Phil Tagami is Not Backing Down 

As Oakland appeals a court ruling in favor of the coal terminal developer, he critiques the city's political culture.

click to enlarge Phil Tagami in the “War Room” where his company stores documents related to his bulk commodity terminal.

Photo by Steven Tavares

Phil Tagami in the “War Room” where his company stores documents related to his bulk commodity terminal.

Developers are builders. Some view their role in grandiose terms, seeking projects and structures that will last the test of time. Few though are as brash as Phil Tagami, who has delighted in posing for pictures puffing from a fat cigar — a symbol of decadence reminiscent of a society once ruled by hard-charging men, straight whiskey on the rocks, and thick steaks cooked rare.

Tagami entered local lore during the Occupy Oakland demonstrations at Frank Ogawa Plaza in 2011, when he brandished a shotgun inside his nearby Rotunda Building to ward off protesters who were thinking about taking it over. "I'm trying to live that one down," he said.

It demonstrates, nonetheless, how hard it is to stop Tagami. Three weeks ago, his hospital room at Summit Medical Center was a temporary office space. A poster-sized timeline of his effort to build a $250 million bulk commodity terminal at the former Oakland Army Base was taped on the wall beneath a television. Thick binders and other work materials were strewn near the window where he was seated. The day was gloomy and the clouds outside were about to burst with heavy rain. Tagami, however, was dressed for a summer day — a light knit blue polo, shorts, and running shoes, along with a few days of growth on his cheeks.

Last month, the 54-year-old developer suffered a stroke and seizure that revealed he was diabetic. In a 90-minute interview, the life force that has symbolized his charismatic run in Oakland remained strong, even though his health emergency had partially taken away the use of his left arm and leg. Despite his extended hospital stay, he continued to take business meetings while convalescing, and spent an hour or so per day tackling his inbox and texting his staff. He was discharged the day before Thanksgiving and returned to work at his office in Rotunda Building two days later.

Tagami now walks with a cane, though his strength is slowly returning. His prognosis is good, he said, but one thing will certainly have to change. "I'll be replacing my cigars with celery sticks," he said.

Before the controversy over potential coal shipments from his Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal raged, Tagami was known as an Oakland-born and raised developer who helped restore two of the city's architectural gems — the Fox Theater and the domed Rotunda Building. Tagami was only 27 when he and his business partners began early work toward restoring the Rotunda.

"I'm purpose-driven," he said. "These buildings already existed, they just needed to be restored to include modern standards."

Although financing and building an oversized commodity terminal is a far cry from restoring old buildings, Tagami's company was one of 13 developers to vie for the contract to transform the former army base, which was awarded in 2010. Job creation was a main part of the pitch.

"You have to remember, we were coming out of this horrible recession ... when we were taking all the risk to go spend money and figure out what to do," he said. "The courage and confidence was the belief that we could honor the covenants of creating good jobs for Oakland and build the project for our hometown."

The groundbreaking for the terminal was held three years later. Gov. Jerry Brown spoke at the event, along with Rep. Barbara Lee and Mayor Jean Quan. Optimism was high.

By 2015, the politics were much different. By then Tagami had signed a lease with a company that planned to ship coal out of the facility. Environmentalists were raising alarms about the proposal, and Mayor Libby Schaaf and the Oakland City Council soon went on record as opposing the project.

To pinpoint the epicenter of Oakland's coal controversy, you would have to travel to a community in Central Utah and a small community newspaper that could not have known how its article about shipping coal through a West Coast rail terminal would be akin to lighting a match to a railcar full of coal.

"The Richfield Reaper story and that whole kerfuffle in 2015 is what started the scuttlebutt," Tagami said. "That's when everyone went nuts."

Reporters began calling Tagami for comment about his coal deal with Utah. "We don't have a deal with Utah," Tagami said. "I have a deal with the tenant." Media coverage called it a secret deal. "It's so not a secret deal," he said. "It's in the city staff report. And the elected officials were like, "I didn't know.' No one was going to say they knew. Instead, they said I tricked them. That's a horrible thing to say. Can you read the long-range management plan? The city record is filled with it. The story is easier if they say they are a victim."

In his first interview on the subject in years, Tagami had pointed words for Oakland city officials, whom he believes caved in to immense pressure from environmentalists to renege on his contract for the redevelopment of the Army Base.

After the city council voted in 2016 to ban the export of coal and petroleum coke from the facility, Tagami took Oakland to court. In May of 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria sided with Tagami and overturned the ban. Chhabria found that the city failed to prove coal shipments posed a substantial risk to the health and safety of the community. Throughout the 37-page ruling, Chhabria was uncommonly harsh toward the city's case.

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