Fought-over Lake Merrit land could become 100% affordable housing



If the EBALDC proposal moves forward, it would spell the end of a years-long saga around the development of the E. 12th remainder parcel. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

For years, the weedy one-acre lot by Lake Merritt has been the site of big dreams, contentious plans, and delays and debates.

Currently, the so-called E. 12th Street “remainder parcel” is home to around 80 unhoused residents living in two temporary tiny-house programs. Previously, the land was set to be the site of a market-rate housing tower with a smaller affordable building attached.

Now, Oakland staff and officials have signaled support for the development of two fully affordable apartment buildings on the city-owned site.

Nonprofit developer East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, or EBALDC, already has access to $21 million in state funds for one of the buildings, but the City Council will have to approve the project soon in order to keep that money. Members of the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee (CED) on Tuesday voted to send the proposal on to the full council, which will vote on July 5.

That 91-unit EBALDC building, serving residents who make between 30-60% of the area median income, would take up part of the parcel, on the Second Avenue side. There would be studios, and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, including five apartments reserved for “transitional-aged youth.” EBALDC would have a “ground lease” at the site, meaning Oakland would maintain ownership of the land.

The city is proposing another 100% affordable building on the other side of the property, but plans are less firm for that piece.

If the projects move forward, it will be a relief and a victory for the neighborhood who have long fought for deeply affordable housing on the site.

“Today is a new day,” said Mari Rose Taruc of the grassroots neighborhood group Eastlake United for Justice, at the CED meeting.

Years of debate over what to do with valuable land steps from Lake Merritt

The E. 12th “remainder parcel” got its name because the lot overlooking the lake was what was left after the city reconfigured 12th Street in 2011.

The controversy surrounding the development of the parcel stretches back to 2015, when the City Council was set to sell the lot to developer UrbanCore, giving the company the right to build a market-rate apartment tower there. But the deal—according to a confidential city attorney memo leaked to the press at the time—would have violated the state’s Surplus Lands Act, which requires the city to first offer public land to affordable housing developers.

So the city scrapped the deal and opened up bids to other eager developers. The neighborhood group Eastlake United for Justice and developer Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA) drew up a “people’s proposal” for 100% low-income housing. But it was UrbanCore that was selected again. UrbanCore proposed another tower with 252 market-rate apartments, and to fulfill the affordable housing requirement the company teamed up with EBALDC, which was going to build a 91-unit affordable mid-rise tower next to the.

The hybrid project never came to fruition. Instead, UrbanCore struggled to pull together financing. The city granted the developer numerous extensions over many years. Activists and some officials grew increasingly frustrated. Meanwhile, many unhoused people were living on the lot in tents.

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents the Eastlake area and was a longtime critic of the UrbanCore plan, successfully pushed for an interim emergency shelter program on the site, which opened last fall. And in February, the council officially squashed the UrbanCore and EBALDC project. Bas and other officials said city-owned property should be reserved for affordable housing and said UrbanCore shouldn’t keep getting a pass.

Retaining EBALDC would save time and money, say city staff

Oakland officials and visitors toured the new tiny-house shelters on the remainder parcel in November 2021, just before they opened. Credit: Amir Aziz

Working with EBALDC on the new affordable project “saves several years in pre-development work,” said Jaclyn Sachs, an economic analyst for the city, explaining that the organization had already studied the site for the scrapped project.

By approving the proposal, the city would be waiving the competitive bidding process for the site, not letting other affordable developers vie for the land.

There’s an urgency driving this project, explained Alexa Jeffress, Oakland’s director of economic and workforce development. “It’s essential that this approval move forward before the [council’s] summer recess, to avoid jeopardizing this funding,” she said at the CED meeting, referring to the state grants.

All members of the committee—Councilmembers Dan Kalb, Carroll Fife, Noel Gallo, and Loren Taylor—voted to move the EBALDC proposal onto the full council for a final vote.

The fate of the other portion of the property, on the western side of the lot, was less clear, though city staffers said they intended to pursue a 100% affordable building there too. Fife proposed taking up a resolution later in July to potentially ask the city to work on a deal with SAHA to develop the land. The committee voted to schedule that discussion.

However, Taylor said he was concerned about overriding a competitive bidding process for the second project. He said EBALDC’s history with the site and the precarious $21 million made him comfortable going forward with that first project, but that he’d need to hear a similarly “compelling case” to pursue the SAHA deal without considering other options.

At the meeting, Principal Staci Ross-Morison of Dewey Academy, the alternative public high school right next to the E. 12th lot, called in to plead with the city to minimize the impact of the projects on the students. The school serves students who are at risk of not graduating.

“We deeply understand the need for more affordable housing in Oakland,” she said. “We want to make sure that if there are two different projects approved, the timelines are synchronized so our students aren’t affected by multiple years of construction.” The noise and environmental hazards could be detrimental to youth who “have already been pushed out and displaced from previous school communities and have experienced trauma,” she said.

Dewey Academy previously wrote a letter to the city laying out concerns with the homeless camp on the lot as well as one of the city-run programs, where a fire burned down some of the tiny homes earlier this year.

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