Oak Knoll Controversy Surfaces
As the multiuse project slowly takes shape, unknown plans over affordable housing slated for a contiguous 5-acre property, the Barcelona Parcel, has neighbors concerned.
The SunCal timeline estimates the project will be completed in about eight years.
Photo courtesy SunCal
If you drive up Oakland’s Keller Avenue toward Anthony Chabot Regional Park, you’ll notice a vast swath of raw earth.
In another eight years, if work goes according to plan, this 183-acre pile of dirt will be transformed into a new community with 918 single-family homes and townhouses, plus an 80,000-square-foot retail center with some 350 parking spaces. There will be a system of trails and paths connecting to the regional park, pocket parks, and public art, with a restored Rifle Range Creek as their centerpiece. And some day, there will be affordable housing, as yet to be fully conceived, on a bordering 5-acre tract known as the Barcelona Parcel owned by the city of Oakland.
This is the second year of grading on the Oak Knoll site, despite 13-hour workdays, with more to come in 2020. It’s going slowly because SunCal, the master developer, is only allowed to do this work between April 15 and Oct. 15. This is a common restriction on grading in land developments to avoid runoff polluting waterways.
The property originally was the Oak Knoll Golf Course and Country Club, but the Navy took it over during World War II, opening a hospital in 1942. The hospital closed in 1996, and in 2006, SunCal Ventures acquired the property with Lehman Brothers — just in time for the Great Recession and the demise of that financial services firm. The project went bankrupt, but SunCal bought the land again in 2014. The Oakland City Council finally approved the construction of homes on the site in November 2017.
SunCal did not return repeated phone calls or emails requesting updates on the project timeline. It’s not surprising: Neighborhood and environmental groups fought long and hard to block the development, while trade unions tried — and failed — to forge agreements to use only union workers. (SunCal did sign an agreement with the Laborers’ International Union.)
The Oakland Tenants Union complained about the lack of affordable housing in the project, while environmentalists worried about the removal of old oaks, destruction of native habitat, and loss of woodland. Some neighbors have feared traffic jams and the loss of views along Oak Knoll Ridge.
There will be six access points into the completed community, including one entry from Mountain Boulevard into the shopping center. At rush hour, morning and evening, traffic backs up at the Keller entrance and exit to Interstate 580, while commuters often use Mountain Boulevard as an alternative to Highway 13. Adding not only residential vehicles but also traffic to and from the shopping center could make it unbearable all day long, detractors say.
“Every day, Mountain is a freeway in itself,” said Terry Carr, whose home is a block away from the Oak Knoll property.
On its website, SunCal states, “In reality, the traffic problems already exist, and Oak Knoll is a minor contributor to these problems, and it is required to build its portion of improvements or pay its fair share of traffic impact fees to accommodate the project’s impacts.”
Freeway on-ramps and off-ramps will receive traffic signals, and right- and left-turn lanes will be carved out of existing roads. While Oak Knoll will pay for improvements to Mountain Boulevard where it fronts the development, the city is on the hook for the rest of the work, according to the agreement.
One big win for the community is the preservation and renovation of the Oak Knoll Officers Club, a once grand Spanish-style building that’s been trashed. The 130-year-old building will be moved and rehabbed as a community center for future residents with meeting rooms, a fitness center, offices, and event space, according to Jeffrey Mac Adam, senior project manager for Architectural Dimensions, the firm moving the building.
Oak Knoll is supposedly a done deal. SunCal will build out roads and the concrete pads for the retail center; find retail tenants; and sub out large parcels to home builders. What’s still up in the air, however, is the fate of 5 acres adjacent to the southeast corner of the development, the Barcelona Parcel. The plot is known as the Barcelona Parcel because Barcelona Street dead-ends into a former entrance to the site.
At one point, the city tried to sell the Barcelona Parcel to SunCal for inclusion in the development. That deal fell through, so the city council approved the construction of affordable housing on the site, with SunCal contributing approximately $20 million in fees.
It’s up to the city to determine what happens with the parcel — and that has neighbors worried. They complain that communications are confusing and there’s no way to stay informed.
The city held a community meeting in October 2019, attended by 60 to 70 people, according to City Councilman Larry Reid, who’s considered a long-time champion of the Oak Knoll project.
At that meeting, “The city staff heard a lot. … We promised the community that once we sit down internally, we would come back out, based on conversations city staff had, and come back with other options to consider,” Reid said. “They have a sense of what the community is willing to accept and what it’s not.”
The parcel is literally in Emily and Stephen Politzer’s backyard. They acknowledge that housing of all kinds is needed, and they’re willing to have it over their back fence. But, they say, the story of what’s coming keeps changing. They’ve heard affordable, single-family homes; mid-rise, subsidized apartments; housing for people in transition; even stackable shipping containers.
“We feel blindsided,” Emily Politzer said.
Reid promised, “It’s going to be a great place for people to live, whether it’s affordable home ownership or senior housing or whatever.”
Stephen Politzer said, “Let’s have an open conversation about it, and that’s what the city hasn’t been doing. It’s been very secretive from the neighborhood point of view.”
The Politzers said they only found out about the October community meeting from a relative who works in commercial real estate.
Reid said there’d be another meeting in 2020. He suggested the Oak Knoll Coalition, an entity involved in the planning since the 1990s, would get the word out. But the coalition website seems outdated, and no one responded to an information request. Reid said that “everyone knows” two community members who would email meeting notices but couldn’t provide contact info. He said people could contact his assistant, Patricia Mossburg. Just at press time, she said in an email Reid announced the October meeting at a city council meeting. Community outreach included “the request made of Phil Dow to send out information regarding the meeting to his email list & the Neighborhood Services Coordinator (NSC) for the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) in which the Barcelona project is located sent notice to her list of 500 people.” She did not grant a request for an interview. In her email, she did list email addresses for Dow and Don Mitchell.