Durable Growth

Despite problems, Brooklyn Basin is a win for Oakland

Brooklyn Basin Rendering

from Signature Development

Soon, new apartments and shops will rise from a benighted corner of Oakland. Thanks to a cash infusion from China, the Brooklyn Basin project (née Oak to Ninth) seems like a good deal for the city and for urbanists fighting for a more walkable, livable East Bay. Though it has problems, mostly due to the site itself, Brooklyn Basin is on the whole a win for Oakland.

Brooklyn Basin, for those who don’t know, is located in one of the semi-abandoned industrial edge spaces wedged between I-880 and the water (in this case, the Oakland Inner Harbor). The plan is to redevelop most of the site, save for an existing strip of businesses, with 3,100 housing units, 3,500 parking spaces, and 200,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial worth about 600 jobs. Though the site has been targeted for redevelopment since at least 1999, Brooklyn Basin was only approved by the Oakland City Council in 2006. In 2010, after a gargantuan fight over everything from traffic to open space, it got its land from the Port and state. Yet developer Signature Developer Group was unable to secure financing and the project stalled until last week. With $1.5 billion in Chinese investment cash, the project can now move forward. The result is a mixed bag of a project.

Not all good

The location leaves something to be desired, mostly due to the freeway and railyard to the north. I-880, also known as the Nimitz, soars above Embarcadero along half the site and runs at-grade for the other half. The industrial lands north of the Nimitz are hardly more pedestrian-friendly than the Brooklyn Basin site today. Together with the freeway, those lands form a broad barrier against the northern neighborhood.

This isn’t well addressed by the site plan. A strong street wall would make Embarcadero, the street that forms the northern boundary, more walkable, but a large gap is left out at Gateway Park. Anyone on the central channel will get a fabulous view of the freeway and offramp. Gateway Park itself will likely end up dead space given the noise, unprotected feel, and pollution that goes along with that particular location.

Brooklyn Basin Problem

Gateway Park. Image from Signature Development. Click for enlarged site plan, or click here for large, detailed plans. (PDF)

Speaking of pollution, the freeway’s proximity puts some residences squarely within the 200-foot pollution plume. This means problems for residents’ health as well as for the health of any children who would live there. Unlike office development, which can be built with permanently sealed windows, openable residential windows can’t be so well insulated from particulate material. Without aggressive air filtration systems, residents will be exposed to the worst air a freeway can create. Unfortunately, changing uses from residential to office may require a new EIR and council approval, which would reopen the project to lawsuits. Given the potential burden to resident health, Oakland should push Signature to include aggressive filtration systems.

The project will not be pedestrian- or transit-oriented, either. With more than one parking space per unit, people will be encouraged to drive. While Signature will provide a shuttle, and the 72 and 72M lines can be extended from Jack London Square, transit access is still fairly mediocre. Amtrak’s Jack London Square station, the best way to get to Sacramento or San Jose, is about a 15 minute walk away, as is BART’s Lake Merritt station. The Oakland Ferry is about 25 minutes away.

An easy way to boost access to the site is with better bike infrastructure to Jack London Square and the areas north of the Nimitz. Class I and Class II lanes along 5th Avenue to the north and Embarcadero to the west would encourage bicycling as the principal mode of medium-distance transportation, which will address neighbors’ fears of overwhelming traffic.

Not all bad

All that said, this isn’t a terrible project, either. Oakland and the Bay Area at large desperately needs more homes, and this is a fairly large number in a reasonable infill location. Though the focus has been on Jack London Square, which will be within walking distance (or very close biking distance), 200,000 square feet of commercial space is nothing to sneeze at. It’s easy to imagine Brooklyn Basin becoming a retail destination all its own.

Affordable housing advocates can cheer the 400 affordable housing units. While down from 500 in early stages, a for-profit affordable housing development is precisely what cities need to thrive. A non-profit would have locked up the property tax revenue permanently, depriving Oakland of the taxes it needs to serve this edge development. But a for-profit development means Brooklyn Basin will lift the city as a whole.

On the whole, this is a big, decent project. It has warts, but only a few are unsolvable. The most glaring – freeway pollution and transit access – are firmly within the realm of solvable problems, and Signature should do what it can to address them.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

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