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Inside Oakland's Largest Housing Megaproject

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A large sunny plaza with a smattering of people set beside a body of water with a sail boat floating in it and others docked on the opposite shore.
The view from at an affordable housing complex in Brooklyn Basin in Oakland, California on June 15, 2023. MidPen Housing has added nearly 1,000 homes to the new neighborhood along the city’s waterfront and plans to put in 3,000 more. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Brooklyn Basin is poised to become Oakland’s largest housing project, promising 3,700 new homes on the site of a former shipping dock. In a state where building just about anything can be a challenge, how did this one finally get off the ground?

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Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to the bay. Local news to keep you rooted. An area once filled with industrial buildings, warehouses and a ship terminal is getting a second chance at life in Oakland. Brooklyn Basin is going to be the largest housing project in the city, promising 3700 homes on a single site.

Blanca Torres: I guess personally, I like to see when we reimagine spaces in the Bay Area and bring some new life. And now there’s a new way to make use of that land.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Some argue that so-called megaprojects, these massive developments that promise a lot of housing and retail are going to have to be part of the solution to our region’s housing crisis. But in a state where building just about anything is hard. How feasible are projects like this? And can we really build them fast enough? Today we talk with KQED reporter and producer Blanca Torres, who literally watched Brooklyn Basin’s development from the ground up.

Blanca Torres: Brooklyn Basin is located on a peninsula that juts out into the Oakland estuary. It’s kind of near downtown Oakland, maybe like a mile from downtown Oakland. It’s south of Jack London Square. So it used to be a dock where passengers coming from New York on a boat called the Brooklyn would disembark. And that was, you know, in the 1930s. And then it became kind of an industrial area. Like also a lot of shipping and port activities for decades. But it was pretty much had been largely abandoned.

Blanca Torres: And the Port of Oakland actually owned the land and didn’t really need it, and that’s why they made it available for development. It’s the biggest master planned project that is under construction. There’s 13 buildings that will make up the neighborhood. Roughly half of those have either started construction or have been built. It’s a combination of affordable and market rate housing. As far as like one bigger, ambitious project, this is the biggest.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And I know some folks have actually already started to move in. And I know you met one of those people, Dayona Johnson. Tell me a little bit about who she is and where did you go to meet her?

Blanca Torres: So Dayona Johnson is a resident of Brooklyn Basin. She’s a mom of a seven year old. And she moved in about a year ago.

Dayona Johnson: Before that, I have been displaced for a little while from my previous home.

Blanca Torres: She’s an Oakland native. She grew up in East Oakland. She had an apartment for a few years, but it was not in a great neighborhood. She was really worried about violence.

Dayona Johnson: It was in a questionable neighborhood and it wasn’t like very comfortable for my son and I.

Blanca Torres: Finally there was a shooting in her building that really prompted her to say, I have to leave. And so she was kind of bouncing around hotels and she had put her name on the list for low income subsidized housing several months before and, you know, hadn’t heard anything. And while she’s, you know, trying to find a new stable place to live, she gets a call that she’s been selected to move into Brooklyn Basin.

Dayona Johnson: It was like impeccable timing when they called because I had been about, I guess, about 40 something days out of my last place.

Blanca Torres: She never heard of Brooklyn Basin when she found out about this apartment. And she didn’t really know the location because a lot of people had never been to the site. You know, it was kind of closed off to the community. But when she saw it, you know, she really loved the quiet, the calm. You know, she’s still close to obviously everything going on in Oakland, but it’s kind of secluded.

Dayona Johnson: It’s just, you know, I’m a strong believer of your environment and where you live really sets the tone for like how your day is going to go. So it’s really nice to be able to just leaving in and out of the parking garage, like seeing people, like walking, exercising, walking their dogs, seeing people across the street kayaking. It’s just it’s it’s nice because you feel safe and comfortable.

Blanca Torres: So I met her in her home that, you know, she loves because of the waterfront location, because there’s so much for her and her son to do.

Dayona Johnson: I pride myself on instilling things in my son. 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 it’s so much going on. You see so many things, just people not living their best lives. And this environment has like truly helped us be able to enhance our mental health and wellness, just the access to the things that we do have.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I want to step back a little bit, Blanca. I mean, people like Dayona are starting to move in, but how long has this housing project been in the works?

Blanca Torres: The project goes back almost 20 years. So the Port of oakland had this land. They basically put it up for development and developers bid on it. They selected a group called Signature Development who had some of their partners and they, you know, were given the rights to develop the land and and buy the land eventually from the port. But over the course of proposing the project, coming up with the concept and then getting some initial approvals, then a lot of opposition started to show up.

Blanca Torres: There was a lot of lawsuits and there was a group that wanted to turn the whole site, you know, 64 acres into a park. It is very easy to halt projects or kind of delay them because of our environmental laws that are meant to give the community and people living around projects, you know, some leverage. This project. You know, by the time it broke ground in 2014, I mean, had been in the works like almost a decade. And the first people to move into Brooklyn Basin moved in around 2019.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I know you talked with one of the developers of Brooklyn Basin. Can you introduce me to Mike and tell me who he is and and what he says about, I guess, the long journey that it’s been to get this project done.

Blanca Torres: So Mike Ghielmetti is the head of Signature Development, which is an Oakland based real estate development company. They’ve done some three dozen projects in the Bay Area.

Mike Ghielmetti: I think we always thought it would be a big project.

Blanca Torres: So he had this vision of this waterfront development and was able to find partners to help out. You know, by the time the project had the approvals to move forward. You know, it was after the 2008 recession and it was really hard to get financing for, you know, major real estate developments.

Mike Ghielmetti: But it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a left brain, right brain activity. Right. You know, you need to be creative and listen, but you have to create a template that is business friendly, that’s financeable.

Blanca Torres: So eventually, too, in order to break ground in 2014, Signature Development partnered with Z on, which is a Chinese development company who came in and committed roughly $1.5 billion to getting the project going.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up. The question on everyone’s minds, how affordable is this new housing? And we’ll also talk about whether building something this big was worth it in the end. We’ll be right back.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: One big question is always how much of that is being set aside for affordable housing? So can you tell me a little bit about that?

Blanca Torres: Roughly 14% of of the housing is set aside as subsidized for low income people. And so the total is 465 units, and that’s in four different buildings, all built by a nonprofit developer called Mid Penn Housing that builds a lot of affordable housing throughout Northern California.

Matt Franklin: There’s a park right down here that’s just really cool.

Blanca Torres: And when I talked with the head of MidPen, Matt Franklin, you know, he was talking about how the affordable buildings and the market rate buildings, you know, all have a very high quality design. Like if you’re walking around, you wouldn’t say like, Oh, that’s the low income housing and that’s like the housing for everybody else.

Matt Franklin: We’ve done a really nice job collectively for this to really feel like a neighborhood. All of the buildings are distinct, one from the other. All are of a similar high quality. So it feels like a real neighborhood.

Blanca Torres: So yeah, I mean 14% because this project was proposed in and kind of went through the process, you know, 15 or so years ago, 14% might seem a little low. You know, cities now are looking at like 20, 25% in some cases. Some projects come in at much higher rates if they can somehow have the funding to do that. But Matt Franklin’s perspective was, you know, these units are getting built like people are moving in. And sometimes that’s, you know, better than having a project on paper that looks great but isn’t going to get built because there’s not enough money.

Matt Franklin: I would love for that percentage to be higher on average. Absolutely. I consider myself an advocate for affordable housing. And I think that the what exactly the right percentages is very, you know, contextual. It’s about the right it is about the time. It’s about the broader development. The best thing about this percentage is that it all got built.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I got to imagine that the demand is really high for those affordable units.

Blanca Torres: Right. Well, for the first three buildings, that was, you know, a little over 300 units, they received 13,000 applications. And that’s actually not unheard of for affordable housing developments in the Bay Area. And that’s just reflective of the number of people that qualify. Right. And that need housing. It’s basically almost like a lottery system because you have to qualify and then you kind of get thrown into a pool. And if you’re selected, then you you can get an apartment like Diana Johnson did. But it is kind of a luck of the draw situation.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, we know that we aren’t building enough housing fast enough. So why is this project, you think, going forward when so many others never even see the light of day in California?

Blanca Torres: Well, I do think it’s a combination of, you know, the developer kind of sticking with it. And in a way, I would I would say developers are have to be patient because these projects take so long. But, you know, sometimes developers, you know, move on to other projects. Sometimes, you know, they can’t get financing, so they have to walk away. So in this situation, like those key factors, like getting the financing, getting the approvals, you know, really made a difference here.

Blanca Torres: And when I’ve talked with other developers who also have worked on some of these bigger projects, what they say is that, you know, you have to sort of plan for different types of economies, right? Sometimes the market’s really strong, sometimes, you know, it’s not right. And, you know, if you’re talking about a project that’s going to take 20 years or so to build out, I mean, you could go through 2 or 3 recessions in that time.

Blanca Torres: So you sort of have to somehow have a plan for the long game, which is hard because we don’t know when there’s a next recession or what, you know, financing markets are going to be like in 5 or 10 years. So it is a bit of a planning ahead and just hoping that the conditions are right when you’re ready to build.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Is this project Brooklyn Basin a success story then, would you say?

Blanca Torres: Whenever a project actually gets built and delivers kind of on the vision that people set out with, then yeah, that’s a successful project, right? When I talked with Mike Ghielmetti about, you know, how did he sort of characterize, you know, the project? I mean, he sees it as a successful project because the buildings are getting built. People are moving in. There’s shops and restaurants right now. There’s coffee shops, chocolate, coffee, if all goes loopy. A company has committed to taking over a space that had been a grocery store that closed. So things are happening, right? It’s it’s slow but steady. But Mike Ghielmetti’s perspective on it was just that, you know, it took so long.

Mike Ghielmetti: There are bigger targets and everyone wants them to be everything to everyone. You need to have so much affordable housing, so much open space, maximum heights and we just you can’t navigate the ship in too many directions.

Blanca Torres: He was questioning, you know, whether it was worth, you know, 15 years of development to get to groundbreaking versus having done maybe multiple smaller projects like 200 or 300 units and then multiple projects like that, which also can take several years. But at least, you know, you’re kind of ticking them away versus doing lots and lots of planning before anything actually happens.

Mike Ghielmetti: From start to finish, this project could end up taking 30 years. So that’s a thousand units a decade. That’s not going to solve the housing crisis.

Blanca Torres: I think he was sort of questioning like, what’s the more effective use of time and resources? You know, should you be going all in on these big projects or trying to do things that are perhaps a little bit more feasible in the short term?

Mike Ghielmetti: It shouldn’t be this hard to produce housing for our children and grandchildren. And it shouldn’t be this hard to create places that people want to stay and call home.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: You’ve covered the Brooklyn Basin for years, and this is again, the biggest housing project under construction in Oakland. What lessons do you think are there to learn from this project?

Blanca Torres: You know, what I think is really interesting about Brooklyn Basin is, you know, you see it when you’re driving down the freeway in Oakland and when you would look across the freeway before there was nothing there. And now you look and you see all these buildings that have just sprouted up out of the ground. And now there’s waterfront parks and there’s people hanging out on the waterfront that did not have access to that space before. You know, there’s like a salsa club, rollerblading clubs. There’s just people that go out there and hang out on the water. And it’s kind of brought that community an amenity that they didn’t have before.

Blanca Torres: I guess personally, I like to see when we reimagine spaces in the Bay Area and bring some new life into places that were either, you know, abandoned or just, you know, kind of the industrial past of Brooklyn Basin was was basically over. Right. Wasn’t needed for that. And now there’s a new way to make use of that land. What are we doing with the land that we have? What are we doing with our existing cities? How can we do more with land that’s already developed and so that we don’t necessarily have to go out, have people moving out to the Central Valley and commuting into the Bay Area?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Blanca, thank you so much.

Blanca Torres: Thank you. Ericka, It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and talk about this story.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Blanca Torres, a reporter and producer for KQED. This conversation with Blanca was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Maria Esquinca is our producer, she scored this episode and added all the tape. The Bay’s a production of members supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Talk to you next time.

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