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Why the Oak-to-Ninth Housing Project Is Coming at Just the Right Time

A lot has changed in the seven years since the Oakland City Council approved the $1.5 billion project.

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When the Oakland City Council approved the massive Oak-to-Ninth housing project seven years ago, it didn't look like a such a great deal for the city or the Port of Oakland. For starters, the port had agreed to sell the 64-acre property along the Oakland Estuary for only a fraction of what the agency's own appraiser had valued the land. Plus, the city had previously designated the waterfront parcel to eventually become open space — and a not home for a mini-city, featuring 3,100 housing units. But a lot has changed since 2006. In fact, when the Oak-to-Ninth developer announced last week that it had scored a Chinese investment partner to jumpstart the $1.5 billion project, suddenly it seemed like it might be a good idea after all.

As we've previously reported, Oakland and Berkeley desperately need more workforce housing, as both cities have faced a severe housing shortage over the past year. Ask anyone who has tried to buy a home or rent a decent apartment in the past twelve months, and you'll hear horror stories about bidding wars and feeding frenzies, as buyers and renters fight each other for a limited number of housing units on the market.

There are numerous factors contributing to the current housing crunch, but perhaps the biggest grew out of the Wall Street meltdown two years after the council gave the green-light to Oak to Ninth. When the Great Recession struck in 2008, new housing construction ground to a halt and has yet to fully recover. As a result, there just isn't enough housing to meet the current demand.

And demand has been growing. More and more San Francisco residents in recent years have sought housing in the East Bay, after being squeezed out of the tight market in the city by young high-tech workers. And the resulting competition for a scarce number of homes in the East Bay is pricing many families out of the market completely, or worse, is forcing them into perilous financial situations just to be able to afford a home.

In the past seven years, it's also become clear that cities like Oakland and Berkeley must grow, and thus need a lot more housing, if we're going to effectively combat climate change. It's now widely accepted that suburban sprawl, and the accompanying long car trips for commuters, is one of the driving factors for greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. And environmentalists recognize that perhaps the best way to curb sprawl is to spur more people to live in urban areas like Oakland and Berkeley.

However, getting financing for housing projects has been next to impossible over the past half-decade and remains so. Banks have been extremely tightfisted with loans. In addition, cities now have difficulty attracting housing projects because of the death of redevelopment.

In other words, Oak to Ninth, financed by a Chinese company, couldn't have come at a better time.

But that's not to say that Oak to Ninth (which was recently renamed Brooklyn Basin) is a perfect project — because it isn't. For one, it's not smart-growth or transit-oriented development because it's not on or near a major mass transit line. Oak to Ninth, which got its original name because it runs along the water from Oak Street to Ninth Avenue, is physically blocked from downtown by the Nimitz Freeway.

Still, it's much greener than a suburban housing tract. Jack London Square (and the ferry) is only a ten-minute walk (or a three-minute bike ride) along the Bay Trail, and the Lake Merritt BART station is only about fifteen minutes away on foot. Brooklyn Basin also is close to Amtrak, will be served by AC Transit, and is required by the city to provide shuttle services.

As a result, many residents of the new development will be able to get to work without having to drive. And if they do drive to work in San Francisco, their commutes will be much shorter than if they lived in Tracy or Vacaville.

Like any good infill project, Oak to Ninth is very dense. The project features several mid-rise buildings, eight to twelve stories in height, and eventually, there will be five tall buildings, ranging from 20 to 24 stories. Overall, the development could house more than 6,000 people. It also includes thirty acres of publicly accessible park space on the water.

The huge project also promises to be financial boon for the cash-strapped city. It will create lots of construction jobs and eventually will produce millions in new tax revenues, which Oakland desperately needs if it's going to solve its many budget problems.

In an interview earlier this week, Mayor Jean Quan, who was instrumental in the deal between the Chinese investment company, Zarsion Holdings Group, and project developer, Signature Development Company, said that Phase One of the project will include about 1,200 to 1,300 homes and some of the park area. Quan is longtime friends with Zarsion official Bruce Quan (no relation), and told him about the Oak to Ninth investment opportunity. The two went to college together in the late Sixties at UC Berkeley.

Quan also said that Michael Ghielmetti of Signature Development has committed to building about four hundred affordable housing units. In an interview, Ghielmetti noted that he's also about to break ground on a one-hundred-unit housing development in Oakland's Uptown district. At Brooklyn Basin, he projected that the first Phase One homes will come online in late 2015 or early 2016. The development team will spend much of the next eighteen months cleaning up the polluted former industrial site.

Marcie Hodge to Be Fined

The state's political watchdog agency said it plans to fine former Peralta colleges trustee Marcie Hodge $5,000 for violating election laws during the Oakland mayor's race in 2010. As the Express previously reported, Hodge failed to disclose her campaign donors and expenditures before the election.

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