Ninth Avenue Terminal remains a point of controversy in development project
on February 21, 2011
The Oakland Heritage Alliance is making a last stand in its fight against a project that will redevelop land along an estuary south of Jack London Square. The drama nearly ended in September with the state’s approval of the project, but OHA continues the battle to save one of the area’s historic structures.
The Oak to Ninth project, as it is known, has been a subject of controversy in Oakland for the past ten years. The project would redevelop 64 acres of land, creating new parks, commercial areas and 3,100 condominiums. Now, the preservationists at OHA worry most about the fate of the Ninth Avenue Terminal.
For the past decade, OHA has been trying to derail the development to preserve the area’s natural environment and historic structures, its members said. It filed suit against Oak to Ninth developer Signature Properties to stop the project, lost, and has now filed an appeal.
Project construction cannot begin until the lawsuit is resolved, and currently there is no hearing scheduled.
For OHA board member Naomi Schiff, the fate of the Ninth Avenue Terminal is of major concern. The Oak to Ninth plans call for demolition of 160,000 square feet of the 180,000-foot terminal—it will be replaced with a public park.
The terminal is a bulky yellow building with vaulted ceilings that sits on the water near Estuary Park. It’s currently being used as a cotton storage facility. Schiff said it is a landmark of serious historical significance.
The terminal was built as a shipping cargo facility—half of it was constructed in 1930 and the second half was completed in 1950. It is the last remaining building of its kind on the San Francisco Bay.
“The biggest problem for OHA is that when people think of preservation they think of cute little houses,” Schiff said, as she walked along water next to Ninth Avenue Terminal. “They don’t think about this kind of thing. But industry is why this city is here. Our heritage is in being a railhead and a shipping center and in heavy industry. And to just walk away from it is short-sighted.”
But Councilmember Pat Kernighan, whose district includes much of Oak to Ninth and who voted in favor of the project, said if a better proposal for Ninth Avenue Terminal had materialized, the city council would have considered it.
“A group did come forward to use it as a winemaking facility about five years ago, and most everyone liked that, including me,” Kernighan said. “I thought it was a very creative idea that would give local winemaking businesses a home.”
Kernighan said the proponents of the winemaking facility never took the project beyond the conceptual stage. She said the financial issues were many, as were concerns of safety in the event of an earthquake.
The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, one of many organizations that approved Oak to Ninth over the years, also concluded that if the Ninth Avenue Terminal is preserved as is, open space and parks would have to be moved elsewhere, meaning a potential redesign of the entire project.
“That was certainly a non-starter,” said Kernighan.
She added that yet another delay would have upset some of the Oak to Ninth supporters in her constituency.
“The project is supposed to have affordable housing, so it had a lot of support from the construction unions for jobs and from working families in the San Antonio.”
Kernighan said rather than stall the development, she is comfortable with Signature Properties’ plan to create a waterfront park where the Ninth Avenue Terminal now stands.
“The other parts of the waterfront trail are nice,” she said. “I do think that when it’s built it’s going to be a major attraction.”
Michael Ghielmetti, CEO of Signature Properties, said he plans to keep the front 20,000 square feet of the terminal in place to preserve the shipyard aesthetic, and replace the rest of it with a public park, which he said is in high demand from people in neighborhoods nearby.
“OHA proposed no legitimate alternative other than conjecture,” said Ghielmetti. “I don’t mind the building being there is if it’s refurbished and reused. I didn’t want it to sit there as a dilapidated hulk. There are very few waterfront parks.“
Joe Tuman, who ran for Mayor of Oakland in 2010 and is a professor of political communication at San Francisco State University, said he doesn’t think anybody wants to see this project unrealized. “I think the overall vision is sound,” he said. “But it’s worth considering architectural integrity, the history and tradition of the place.”
OHA board member Schiff said she wouldn’t mind seeing the terminal used for industrial purposes again. She opposes the idea of turning it into a park—keeping Ninth Avenue Terminal intact is the most important thing to her.
Schiff, who is a graphic designer, and the other OHA members are celebrating the organization’s 30th year. Started in 1981 by seven concerned citizens with $150, OHA is known around town for its near fanatical dedication to historical preservation.
Today, the group organizes summer walking tours, house tours and a winter lecture series. It advocates for historical preservation and works to stop demolition or alteration of what they consider historically relevant Oakland landmarks. Often, it clashes with developers like Michael Ghielmetti.
Ghielmetti inherited Signature Properties from his father, Jim, who founded the company. He insists that his mission is not to detract from Oakland’s history, but to improve upon it.
“We’re very proud of the project. We love our project,” he said. “We’re bringing in much needed revenue to the city.”
The redeveloped area would be called Brooklyn Basin in honor of a city in Alameda County that Oakland annexed in the 1880s. The area that was formerly Brooklyn is now the San Antonio, a neighborhood east of Lake Merritt.
Ghielmetti said he hopes to break ground in the next 12 to 24 months.
Schiff plans to use OHA’s last recourse to try and stop the demolition of the Ninth Avenue Terminal. Since the building is partially standing in navigable water, federal rules apply to it. Schiff said that because of language in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Army Corp of Engineers must assess the Terminal before it is demolished. She’s is not sure how successful this effort will be, but Schiff maintains it’s worth a try.
For his part, Joe Tuman hopes all parties will be come together in the end.
“I understand the developers perspective on this,” he said. “I think part of the design was to create a different kind of atmosphere, and having parks and lots of green space is essential to that. But losing that Terminal also loses a part of the history as well—in gaining something with the new development, we’re losing something.”
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