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"Let's Vote On Oak To Ninth Development Project" - Peggy Stinnett -- Not A Bad Idea, Peggy

I think Peggy's idea is the best way. Let the voters of Oakland make the choice!

PEGGY STINNETT, Oakland Tribune
March 23, 2006

ALTHOUGH the Oak to Ninth waterfront condo project has been around since 2003, when the port gave Signature Properties an option to buy the public property for $18 million, it's far too soon for the Oakland City Council to approve the controversial plan.

Serious long-term financial questions remain unanswered. In fact, the questions have not even been asked by the council.

Instead, the council seems hellbent on hasty approval of developer Michael Ghielmetti's proposal, which has grown to a $1.2 billion development.

This deal could become one of the city's most devastating financial blunders since the days of Horace Carpentier, Oakland's first mayor.

Remember Carpentier? He was the mayor who stole the waterfront from its rightful owners in a scam that took 60 years of litigation to untangle.

It appears the council and mayor want to get the project behind them before the June election. But Oakland could be in for 20 years of trouble if hasty decisions are made.

To avoid such a legacy and a shameful political debacle, the council should call for an advisory measure on the November ballot asking Oakland voters what they would like the council to do. After all, it is public land, and waterfront is at stake. Besides being the right thing to do, the council could dodge a bullet.

The next important step could be taken Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., when the council holds a work session on the project in City Hall.

Before the issue moves any further along, critical financial questions must be answered to assure fiscal integrity. If the proposal is approved, here are some what-ifs to be answered:

Signature Properties, also known as Oakland Harbor Partners, has 20 years to complete five phases of construction. That's a very long time.

What if delays set in because the condo market becomes overbuilt?

What if the developer goes bankrupt and morphs into a new corporation?

What if the property turns over many times, with higher prices and different plans, with no financial gain to the city and a continuing loss of open space and parkland?

It certainly will take more than a quick staff report to satisfy these questions asked by Oakland citizens who want the public parks they were promised when the port and the city adopted the Estuary Policy Plan in 1999.

That plan was created by an Oakland League of Women Voters study headed by Richard Winnie, a league member, former city attorney and now Alameda County counsel. The League's plan called for a mix of marine and recreational land and open space on the waterfront. The present plan bears no resemblance to that vision.

In leadership roles then were Sandra Threlfall of the League of Women Voters and Naomi Schiff of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, who are still tirelessly advocating to get the original plan in place.

The Oak to Ninth property is public trust tideland, which does not permit residential development. So what did the port and the city do about that?

They enlisted state Sen. Don Perata, who sponsored legislation in 2004 that enables the port to exchange portions of the property to free it from the residential restriction.

John Sutter, retired judge, former Oakland council member and director of the East Bay Regional Park District board, is urging a close look at the financial implications. He is concerned because the developer reserves the right to sell off portions of the property to other developers who could hold areas for years, do nothing, then sell them, taking advantage of the probable inflation in land values.

Not only that, Sutter points out, but the option was granted without competitive bidding, and at the time Ghielmetti proposed 1,500-2,000 units — now he plans 3,100 units.

The historic Ninth Avenue Terminal, a spacious building that could become a treasure similar to San Francisco's lively Ferry Building, is another hot issue. The developer's plan calls for demolishing 93 percent of the building. Why should this be its fate when creative uses would make the terminal attractive and useful, an asset to the city?

Sutter suggests the council consider what happened to the former Oak Knoll Naval Hospital land. The city valued it at $11 million and tried to buy it for that in 2003. The Navy rejected that amount and offered the land at public auction. The prevailing bid was $100 million.

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, Commissioner Michael Lighty unsuccessfully sought support for a motion to phase in building bike paths earlier than planned. The commission voted approval without the change and moved the project on to the City Council.

When the final fifth phase of this project is completed in 2029, half of Oakland's current population will be dead or living someplace else. Today's grandchildren will be grown with children of their own who never went close to their city's waterfront.

E-mail Peggy Stinnett at pstinnett@angnewspapers.com.
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