The Foon Lok West affordable housing complex is part of the new Brooklyn Basin housing project of Oakland. Brooklyn Basin has added over 1,000 homes to the new neighborhood along the city’s waterfront and plans to add 2,000 more. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
If you’ve driven south on Interstate 880 past downtown Oakland, you’ve likely seen the cluster of apartment buildings sprouting in Brooklyn Basin, a 64-acre peninsula that juts out into the Oakland Estuary.
When Dayona Johnson leased one of the new apartments, she hadn’t even heard the name Brooklyn Basin.
During her first visit, the neighborhood felt bare, but she loved the waterfront views, the quiet and the feeling that the area was “up and coming.” Moving to Brooklyn Basin for her 7-year-old son “has been life-changing,” Johnson, 34, said.
“I’m a strong believer that your environment and where you live really sets the tone for how your day is going to go,” she added.
At a time when the Bay Area faces a major housing shortage, megaprojects like Brooklyn Basin create large-scale, high-density housing tucked into an urban area. The master-planned community is the largest residential project under construction in Oakland and promises to add up to 3,700 homes on the site of a former shipping dock.
But building any new housing in the Bay Area is challenging, let alone a whole neighborhood from the ground up the way developers are doing at Brooklyn Basin. Megaprojects require years, if not decades, of planning and face challenges such as regulatory hurdles, complex environmental cleanup and difficulty lining up financing.
After two decades, Brooklyn Basin is only about one-third of the way through development. Reaching completion could take another decade — and that’s a best-case scenario, which rarely happens with housing development in California.
“We always thought [Brooklyn Basin] would be a big project,” said Mike Ghielmetti, CEO of Signature Development, the lead developer of the project. “It has a large acreage. It’s on the waterfront. It’s close to transit. It’s close to jobs. It’s a former industrial site that really wanted to be something different.”
The site was once a bustling dock where Mormon travelers from New York disembarked in Oakland off a ship named the Brooklyn in the mid-1800s. Brooklyn was also the name of a town that was later annexed by Oakland.
The area’s mix of industrial buildings, warehouses, marinas and a ship terminal were largely abandoned when the Port of Oakland selected Signature Development to buy the land for $18 million in 2001.
Five years later, the city approved Signature’s development proposal. Securing more approvals from various state and local agencies took another four years. Then came a series of legal battles from groups claiming the project did not meet state environmental laws. Other opponents wanted to convert the entire site into a park.
When the challenges were resolved in 2011, the real estate industry was reeling from the Great Recession, which made it hard to secure a construction loan. Signature finally broke ground in 2014 after Zarsion, a Chinese company, stepped in as a partner with $1.5 billion in financing.
“It shouldn’t be this hard to produce housing for our children and grandchildren. And it shouldn’t be this hard to create places where people want to stay and call home,” Ghielmetti said.
Brooklyn Basin is slated to include up to 200,000 square feet of commercial space and 30 acres of parks and open space. A total of 13 residential buildings are planned — four of which will be for residents with lower income.
Township Commons, a former shipping facility repurposed into a park, draws people from inside and outside the neighborhood for activities ranging from picnics to salsa dancing. The historic Ninth Avenue Terminal building was refurbished into a retail hall for restaurants and shops.
A small grocery store, Rocky’s Market, opened in April 2020 but closed two years later citing complications from the pandemic and a lack of foot traffic. The former space, inside the terminal building, will be taken over by The Lumpia Company, a Filipino-inspired restaurant backed by Bay Area rapper E-40. The terminal building also houses an Oaklandish boutique and a California Canoe and Kayak.
In February, Zocalo Coffee and Kitchen opened on the ground floor of one of the apartment buildings. Owner Sara Ubelhart said the shop does have some regulars, but weekday mornings are lighter than she would like. The shop is an expansion of Zocalo’s original coffee shop and roastery in San Leandro.
“I actually didn’t want to open up a new cafe,” she said. “But what really attracted me was the Commons — so much space outside, people outside using it, kids skating and on their bikes, and just all this community happening outside.”
The cafe fills up on weekends when people from outside the neighborhood come to hang out along the water. She expects it will take time to build up a larger customer base and is working on hosting more events in the cafe to draw crowds.
Setting up in Brooklyn Basin “was definitely risky, is feeling risky. Not felt — feeling,” she said. “We’ve got the water on one side and the freeway on the other, and then all of our neighborhood and community members are above us. So we’re really trying to figure out how to connect with those folks.”
So far, builders have constructed six mid-rise buildings with more than 1,000 apartments — three market-rate buildings and three of the affordable subsidized housing buildings. About 1,500 residents have moved in since leasing began in late 2019.
The first was the 241-unit Orion building, which opened just months before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Last year, tenants began filling up the 241-unit Artizan Apartments. This month, the first phase of the 378-unit Caspian will welcome its first residents. Rents start around $2,000 per month for a studio and range up to $5,300 for a three-bedroom apartment.
“Now that the project is successful, people say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve always loved that project,’” Ghielmetti said. “But there were a group of folks that didn’t and sued and delayed it. Those parks could have been opened five, eight years earlier. And the housing should have been there five, eight years earlier.”
The Bay Area has not built nearly enough housing to keep up with job and population growth for the past few decades, according to Sarah Karlinsky, a housing and land use policy expert with SPUR, a San Francisco-based planning and urban development think tank.
A 2021 report from SPUR (PDF) found that the nine-county Bay Area added about 360,000 homes between 2000 and 2018, about one-third of what was needed. The organization estimates that the Bay Area needs to produce at least 2.2 million more homes by 2070, or roughly 45,000 units per year.
When a megaproject can add thousands of homes to a city’s inventory, Karlinsky said, that is significant.
“Even if our future population growth is not as strong as our prior population growth, we still have an affordability crisis, we still have incredibly expensive housing,” she said. “We’ve actually pushed out a lot of our low- and middle-income households to either far-flung portions of the region, outside of the region to the Central Valley or to other states entirely. And that is not healthy.”
All over the Bay Area, developers and city planners are reimagining numerous sites, including former industrial parks, military bases or massive parking lots. Treasure Island, a former naval station, is slated for more than 8,000 homes. Google is crafting plans for about 5,900 homes in downtown San José near Diridon Station. The San Francisco Giants are converting 28 acres of former surface parking in Mission Bay into 1,200 homes and 1.7 million square feet of commercial space. In San Mateo, developers have turned the former Bay Meadows Racetrack into an urban village now home to tech company offices, 1,000 homes, parks, restaurants and breweries.
“[Megaprojects] are not going to solve our housing crisis. But without them, we have no chance of solving our housing crisis,” said Matt Regan, senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group.
The state’s lengthy and complicated development process could be faster for smaller projects, Karlinsky said, but megaprojects are a different category.
“These are going to be people’s homes for generations, right? So you really want to make sure you get the environmental right. You want to make sure that you get the planning right,” she said. “They are the sort of projects that I would say are deserving of more community input and more scrutiny. And so, they do take a really long time to get done.”
In 2015, nonprofit developer MidPen Housing signed on to build the affordable housing component of Brooklyn Basin, including four subsidized buildings for older adults with lower-income, families and formerly unhoused people. Those units will make up around 14% of all the homes in Brooklyn Basin.
Three of these affordable housing projects, including the one where Johnson lives, are completed and have added 341 homes that are now occupied. The fourth, a 124-unit building, is under construction. The cost of all four buildings, funded by a combination of local, state and federal grants and loans, is around $340 million.
“We feel really fortunate to be able to do 465 units in a new neighborhood in this central location in Oakland,” said Matt Franklin, head of MidPen. “We got over 13,000 applications for the three phases that we have done here. That’s just a small representation of how deep the need is here in Oakland and really throughout the Bay Area.”
MidPen was drawn in by the waterfront and park space, but also the density of the buildings, Franklin said. Building up to seven or eight stories allows for more residents to access the neighborhood’s views and amenities.
More on Affordable Housing
“We’ve done a really nice job collectively for this to really feel like a neighborhood,” Franklin said. “All of the buildings are distinct from one another, but all are of a similar high quality. It’s indistinguishable, what’s a market rate unit or what’s an affordable unit.”
On a recent afternoon, Johnson relaxed on a navy sofa in her living room that overlooks a playground she frequents with her son. Her apartment was adorned in soothing blue hues with tasteful decor akin to a Pinterest inspiration board. She gushed over the spaciousness of her two-bedroom unit and the waterfront park where she and her son spend hours walking, biking and riding scooters.
Before moving here, Johnson rented a cramped, one-bedroom in East Oakland for several years. The area was noisy thanks in part to frequent sideshows. The worst part was the violence, she said. She packed up and left after a shooting in her building. She and her son were staying in a hotel when she received a call that she had been selected for a home eight months after she put her name on the list.
“This environment has been a blessing to us,” Johnson said. “I want my son to be very well-rounded. I want him to be a grounded young man. I want him to be a kind person, a mindful person. And it’s difficult to do that in neighborhoods where there’s so much going on. You see so many things — homelessness — and just people not living their best lives.”
She is focused on completing an associate’s degree at Laney College, about a half-mile from Brooklyn Basin. Johnson, who has dabbled in podcasting, has three semesters to go. She dreams of working in media production, and eventually becoming a homeowner. For now, she’s grateful she can make a home in Brooklyn Basin.
“You feel safe and comfortable,” Johnson said. “This community has enhanced our overall wellness, mentally and spiritually — just everything. It’s been a great adjustment to our lives.”
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.