t true. In New York and other dense cities with rich architectural heritage, there are plenty of examples of cherished architectural history coexisting with modern highrises.

    Mr. Borsuk’s proposed project is also north of the Oakland Hotel, which means that it won’t cast a shadow on that building, ever. The sun crosses the sky to the south, shadows fall from northwest to northeast throughout the day.

  7. X on February 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I am related to someone who owns property nearby. It is unfortunate that a fairly open area couldn’t be found for the building; it’s size will loom over the buildings nearby and block out a good deal of sunlight for tennants in certain buildings. I know that may not seem to be a huge deal considering the main problems with the city and state but I felt it should be known. The water/electrical uses/needs of the building are not the main sticking point to us.

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