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How Community Advocacy Is Impacting Oakland Developments

Office and multifamily developments are cropping up around Oakland, slowly but surely chipping away at demand for housing and office space. Developers, contractors, architects and city officials came together in Oakland last week during a Bisnow event to discuss the latest construction and development trends and how best to work with the city and community to move projects forward.


Wendel Rosen partner Todd Williams moderated a panel with SUDA CEO Alan Dones, SRM Development principal real estate Ryan Leong, Bellwether Enterprise SVP John Ghio, Signature Development Group VP Eric Harrison, UrbanCore Development CEO Michael Johnson and Orton Development principal Nick Orton. Panelists told a 200-person crowd about their current projects in Oakland and how their projects evolved during the planning stages.


UrbanCore Development CEO Michael Johnson, above center with Bay City Mechanical VP Joseph Percia and CFO Bobbie Amos, said the Lakehouse Commons project by Lake Merritt originally started out as a market-rate housing project, but turned into a mixed-income project after receiving input from the community. The project also used cap-and-trade funds from the state to support the build-out of 30% affordable housing within the project.

“It’s clear that all of us are going to be faced with a much more rigorous community engagement process than in the past,” Michael said.

He said achieving one-third affordable housing isn’t standard. Michael said additional demands for affordable housing shouldn't be put just on the developer. There need to be more public subsidies and additional community advocacy to support additional affordable housing.


Orton Development principal Nick Orton said the Oakland Civic project also has been greatly influenced by public advocacy. The firm originally planned to turn the building into office space, but “the public has made it pretty clear there needs to be public accessibility to the building.”

He said the broader community wants the former Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center to continue to support the arts and Orton will provide space for nonprofits and the arts as well as rehearsal space.


Signature Development Group VP Eric Harrison, above with KPW principal Kevin D. Treat, said initial infrastructure construction on Brooklyn Basin is underway. The developer was originally awarded the land and planned to sell parcels to third-party developers, but has since recapitalized the site and pivoted to have far more residential than anticipated.

The project is well over the 15-year mark and Eric expects construction on the first building, which will have 241 units, to break ground in February. The project will offer over 400 units of affordable housing.


SUDA CEO Alan Dones said the project at 2100 Telegraph needed some engineering and land assemblage solutions to work around a BART tunnel, which passes directly under the site. Alan said it required building bridges over the tunnels and building a project of scale “to digest the cost.”

The project led to “uncommonly big floor plates” in the 80k SF range with 800k SF office total and a large retail presence at street level, Alan said. The project will add almost 400 units. SUDA is also working on an office flex space near West Oakland BART.


SRM Development principal real estate Ryan Leong, above with fellow speaker Bellwether Enterprise SVP John Ghio, said his company originally came to 51st and Broadway while it was actively seeking more opportunities for infill housing and senior housing. His company previously determined there was an unmet demand for senior housing in this area. SRM later bought a parcel across the street and developed a multifamily project.

“We felt like this was a great location,” Ryan said.

John highlighted how his company got involved with a construction loan of Signature’s Hive, which will provide 105 units in Uptown Oakland.

John said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were competitive with the project and provided a construction loan even though the site was only 70% occupied. The only assurances needed from Signature was the promise that the developer would continue to lease up the site. He said Fannie Mae will do this type of loan “for the best developers at the best locations for the best product.”

Green financing is also helping many construction projects receive discounts and funding to save either 20% water or electric costs. With the green programs added to Hive, John expects Signature to save over $1M over the terms of the loan.


Another panel discussed working to make the development process easier and less of a headache for architects and developers. The panel included MBH Architects studio director/senior associate and Bisnow event moderator David Delasantos, Architectural Dimensions president Jim Heilbronner, TEAMWRKX CEO/CFO Eric Venzon, City of Oakland interim director of planning and building Darin Ranelletti and CityLift Parking CEO Scott Gable.


City of Oakland interim director of planning and building Darin Ranelletti said the city will continue to improve the planning process. The city developed five specific area plans that help streamline the entitlement process and allow developers to rely on the specific plan’s already approved EIRs. This has allowed plans that normally take 10 to 12 months to take four to six months to process. One such example is the 92-acre Broadway Valdez district plan where over 2,000 units are planned or under construction.

He said a 25-year plan is being implemented in five years. He said to streamline the processing side, the city needs to have adequate staff, an ability to provide information to its customers and an organizational framework to support these efforts. The city also is looking at how it can revise its website.

“We have a lot of things we can do to be friendly, but we have a long way to go,” Darin said.


Part of the difficulty remaining will be in the extensive regulations and permits. Architectural Dimensions president Jim Heilbronner, above with Signet Testing Labs VP Carla Collins, showed the crowd how much more extensive the planning process is today compared to decades ago.


In 1964, there was only one binder’s worth of regulations, but now there are over a dozen binders of regulations and permits (above) to be filed and processed. He said plan checks are among the processes that can slow things down.

MBH Architects Studio Director David Delasantos and Teamwrkx President and CEO Eric Venzon

TEAMWRKX CEO Eric Venzon, above with MBH Architects senior associate/studio director and event moderator David Delasantos, said doing jobs faster and cheaper is too narrow of a solution to improve the process.

He said contractors need to “find a way to put joy back into the process and make it a joyful experience.” He said this can make the process more inventive and creative.


CityLift Parking CEO Scott Gable, whose company is bringing the first automated parking to the Bay Area, said a lot of what his company does is improve efficiency and layout and help cities move away from conventional parking and inconsistencies of parking structures.