A New City Across the Estuary

A New City Across the Estuary


Brooklyn Basin changing the waterfront view from Alameda.


If you went to the Alameda-Oakland estuary and saw Brooklyn Basin today, it might be hard to envision that this large field of dirt mounds adjacent to derelict warehouse space could one day be a neighborhood destination with as much panache as Oakland’s Lake Merritt or Jack London Square. But Brooklyn Basin developers envision just that: high-rise residences, peaceful parks, coffee shops, famers’ markets, and thriving marinas.

The Beijing-based Zarsion Holdings Group has partnered with Oakland-based Signature Development Group to develop the massive waterfront-building project, one of the city’s biggest projects in a half-century. It broke ground in March on the site, formerly industrial warehouse space with marine and aviation connections. The Oakland mayor’s office has touted the project-which is expected to create 10,000 short- and long-term jobs and has a $1.6-million job training commitment in place from developers-as “an economic boon to the city and the region.”

Brooklyn Basin is a $1.5 billion development plan to convert the 65 acres of industrial waterfront property into a new neighborhood full of mixed-housing options, retail, parks, and other amenities. It includes more than 3,000 residential units, about 30 acres of park space, and about 200,000 square feet of retail outlets, 200 boat slips, and related marina structures. The density will be similar to Emeryville’s Bay Street or Jack London Square: a mix of skyscrapers and multi-story condos and apartments, a more open shopping center, multiple marina sites, and dozens of acres of park space and trails adjacent to the waterfront. All that will be alongside a four-lane, divided corresponding section of the Embarcadero for improved access.

“When you visit San Diego, or Seattle, or San Francisco, for that matter, you’re going to see a revitalized waterfront in those cities,” president of Signature Development Mike Ghielmetti said. “So we’re really thrilled to, along with Jack London Square, help bring that to Oakland.”

The land has been used almost exclusively for industrial and maritime activity for more than a century, although there still are regular residents in one section, by the existing marina. Up until this past decade, the land was under the Port of Oakland’s control, with the port ultimately ceding development rights to Signature when the city first expressed a desire to develop the area in 2001. A June 2013 port press release, when the port closed escrow with Signature, said the port believed the need for industrial space there had run its course.
Brooklyn Basin’s proximity to Lake Merritt and Jack London Square has many in Oakland excited about the potential to create links between one of the city’s most beautiful downtown landmarks and its waterfront for the first time.

“The area has been disconnected and divorced from the waterfront for 60 to 70 years, since the freeways started going up in the ’40s and ’50s,” Ghielmetti said. “And even before that, it was always a working, industrial waterfront, versus a place for people to live, or recreate, or visit.”

Ultimately, the Brooklyn Basin project will establish connecting paths and trails between Jack London Square and Lake Merritt. The acreage parallels Lake Merritt and Laney College; it begins near Oak Street and Embarcadero and continues to the 10th Avenue waterfront. It’s about a mile from the heart of the project to the middle of Lake Merritt and about a 20-minute walk to the Oakland Museum of California.

Formerly known as the Oak to Ninth development, Brooklyn Basin, directly across from Alameda, has had a tough time getting this far.
“It’s been a grueling process, but we’re getting to the finish line,” Paul Nieto, Signature Development Group executive vice president, said.
That process has included challenges from the Sierra Club and the League of Women’s Voters, issues over the project’s initial environmental impact report, criticism for failing to include new schools, petitions, even a lawsuit. With the housing downturn, the project stagnated due to lack of funds, and it was nearly a permanent casualty of the recession. When plans to establish a UC laboratory there fell through in 2011, Signature considered dropping the project altogether.

But Oakland Mayor Jean Quan helped revive it, securing $28 million dollars in funding from Zarsion, through a connection with a college friend who happened to be a Zarsion official, as well as getting an agreement for Zarsion to make additional contributions as the multiple phases of development come forth.

It may be a while before there is much of a visible difference in the property, which for now is an open field littered with large, man-made dirt mounds, backhoes, Bobcats, and other construction machinery. The first phase of construction involves cleaning up the land to acceptable standards before building 1,200 residential units, comprised of condo and apartment buildings, and creating 8 acres of park space. That cleanup phase basically amounts to transporting out literally tons of dirt, and simply replacing it with dirt that isn’t full of toxic chemical souvenirs from the Brooklyn Basin’s previous life.

“When you’ve got something that’s been in industrial or maritime use for 100 years, you have a lot of things that were done-spills on the ground and things like that-so part of the process is to clean up the land to residential standards,” Nieto said.
Construction should start by the second quarter of next year, and Nieto said that if everything goes smoothly, the first move-ins should happen 18 months later. The entire development could take up to a decade, or longer-if another housing crisis occurs, he said. On the other hand, once the project is complete, it will more than pay for itself, Ghielmetti said.

“The tax revenue that this project generates are more than any costs that are used to service the site,” Ghielmetti said. “So, from a revenue standpoint, which is sort of boring and unsexy, but very needed, the city will profit from this as well.”

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Alameda Magazine
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