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Photography by Patricia Chang

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Brooklyn Rises on the Oakland Waterfront

What happens when you drop an entirely new neighborhood into a rapidly gentrifying city?

"Oakland: Brooklyn by the Bay," said the New York Times in May 2014. "Oakland is the new Brooklyn. I heard it again the other day from two people who live—of all places—in Brooklyn," wrote a columnist for the Mercury News in June 2014. "If San Francisco is becoming the Manhattan of the west … Oakland promises to be its Brooklyn," said the Financial Times in September that year. "Over and over that day, I heard Oakland described as a 'West Coast Brooklyn'," said an LA Times travel piece just last month. "We're a little bit like Brooklyn," then-Mayor Jean Quan told the National Journal back in 2013.

Oakland in 2016 has artisan mac and cheese restaurants and hipster barber shops, accessories to a recent stampede of whiter, wealthier new residents, but it's still yet to host the kind of massive displacement that has turned Brooklyn, New York, into the homogenized epicenter of goofy New York Times Style section trend pieces. What residents and city officials are frantically wondering right now is: will it?

In the most literal sense, Oakland has had a little Brooklyn in it for a long time: In 1856, the settlements of Clinton and San Antonio incorporated into the town of Brooklyn, situated east of Lake Merritt and stretching down to the waterfront, named for a ship that had brought settlers to California. (It was known for its breweries, very Brooklyn.) The town was annexed by Oakland in 1872, but today a new Brooklyn is about to rise on part of the old one, in the form of a 64-acre, $1.5-billion development called Brooklyn Basin that will create an entirely new neighborhood just southeast of the Jack London loft district (home to hundreds of recently built housing units), on two peninsulas of what was most recently port-run land sandwiched between the 880 Freeway and the Oakland Estuary. It will be Oakland's biggest new housing development in many decades.

Proposed and shepherded by Oakland-based Signature Development Group, Brooklyn Basin comprises a dozen parcels that, in 10 or 12 years, should hold up to 3,100 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail space, at least 3,950 parking spaces, four parks and other open space, and two marinas. Originally approved in 2006, the project had been languishing for years by 2013, when Quan finally hooked Signature up with an old friend of hers who works at Chinese firm Zarsion Holdings and Zarsion agreed to contribute enough to get Brooklyn Basin off the ground. Signature serves as master developer, and will encourage investment with construction of Brooklyn Basin's first apartment building, on the southeastern side of the site, then sublease parcels out to other developers to fill up with residential and/or retail buildings that conform to the conceptual plans and design guidelines approved by the city. (Certain buildings on the site may reach up to 240 feet, or about 24 stories; most will have to range from 55 feet to 120 feet. Overall the project will bring new height to the mostly low-slung industrial and residential area that is its closest neighbor.) Signature founder and president Mike Ghielmetti estimates Brooklyn Basin will draw about 5,500 new residents.

Courtesy of Signature Development Group

Environmental remediation of the site, home to "nothing notable" since just after World War II, according to Ghielmetti, and to the Ninth Avenue terminal building, a furniture store, a metal recycling facility, and outdoor shipping container storage, according to a city staff report on the project, began in 2014. Now work is underway putting in infrastructure for the new neighborhood, including new sewage, water, and electrical systems, and eventually fiber-optic internet cables. Signature and Zarsion will also make over the stretch of Embarcadero that borders the project with a new median, street trees, and bike lanes, and create new streets through the project to "provide strong visual and pedestrian linkages between the waterfront and inland areas," according to BB's design guidelines. The project will also add a missing piece of the San Francisco Bay Trail along the site's shoreline.

That waterfront access is central to Brooklyn Basin's appeal; Signature's website says that "For decades, Oakland has been denied access to its waterfront," but now, "for the first time in more than 150 years, Signature Development Group, along with our valuable partners, is dramatically reshaping the area for the public to enjoy." On a tour of the southern section of the site earlier this month, Ghielmetti emphasized the guaranteed purity of the views: Alameda Island across the estuary is unlikely to allow any new tall buildings and Coast Guard Island to the southeast isn't going to have a development boom anytime soon.

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But the location also calls up another association with that other Brooklyn: In 2005, New York rezoned the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, waterfront, paving the way for hundreds of acres of industrial land to be redeveloped with luxury towers. Combined with its ease of access to Manhattan, the rezoning has made Williamsburg a national poster child for gentrification—with its neighbor Greenpoint, it holds the title for the biggest rent increase in New York City between 1990 and 2014 (78.7 percent).

Oakland is not Williamsburg, but its housing prices are already nearly as troubling. "As people can't afford housing in San Francisco, [Oakland has] just become a more and more popular place for people to move," says Dr. Miriam Zuk, Project Director of UC Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project, which examines gentrification in the Bay Area. A recent report from Trulia found that the number of affordable rentals in Oakland (that is, with rents no higher than a third of the median income) have plummeted over the last year, from 66 percent of all listings in April 2015 to 46.2 percent in April 2016.

"Rents have doubled in the last couple of years, housing [is] going for 40 percent above asking. And we're seeing a massive demographic shift in Oakland," says Zuk. That shift has been exactly what you'd expect: a decline in African American households, declines in low-income households in many areas, and more high-income and college-educated households.

The area including and directly adjacent to Brooklyn Basin is part of a "racially and ethnically concentrated area of poverty," as designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It has a poverty rate above 35 percent, a high percentage of immigrants, and a majority of residents living in households that are paying more than a third of their income toward rent (50 to 70 percent among owners and 50 to 60 percent among renters), according to 2013 American Community Survey data cited in Oakland's 2015 report, "Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice." But even as the neighborhood’s housing prices have crept up, the Urban Displacement Project has categorized it only as "at risk of gentrification or displacement," its second least serious designation.

When Brooklyn Basin was proposed in the early aughts, long before any techies had begun to flee across the Bay and Governor Jerry Brown was still mayor of Oakland, a coalition of community organizations representing the wider group of neighborhoods that surround the site—Chinatown, Eastlake, and San Antonio, which are similar, but do not share the concentrated area of poverty designation—could already see where the wind was blowing. "We saw impacts on traffic, impacts on our community, different displacement pressures, etc. And that we really needed to get together and recognize that we can't have exclusive communities and pockets, and that we need to really honor the diversity that we have in Oakland and especially in this part of the neighborhood that is predominantly … immigrants and people of color, working class families, and seniors," says Alvina Wong, lead community organizer at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which joined the East Bay Asian Youth Center, Oakland Community Organizations, and Urban Strategies Council to fight for a more inclusive project.

Andrew Nelsen, deputy director of policy initiatives at EBAYC, says that "At the time when we first began working on it, the developer had already negotiated a project labor agreement with the building trades and had already reached out to some significant community sectors to get support for his project. None of those agreements included any commitment to affordable housing or to local hire, or to job training and placement construction careers," and residents wanted to know "how are we gonna make sure that this benefits the surrounding neighborhoods, where people make $20, $30, $40,000 a year on average, families make that. And who are we building this for?" The coalition decided to focus their efforts on making sure that Brooklyn Basin included affordable housing for the types of families and seniors that live nearby, and that it hired and trained local workers. (The majority of new housing built in Oakland in the last several years is affordable, since it's relatively easy to finance, but new market-rate developments in the city don't have to include any affordable units, which residents dislike especially when the deal includes the sale of public land.)

After years of actions and meetings with officials, "through three, maybe four mayors," the coalition secured a legally binding cooperation agreement in 2006 guaranteeing that the Oakland Redevelopment Agency would buy two of the Brooklyn Basin parcels (F and G, along the freeway side of the site) and contract with a developer (MidPen) to build 465 units of affordable housing, open to seniors and families making up to 60 percent of the area median income (which came to about $56,000 in 2015). A couple years later they secured another binding agreement for job training and placement.

But then the recession hit and everything stopped. Everything—including the Oakland Redevelopment Agency. Jerry Brown, who'd been mayor when the Brooklyn Basin fight began, was by 2011 governor of California, and he decided then that the money the state was using to fund redevelopment agencies—local agencies whose mission was to partner with private developers on projects in "blighted" areas—could be better used elsewhere. He dissolved them all. Even after the recession eased and Zarsion’s involvement brought Brooklyn Basin back to life in 2014 (Brown announced that deal himself), the affordable housing secured by the coalition remained in limbo, until just last month, when, Nelsen says, the state confirmed that it would contribute its $45 million share toward the project.

Signature seems to have embraced the addition, referring on its website to the "diverse mix of residents [that] will further enliven this part of the City." Ghielmetti adds that diversity at the site will be about more than just the affordable units—Brooklyn Basin will have four public parks, a mix of neighborhood and visitor-serving retail, and a connection to Oakland's bus-only AC Transit system, in addition to a private shuttle running through the site and to two nearby BART stations, and a water taxi stopping around BB and at Alameda. "What we didn't want to concede anything on is the public realm," says Ghielmetti, which means building pleasant pedestrian-friendly streets and creating public open space along the waterfront that will attract people from all over the city and beyond. Demolition is set to begin this summer for Shoreline Park, the first of these projects and the first piece of Brooklyn Basin; it will wrap around the southern peninsula and include an old railroad trestle and a renovated portion of the '20s-era Ninth Avenue terminal building that Signature hopes will hold a cafe and maritime museum and be suitable for events like farmers' markets.

Courtesy of Signature Development Group

But that lovely location on the water's edge is a double-edged sword. Wong is skeptical that it will truly be accessible to people from outside the new neighborhood, since the park will lie so far into the development, away from the main access points along Embarcadero and past a network of buildings. "Are these parks and open space for Oakland and for the community members that live in that neighborhood," she wonders, "or is it a nice green spot for the rich folks in the luxury community that they're building to have some greenery in their space?" A UC Berkeley Health Impact Group report from 2006 found there would be "[u]nmitigated physical and social barriers between the proposed estuary and waterfront resources and upland neighborhoods," particularly the buildings in between, the freeway, and some of the park programming that "risks functional privatization of park resources."

Researchers have found that kind of subtle obstacle to true integration, even in a mixed-income development like Brooklyn Basin. Zuk, the gentrification researcher, says that there have been "health studies, and economic studies, and all kinds of studies about why integration is important, but I think it's a hard thing to do and maintain and do it well, so that it's stably integrated, the diverse community, rather than just in transition to becoming homogenous and a more affluent neighborhood … There's this whole literature on the importance of neighborhoods and why living in a place of concentrated poverty is bad for you … So then the natural conclusion is 'oh, well, mixed-income developments are the way to go,' or 'dispersion of low-income residents is the way to go,' and of course we can find problems with those as well." She cites Mark Joseph, a researcher at Case Western Reserve, who found "There's sort of segregation at the very micro scale in a lot of mixed-income developments. So clearly just physically or spatially putting people right next to each other isn't a solution in and of itself, more needs to happen to do a better job at integration economically or racially."

Another neighborhood is worried that they'll be swallowed up entirely. The Fifth Avenue Marina is a ramshackle little stretch of artists' homes, workspaces, and art cars that has been carved out of the development; the land has been privately owned for years by a local real estate firm. Fifth Avenue residents have fought off more than one eminent domain threat in the past 20 years, but Signature has pledged to accommodate the community during and after construction of Brooklyn Basin. They object to the development anyway—one resident told Oakland North in 2014, "You’ve got an artist community that depends on light, depends on space, depends on a certain amount of quiet, all of a sudden being surrounded by these gigantic condos."

So while Ghielmetti intends for Brooklyn Basin to "turn into a really vibrant area that gets basically built into the fabric of Oakland," the residents of that existing fabric are a little more cautious. "I know that it's going to have ripple effects in all our neighborhoods nearby," says EBAYC's Nelsen, who lives in San Antonio. "Everything from people with very different sensibilities moving into the area to increased property values near the area, which might be good for some, but if you're a commercial or residential renter, probably not so good. Some of the small businesses around here will benefit and some will suffer as a result."

Jose Macias, who owns the La Estrellita restaurant and its building in Eastlake, doesn't seem too bothered by what he believes are inevitable changes ahead—"It's moving people out of Oakland, but it's bringing people into Oakland"—although he's not entirely sure that his neighborhood, across the freeway from Brooklyn Basin, will even benefit much from spillover. "And a lot of people from over there probably won't even come this way," he says, "because they have access to the highways and everything is happening over there also, in the Embarcadero area."

Wong, after fighting to making the project more inclusive, says she "would like to believe and envision that once these buildings are up, more families will come back and will move in and grow here. I would love to see that with these units in conjunction with other affordable units and mixed-income housing, the diversity that we have will maintain its vibrancy and just grow stronger. There's a beauty in this part of the neighborhood between Chinatown and Eastlake where you can walk down the block and hear 10 to 20 different languages being spoken, and that exchange happening in our different cultures while we're going to each other's grocery stores or nail salons or restaurants or parks, and having these types of exchange, and I want Brooklyn Basin and the win that we were able to get with the community benefits coalition to enhance that."

This particular coalition of neighborhood groups campaigned hard and smart, and won a solid victory, but they also did it at just the right time, as Nelsen describes: "the reason this worked was because we had enough power to negotiate a legally binding agreement that through hell and high water, four mayors, the end of redevelopment, the worst recession in U.S. history, and then this white hot housing market, through all of that, our coalition's ability to secure these agreements enabled us to make sure this happened." Now that redevelopment agencies are dead, now that housing prices are skyrocketing in Oakland, will the next project include those guarantees?

As Nelsen says, "It's gonna be a hell of a fight." "The highest use, best use of Oakland in strictly economic terms would be to flatten it and build middle class housing for San Francisco techies," he says, and he thinks Oakland officials need to "stop giving away the damn store and realize how much power they have in these negotiations," to compel developers to include community benefits and housing for the people who already live in Oakland. "We are sitting on some of the most valuable real estate in the world."

Macias feels the same way. He says the community would probably prefer he not sell his handsome brick corner building—the restaurant has been there since 1969 and is deeply involved in the neighborhood—but "I think we got a good investment property here with a developer." He hopes to sell in about five years, when there should be a few buildings up at Brooklyn Basin, and get a couple of retail spaces in the project. And then? "We kinda do something trendy over there, you know, bar, and then another restaurant, and then maybe just a delivery service. It'll work out for us."

Editor: Sara Polsky
Photographer: Patricia Chang


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