Oakland Army Base Makes Headway as Logistics Center

Meanwhile, Alameda Point inches forward without a developer, and Oak Knoll expected to resurface.


Published:

Pat Mazzera

On each side of the narrow tributary at the mouth of the Oakland Estuary, merely a few thousand feet apart, sit two immense but quiet swaths of land. Leaders of Oakland and Alameda have staked a lot of hope that these properties, both past engines of industry that have been mostly dormant for the better part of two decades, will become future boons to their cities, bringing jobs, creating revenue, and making each city into more of what it aspires to be.

The parcels, which have shared parallel histories over the past 70 years, are on the verge of claiming a life of their own—just as city, state, and federal planners envisioned for them. After a decade of false starts and painfully prolonged decision processes, plans to develop the former sites of the Oakland Army Base and the Alameda Naval Air Station have hit a stride in the past year.

This might be the moment where their shared histories diverge—the two cities are taking starkly different approaches to redevelop their former military installations. This is the tale of two cities and their efforts to develop the swords that were handed down to them into some version of ploughshares.

The military base closures that swept the country in the 1990s, despite the promise of peacetime dividends, were gigantic blows to California, and to the Bay Area in particular. The Alameda Air Naval Station, which closed in 1997, employed some 18,200 people, and the Oakland Army Base, decommissioned two years later, employed 7,000. Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, with its 10,300 workers, was also closed; as was the Oakland Naval Supply Center, with 3,800 jobs; and Treasure Island Naval Air Station in San Francisco, with 3,300 workers.

The base closures throughout the ’90s—which also included San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, the Concord Naval Weapons Station, and Oakland’s Oak Knoll Naval Medical Hospital—wiped away more than 100,000 jobs and billions of dollars worth of payroll revenue and defense contracts from the Bay Area.

The fact that so many of the bases were in the district of Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums, then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (and future Oakland mayor) who was a longtime Pentagon critic and one of the advocates of the Base Realignment and Closure process, raised suspicions that the area’s disproportionate pain was a form of political payback. Then-Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris told the Chicago Tribune at the time that the geographic concentration of base closures in Dellums’ own district wasn’t an accident.

“It appears there are political shadings to this,” Harris told the paper. “The cuts are made by a commission impaneled by the former president, and many of the proposed cuts come in areas represented by Democrats. And the Pentagon certainly is not above playing politics.”

Whatever the reason, cities across the region were suddenly presented with a host of seemingly promising opportunities—and many problems. Decades of use by the military left these properties unfit for civilian use with extreme chemical contamination, limited infrastructure, buildings decades out of code, and in some instances, property littered with buried, unexploded ordinance. They were literally developmental minefields.

And, moreover, however tantalizing the gift of a clean slate on which to build a dream project may have seemed, in towns across the Bay Area—no different than in the rest of the country, but perhaps more acute here from the concentration of loss—the decommissioning of the bases tore communities up, took away middle-class jobs that were not replaced, and left cities that had depended on their relationship with the military for decades suddenly adrift, searching for a new direction and identity.

Logistics Center for Oakland

After more than a decade of competing proposals about what to do about the former Oakland Army Base, including amusement parks, luxury car dealerships, residential programs, and casinos, the city has a clear direction. The winning project banks on one of Oakland’s strongest attributes and seeks to deliver the kind of solid jobs the city has been in short supply of since the base closed.

The city of Oakland and the Port of Oakland both own a portion of the 330-acre former base and are working in tandem to redevelop the site as a trade and logistics-oriented development that serves the adjacent port. Oakland-based California Capital & Investment Group, the firm that renovated Oakland’s Fox Theater and the Rotunda Building, is the master developer.

The $1.2 billion plan calls for CCIG, in partnership with industrial developer Prologis, to build a new bulk marine terminal, to house bulk shipments; create a million square feet of trade and logistics warehouse space for imports and exports; build a new rail system to serve both the bulk marine terminal and the new trade and logistics facilities, and relocate two recycling operations from the West Oakland neighborhood onto the base.

The shovels hit the dirt on Nov. 1 for a ceremonial ground-breaking of the Global Trade and Logistics Center.

The choice of the project is not the sexiest option that Oakland could have chosen to give new life to the dormant former army base, on prime waterfront property, full of all kinds of imaginable potential. An amusement park, a casino, film studio, or a shopping mall with luxury housing—any one of those could have been an opportunity to add a destination site to Oakland’s waterfront and increase the city’s retail footprint. Why was this, a logistic center and rail yard for the port’s purposes, the best option for the city?

“It has to do with the character of Oakland,” says Fred Blackwell, assistant city administrator. “Our port is the fifth-busiest port in United States. It is an extremely important economic engine for the city, for the region, and for the country. OK, yeah, it is not something that people jump up and down for, like an amusement park or something like that. It is one of those silent but very important economic engines for the city and for the region.”

Phil Tagami, CCGI president and CEO, says the Global Trade and Logistics Center is the best way to deliver opportunity to Oakland. Tagami’s vision of a working waterfront beat out the competing proposal for a retail center.

“The Army selected the site to fight the war because it was where deep water met the rail, and so it’s a prime location for trade logistics,” Tagami says. “Looking at what region needs—and we see this area as a mega-region, a trade area from Reno all the way down to Fresno—it needs this project.”

The project promises to bring in about 1,500 construction jobs, and then once construction is finished, the facility should create about 1,800 permanent jobs. The hires also won’t be screened for criminal records, a priority for Tagami and for city officials.

“People ask why I am involved in ex-offender hiring, and why I want to address the issues of mass incarceration, and how to help Oakland solve some of these social problems,” Tagami says. “Well, these are things we have to address as an organized society to address education, crime, and basic livability. The recidivism rate in Oakland is so high because there is no job training, and there are no jobs. We need to change that.”

Blackwell says the jobs—union jobs that will prioritize Oakland residents, no matter their background—are the exact kinds of jobs Oakland needs. “Not only are these good jobs and high-paying jobs, but we also think they are well aligned with the kinds of employment strategies that will be important toward an equitable economic development plan for the city,” he says. “In terms of the types of jobs these are, who they will be attractive to, and what they will mean for Oakland’s economy, this is totally Oakland’s sweet spot.”

Oakland’s port exports more goods than it imports—5 percent of its traffic is sending goods overseas. Food exports make up a huge portion of that. In 2012, the port sent $6.74 billion in California agricultural products overseas—47.7 percent of the year’s total value of exports leaving the port. But the port’s lack of staging and storage facilities holds it back, Tagami says. Traffic would grow with state-of-the-art cold-storage and warehousing options.

Oakland’s port has been able to survive as one of the nation’s top ports because of its strategic location relative to the Far East and its considerable depth of the water. Those attributes used to be enough, Blackwell says, but with the growing demand to ease the transition from water to rail and facilities for storage for imported and exported goods, Oakland is losing that edge.

Fifteen years after the base closed, the future might be close. The city took advantage of a $242 million state grant for transportation corridor improvements that it would have lost if not used last year. The $500 million first phase also includes a $50 million investment from the city, $15 million from the port, and about $125 million CCGI and Prologis.

Chris Lytle, executive director of the Port of Oakland, says the logistics center and rail projects for the former army base makes sense for both the city and the port.

“When you look around the country, no other port has this much land dedicated to warehousing, rail, and offloading,” he says. “This project speaks to the great efficiency that Oakland with have for loading and offloading vessels. Oakland has a growing export market of goods to be shipped overseas. This army base development will continue to put Oakland in a better position.”

Lytle says it’s important to the shipping firms and clients that do business with the port that this project has been presented as a single big project with lock-step cooperation between the city and the port, rather than two separate projects. The Port of Oakland, responsible for 73,000 local jobs, controls 185 acres of the former army base, and the city of Oakland owns 228 acres. “The biggest benefit is the chance for the Port of Oakland to continue to grow in a sensible, well-planned way,” Lytle says. “None of these things can succeed if the community is not happy with it. This project can create thousands of jobs and allow the Port of Oakland to differentiate itself from other ports and get the goods that should be going through Oakland.”

The plan includes the relocation of two recycling plants from West Oakland onto the base and will reduce truck traffic in and out of the port by converting more shipments to rail, Tagami says. Goods coming into the port need to be trucked to Tracy to be put on a train to move across the country. “The more trucks we take off roads and put shipments on rails, the safer the highways will be, and it will mean a reduction in emissions.”

Alex Miller-Cole, co-chairman of West Oakland Neighbors, a coalition of residents and businesses in West Oakland, and a resident of the neighborhood next to the port for 15 years, says he is cautious about putting too much hope in the plan. Distrust has built up between the city and the under-served neighborhood over the years, and Miller-Cole says he is skeptical that the touted community benefits will be realized. He hopes he is wrong.

“We’re very excited the project is moving forward and hoping that this will be a place for good jobs,” he says. “We’re always concerned about the truck traffic, and we don’t want to increase the trucks that roll through the neighborhood everyday and pollution that they bring.”

About 10,000 truck trips each day, many from the port, clog and jostle the neighborhood. West Oakland children have a much higher than average rate of respiratory illness. “Recently, the port released new data that shows a reduction in port pollution, and yet, my home is still covered in black soot,” Miller-Cole says. “More needs to be done.”

 He has heard Tagami extoll the community attributes of the project and likes what he hears, but says he is reserving judgment until he sees results. “We have learned over the years not to believe anything those guys say,” Miller-Cole says. “They will say anything to get their project done, so the proof is in the pudding.” In addition, he suspects the 50 percent local-hire provision will also amount to less than promised. With the state-of-the-art facilities requiring more robotics than manpower, he wonders how many workers might really be needed. Businesses, including Pacific Coast Container Logistics, that operate on the former base have been evicted to make way for the new construction, he says, and there is no guarantee they will be asked back. So far, he says, the only result he has seen from the project has been a loss of local jobs.

“I hope the city and the mayor and the City Council will do what they say they will do, and bring the jobs to West Oakland,” he says. “But I’ll believe it when I see it. As they say, hope is the last thing to die, but we feel we have been fooled before, so they don’t have the trust of the community. I’ll wait and see. If something good comes out of this, then that’s great.”

Housing, Business for Alameda

Alameda’s past decade of searching for a direction to bring new development to the former Naval Air Station, now called Alameda Point, has been a traumatic one. Twice the city has brought in a master developer to take charge of the project, and twice the arrangement has blown up.

The first time was in 2006, when the agreement with Alameda Community Partners fell apart after the investors backed away from the negotiations over a plan to build 1,700 homes on the site. The second time was in 2010, when city voters soundly rejected a plan by SunCal Companies to build more than 4,000 residential units on the land.

The Alameda City Council unanimously approved the EIR and other plan documents for the site on Feb. 4, freeing the way for forward movement on development for Alameda Point.

The city this time skipped hiring a master developer to control the process and to design a vision for the site. Instead the city is taking on that role and spent two years getting input from the public and working on the zoning and environmental impact documents.

The city’s vision for the Alameda Point development projects will support 9,000 jobs. About 1,000 people now work there. The plan will allow for 1,425 housing units, 5.5 million square feet of commercial space, 250 acres of open space, and 10 miles of recreational trails.

City Manger John Russo came to Alameda in June 2011 after serving as Oakland city attorney for more than a decade. He was not around for the dissolution of the SunCal project, but he arrived just in time to restore momentum to a battered process.

“We said, ‘Let’s stop and take a deep breath; why doesn’t the city do the environmental impact reports? We’ll invest the $2 million up front, we’ll do all the entitlement hurdles, we’ll do the zoning and the infrastructure plan.’ That way we’re having a direct and transparent dialogue with the public about what it is we want to put out there,” Russo says. “Once this process is done, then we’ll go to the development community and say here’s what the people of Alameda have decided the envelopes are for what can be built where.”

Consequently, the current plan doesn’t have the level of details that some Alameda residents have demanded. Russo is asking the community to live with the ambiguity for a bit longer. It’s a lot to ask for in a base reuse process that has taken 17 years so far and has no on-the-ground development to show for it.

“What we needed to do was create a very flexible document that excludes the things we don’t want and encourages the kinds of massing, how big, how tall the buildings will be, and in which locations, that we do want,” Russo says. “And after we’ve done all the environmental reports and done all studies, then we go to the investment community and say, ‘If you do something that fits in this envelope, then you don’t have to do an EIR, you save 18 months and a couple million dollars.’ ”

Ask Russo what Alameda Point will look like in a decade and he shrugs. “To be honest I don’t know what it will look like, and this makes people uncomfortable when I say this because you are supposed to have a plan that solves it all, but no one’s plans ever work that way,” Russo says.

He hopes that in a decade, Alameda Point will be a growing residential and business village with good water transit and bus connections. The plan includes a section of dense residential development as well as a separate residential neighborhood of family homes and duplexes. The historical area will be reused. It will be 30 years, Russo guesses, before the future of the point is fully realized.

Mark Greenside, who moved to Alameda’s West End eight years ago after living in Oakland for 30 years, fears the plans to develop the point have been rushed and ill planned. He says he worries the city’s plan will flood the already congested island with traffic and leave the historic site a jumble of poorly designed development projects.

“This island is just a little gem, and I’m worried it won’t be a little gem when they are finished with it,” Greenside says. “My main objection to this plan is the congestion and gridlock it will bring. There is simply no place to put more cars. The traffic during commute times is bad enough now, and the city has made it clear there will be no more tubes or bridges built. Just telling people not to drive is not a traffic plan—they have no traffic plan.”

Greenside says he would have rather the city hold a design competition for the former air station, to give coherence to the future development. He says his concern is that the end result will be an uninspired mishmash of the same generic architecture that characterizes most new developments.

“Alameda Point is a very special place, and it could be a very exciting destination if done right,” he says. “It’s a huge open space surrounded by water. It’s gorgeous, and they should be looking at something on a grand scale to recognize the grandeur of the place. Whatever is done there shouldn’t be done piecemeal.”

After years of haggling over the specifics of the deed-transfer, the Navy handed over ownership of the base in June. The city only took possession of 70 percent of the island, waiting on the remainder while the Navy continues to clean up contaminated soil. “One of the problems, and why nothing happened for 17 years, was the city didn’t own the property,” Russo says. “Some of those hangers need new roofs; they need plumbing; they need AC. They need everything.”

Alameda is lobbying in Washington this year for the U.S. Department of the Interior to make the area around the landing strips a national wildlife refuge. “This was a national resource when it was a base, and it should be a national resource again,” Russo says. “The idea that you could have this fabulous wildlife refuge where you could hike where you could have exposure to wildlife with this fantastic skyline there as well is an unmatched opportunity.”

Apart from the remaining contamination, much of the concern over building up the west tip of Alameda has been over the traffic it’s bound to bring to the island. But, Russo points out, the site has handled a lot of jobs in the past. “When this was a working Navy base with 12,000 jobs here, people came through the tube in the morning to get here, and that tube is still there; you don’t need new infrastructure,” he says. “Ideally, we’ll have people living and working out there.”

Make no mistake, says Jennifer Ott, chief operating officer in charge of Alameda Point, new development on the point will bring traffic. “There is going to be significant impacts; we’re being up front about that,” she says. “We need to get people out of their cars and on to transit and have people working and living on the base. The answer isn’t building more roads.”

Alameda will grow over the next decade with or without the base, and traffic will be a concern wherever the growth is, she says. The advantage of concentrating the new development on Alameda Point is that it gives the city room to expand without compromising existing neighborhoods.

Ott has worked on the future of Alameda Point for the past 10 years, the last four as the point person for the city. She worked through the prior two development deals that fell apart. There are still many details to be worked out, but she is optimistic that, for this project, the third time will be the charm.

“I’m excited to be getting closer to getting a new community in Alameda and doing it responsibly and seeing the community’s vision implemented,” Ott says. “After 20 years, I’m looking forward to not just talking about it anymore, but actually doing it. The city has spent lots of time and energy working with the community to make sure our plans reflect their vision for the site. Hopefully this will minimize the uncertainty for the developers.”

Russo says he hopes both Alameda and Oakland have found their way past the false starts and civic dreaming that have stalled attempts to convert the bases thus far.

“Oakland had a difficult experience with its base reuse process for a lot of the same reason that Alameda did,” he says. “Expectations were created through the BRAC process that were not grounded in economic reality. There is a tendency for people who want to make change—and rightly so to want to make change in the world because they feel like things are not as they should be—to look at every project as an opportunity to solve every problem. But that’s not how economic development works or should work.”

Optimistic About the Future

For both Alameda and Oakland, the prospect of reusing their military installations for civilian purposes, to drive job growth and create revenue, is, after almost two decades of uncertainty and inaction, a promising but uncertain venture. In each case the envisioned job creation will be half or less of the workforce that used to populate the bases. It could be enough to make a city administrator wish for the good old days when war preparations were still in full swing and the bases were operating at capacity. If that’s the case here, these cities aren’t letting on.

“It’s was a different time; the city has moved on,” Russo says. “Now that you don’t have all those sailors out there, you have a Webster Street that isn’t just a bunch of seedy places for young men to go get into trouble when they are on break. The feds didn’t pay property tax out there and didn’t pay sales tax, but it did generated a lot of spin-off jobs.”

The wounds from the station closure are still painful and the community hasn’t fully recovered, Russo says.

“For Alameda itself in the long run, we’ll do fine,” he says. “If we stick to our patient-but-deliberate plan of developing the base, where we don’t do growth for growth’s sake but every deal the city makes out there pays for the infrastructure and generates revenue for the city’s general fund, if we do this right, and do it patiently, yet we move quickly when the opportunities are there—in the long run the city will be just as well off if not better off than it was before.”

For Alameda, Russo says, the base reuse is an opportunity not so much to regain some of the activity that was lost when the Navy moved out, but rather a chance to restore the character of the city to a semblance of what it was before the Navy arrived.

“It’s an opportunity for Alameda to rebalance itself back to what Alameda was prior to the Second World War,” Russo says. “Alameda used to have refineries and canneries and shipyards, and then as that started to lessen there was the Alameda Naval Air Station. There were jobs in Alameda back then. Alameda was a city of integrity, and I mean that both from a moral perspective, ‘integrity,’ but also as an ‘integral.’ There were jobs and houses here, people went to work in Alameda, and we have somewhat moved away from that with the closing of the base. There needs to be more work happening.”

And for Oakland, does Blackwell wish Oakland could have an operating army base again?

“Obviously, the easier way for this to have gone was to have the army base continue operating and to go on from there,” Blackwell says. “But for me, it’s hard to remove the Army Base from what it symbolizes. The army base closure represented a change in the times, in terms of how the country invested in defense, and for a variety of reasons it became unsustainable for the government to maintain all the bases at the level that they were. So, it’s done.”

No, he says, he wouldn’t wish an active base on the waterfront back into existence; he’d rather bet on today’s Oakland, with all its attendant challenges and opportunities.

“What we got here is a project that has been stalled for about a decade, land that has been underutilized for longer than that period of time, and we are on the cusp of turning it back into the kind of economic engine that the Oakland Army Base once was,” Blackwell says. “It has a double-bottom line in terms of creating revenue and addressing environmental justice issues in West Oakland, and it’s right in Oakland’s sweet spot in terms of what the city has historically been known for.”

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