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Forest City has a reputation for being a shrewd bargainer that takes on the troubled areas that no one else will touch, then extracts a high profit from doing so. "These projects are often very difficult and require a level of commitment unlike other development projects," Forest City regional vice president Susan Smart said at a recent Oakland city council committee meeting. "In many instances Forest City has been the leader in jump-starting development."
If anywhere in the East Bay can benefit from such a jump-start, few disagree that Oakland's uptown is the place. "There is no place in the state of California more appropriate for smart urban infill than uptown," says housing supporter Ed Church, director of the East Bay Community Foundation's livable communities initiative. "It has the best transit connections in the state." If the city goes forward on a housing project, Church says his group will offer to help with the development by helping to obtain funding for environmental cleanup, and use of "green" construction materials and renewable energy sources.
City officials from San Jose, which began a similar project about a decade ago, say that boosting their downtown population has improved foot traffic and patronage for entertainment venues. Harry Mavrogenes, the deputy executive director of San Jose's redevelopment agency, agrees that building housing first is the way to go, noting that San Jose employed Forest City to build a 323-unit residential complex. He points out that cities often pay more to develop "pioneer" projects, and that subsequent developments don't always require the same aid, since factors such as parking, lighting, environmental cleanup, and facade improvements have already been addressed. "Developers and businesses that want to come into the city will say 'How many residents do you have in a certain mile radius?' It encourages them to come in when they see a serious commitment to new housing," he says. "It's a built-in customer base."
How is Oakland doing with bringing in that customer base? According to Patrick Lane of the Community and Economic Development Agency, as of June the city had 1,055 new housing units completed within Brown's highly touted "10K" project area. That means that only one tenth of the desired ten thousand units are open for business, but they seem to be leasing fairly well. Of the biggest projects to open within the last year, the Allegro, which began leasing last autumn is 75 percent full, the Landing, which opened its doors in January, is at 95 percent occupancy, and the Essex, which started renting in May, is already 46 percent full. (You could also make the argument that none of these buildings is truly "downtown" -- the Allegro and the Landing are both near commercially desirable Jack London Square, and the Essex is on Lake Merritt.) Meanwhile, there are 403 more units currently being built, another 1,007 units approved for construction, and an additional 1,360 units -- including those first proposed for the Forest City development -- in earlier stages of the planning process.
Nobody's arguing that a ballpark would be cheaper, especially since there's been no word yet from the A's indicating that they're interested in the site, much less willing to pony up funds for ballpark construction. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimate the total cost of building a new 42,000-seat ballpark at $385 million, with the city having to pay nearly half of that tab. But Bobb says the park would be a moneymaker, bringing in jobs, tourists, foot traffic for nearby shops and restaurants, and a renewed sense of civic pride. Plus, until last week when the A's renewed their lease for another five years, there was a palpable sense that without a new stadium they'd split town -- after all, talk that the team might move to Santa Clara prompted that city to begin its own research into ballpark construction.
Bobb is so excited about a new home for the A's that he's already spearheaded a tour of the nation's ballparks and commissioned a study to determine if Oaklanders would support using public dollars for a stadium (only if the ballpark is part of a larger housing and entertainment district, the survey said). Supporters including District 4 Councilmember Spees say the ballpark would be a valuable public asset if it was packaged as what he calls a "total entertainment venue" that would include a refurbished Fox, a hotel and conference center, a club restaurant, and use of the ballpark for other activities, such as outdoor films, in the off-season. He also doesn't think the city has to choose just housing or baseball. "With restaurants and clubs and retail all the way around, the whole area becomes a retail area and all the housing fits very naturally," Spees says.
But if the Forest City plan is no easy sell, the ballpark plan has its own risks. Brown and his supporters say that ballparks aren't good municipal revenue generators; they're unused for part of the year, they mainly provide low-paying jobs, and their patrons do little to stimulate tourism or the retail economy in the surrounding areas. "They eat their beer and hot dogs and garlic french fries and aren't in the mood to go to Le Cheval afterwards," the mayor snorts. Even if the stadium brings in money for a while, the team may move if another city coughs up money for an even newer stadium. Corporations aren't willing to fork over massive sums of money for naming rights any more, Brown says, and having two major sports facilities in Oakland, not to mention Pac Bell Park across the bay, might lead to competition for an audience.
Plus, the stadium would likely be financed with bond money, and it may be difficult to get the approval of taxpayers who still feel burned by the Raiders deal. Oakland already pays $11 million out of the General Fund every year to pay down its debt on the Coliseum; Councilmember Wan estimates that, even if the A's front slightly under half of the cost of a new $400 million stadium, Oakland will still end up paying another $30 to $40 million annually to service that debt. "I don't know which city is crazy enough to dedicate ten to twelve percent of their General Fund to building professional sports stadiums," he says.
But if the way the council will vote is unclear, the ramifications of that vote are equally murky. Is the city's desire to capture the bird in the hand allowing it to be played by Forest City, a notoriously hard-driving developer that may be using its dire view of Oakland's economy in order to ratchet up its demands for subsidies? Or is Oakland's chronic anxiety about the departure of beloved sports teams being used to justify an expensive new toy? By trying to have it all, and taking too long to wrangle with each entity, will the city eventually wind up building nothing? One thing's for sure: next week marks the start of yet another inning in Oakland's uptown development game.
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