Port of Oakland redevelopment has potential to revive Oakland

Photo courtesy of the Port of Oakland

For over a century, the U.S. military had bases all over the Bay Area. In Oakland, Alameda and San Francisco, the Army and Navy built installations, trained personnel and moved cargo and ships in and out of ports. But in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, the military began pulling out, leaving warehouse-sized buildings and vast tracts of polluted land behind.

Which means opportunity: when the Oakland Army Base is finished being cleaned up and redeveloped, it’s supposed to have new roads, state-of-the-art cargo-handling and “greener” equipment. Supporters say the three-quarter of a billion dollar project will allow the port to catch up to bigger West Coast ports and pump up their import and export business.

LAWRENCE DUNNIGAN: When we get this development underway and certainly completed, it’s going to bring us to a whole different playing field, not only on the West Coast but globally.

Lawrence Dunnigan works for the Port of Oakland. Now, he said “when we get this development underway,” but, at this point, if might be more accurate. The Oakland Army Base redevelopment is massive in scope and even after more than a decade of meetings and plans, the project continues to face considerable challenges.

KALW sent reporter Nancy Mullane out to the base to see what’s holding things up.

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NANCY MULLANE: It’s early afternoon and Mark Erickson, project manager for the Port of Oakland, has offered to drive me around the former Army base. I’ve got a colorful map of the port’s redevelopment project in my lap. We leave the port headquarters at Jack London Square, drive north over some railroad tracks and enter the world of ships, cranes, containers and trucks.

MARK ERICKSON: So this is the entrance to the Oakland Army Base at West 14th Street. They still have the one sign there.

The sign is old and worn, just like the fenced-in buildings and scrub-covered dirt to the north and south.

ERICKSON: So there used to be a whole host of buildings here. The Army had everything from a chapel to a bowling alley to a movie theater all out here. That’s all since been removed. There’s just that one building on the southern end here that’s left. But you can tell most everything’s been cleared. There’s still some utility lines, some overhead poles.

MULLANE: What’s that pile?

ERICKSON: That’s rubble from the removal of all those buildings. The asphalt and concrete. The demolition debris was kept on site here and all the debris will be reused for the development once the plans are all finalized.

Yeah, this is a new, “green” plan – reusing old building materials is part of that, as is reducing diesel emissions from the trucks that come through here.

Also, right now about 15% of the Port’s container traffic moves in and out of the port by train. One of the plans for the development of the base includes creating a new rail terminal, which would allow the port to move more goods nationally.

As we turn back toward the main road, we pass by a series of big old warehouses, some more than a city block long.

I get out of the car to peek through the locked gate at one end of one of the buildings. The cavernous warehouse covers five acres and is built out of thick beams of old-growth redwood – people don’t make buildings like this anymore.

ERICKSON: They certainly are nice buildings from a historical perspective, but they may not be compatible with future development plans.

A historical perspective. Let’s take a step back to remember what the Oakland Army Base once was.

The base was commissioned in 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. By the Vietnam War, Oakland hosted one of the largest military port complexes in the world and was a major transit station for U.S. soldiers going to and returning from Asia.

But by 1995, the base had lost its military importance. Congress recommended half a dozen military bases in the Bay Area, including Oakland, be closed. In 1999, the Army pulled out.

Now, half of the old base is owned by the city of Oakland, and half by the Port of Oakland. The only thing owned by the army is some fiscal responsibility to clean up the toxic mess it left behind. To make use of the 400 acres is going to take a lot of work – something many people in Oakland want right now.

CROWD: [chanting] What do we want?! Good jobs! When do we want them?! Now!

The Port and the city say the redevelopment will create more than 3,000 jobs over the short term and an additional 12,000 jobs over the next 20 years. Those are big numbers for a city suffering a 17% unemployment rate – about twice the national average.

REVEREND BRIAN WOODSON: When you start the contracting process, put the people in it. We want to revive Oakland.

That’s Reverend Brian Woodson. He’s with about a hundred people demonstrating outside the Port of Oakland’s headquarters. Commissioners are voting on whether to extend an exclusive negotiating agreement with AMB Corporation and California Capital Group to develop the Port’s portion of the former base.  Demolition and cleanup could start as early as next year, and Woodson’s group wants to make sure Oaklanders are part of it.

WOODSON: Alright, we’re ready now. We’re going to go into the board room, the board meeting and we’re going to show our presence, our strength. Remember, we represent thousands and thousands of Oaklanders. We think they’re going to do the right thing, but they need us to support them doing the right thing.

Woodson and the crowd march en masse through the double glass front doors, past the security guards and into a bank of elevators.

As they walk into the board room, Phil Tagami is watching. He’s managing central partner of the California Capital Group. While he’s not been willing to sign a community works contract with the activists yet, he says the base redevelopment can be a driver for Oakland’s economic recovery.

PHIL TAGAMI: It’s one step of many along the path and the process.

MULLANE: So you’re in it for the long haul?

TAGAMI: Oh god yeah. Born and raised here in Oakland. Part of the tradition of Oakland’s working waterfront and not really going anywhere.

But a longtime port worker is skeptical about the base redevelopment keeping new jobs at home.

BILL ABOUDI: Now that there’s actually development coming to the Army base, we’re scaring jobs away again because there’s special side deals that are being made and the community’s being forgotten.

Bill Aboudi is President of Oakland Maritime Support Services, an independent truck company at the Port. He says indepenent truck drivers represent nearly all of the current transport there.

And even though the Port is projecting a 25% traffic increase over the next decade, Aboudi says deals are being made with out-of-the-region unionized truckers to take the extra work, shutting out local truckers.

ABOUDI: We all have a value system. We know right from wrong. People are not employed. They need to be employed. It’s as simple as that. So why block them out because they’re union, non-union? It should be open to everybody.

MARGARET GORDON: It’s not the commissioners, it’s the developer who’s having these side meetings, ok.

Margaret Gordon is a Port of Oakland commissioner. She says the real problem is the developer isn’t doing enough to offer locals job training, and that has her concerned.

GORDON: It’s a balance. It’s a dance here. Okay? I could say the developer gets things done, but how he gets things done, I’m very shaky about. I’m unsure.

MULLANE: What’s the worse that could happen?

GORDON: The numbers of African-American people who get the jobs or contracts on this project for the next – from the time of digging in the dirt to see how tainted it is, to putting in the infrastructure to putting in the vertical and horizontal development to getting the construction jobs – I can’t predict. Because I’ve been on so many major projects on West Oakland for the past 18 years and it never pans out. For the Cypress Freeway, which was a billion dollar project, we’ve only proved that 65 people in 94607, 94608 zip code got jobs.

MULLANE: That’s West Oakland?

GORDON: That’s right.

MULLANE: And how many total jobs were there?

GORDON: Oh, there were thousands of jobs. Sixty-five jobs came from that zip code.

Back at Jack London Square, the commissioners vote to extend AMB Corporation and the California Capital Group’s rights to develop the base. They’ve got until November to negotiate the terms. And according to an industry trade report, the Port expects to spend nearly half a million dollars on additional legal fees to finalize a contract.

The city’s in similar talks, so lawyers are cashing in. But for everyone involved, this is worth a whole lot more. The state has promised almost $250 million to the redevelopment of the base. But there’s a deadline for getting a shovel in the ground. It’s 2013. And if they don’t sort out the details pretty soon, both the port and the city could miss that deadline and miss out on the money.

That timeline has Al Auletta of the city’s redevelopment agency watching the clock.

AL AULETTA: What we need to figure out, and pretty soon actually, is what our respective roles and responsibilities will be with regard to building out the infrastructure. So whoever is in the driver’s seat, I can tell you for sure, there will be a lot of people riding shotgun in the backseat too.

Of course, even with a three-quarters of a billion dollar investment, there’s no guarantee the redeveloped army base will result in more shipping, more commerce and more local jobs.

I checked in with a representative of a large international shipper for some perspective. Speaking anonymously, he said the project has promise. But if the American economy tanks – again – he says, all bets are off – for everyone.

In Oakland, I’m Nancy Mullane for Crosscurrents.