Oakland finally approves housing development, but delay could kill it

Golden West would add 222 apartments next to BART station

The Michaels Organization John J. O’Donnell with Golden West project at 1396 Fifth St
The Michaels Organization John J. O’Donnell with Golden West project at 1396 Fifth St (The Michaels Organization, BDE Architecture, Getty)

A plan to build 222 apartments in West Oakland has been approved by the Oakland City Council, but the developer says 15 months of delays by officials may kill the project.

The Michaels Organization, based in New Jersey, was given a green light by the City Council to build the 222-unit complex at 1396 Fifth Street on a vacant lot next to the BART station, the San Francisco Business Times reported.

But the approval came after a rejected appeal from a labor group that should never have been considered under state environmental laws, company officials and housing advocates say.

“The council entertaining this appeal has really put the project in a very precarious place,” Scott Cooper, vice president of development for Michaels, told the newspaper. “I don’t know if it can move forward.”

He said interest rate hikes and the rising cost of construction may now prove too steep, and could have been avoided had the council acted when the appeal was filed early last year.

The project, known as Golden West, received Planning Commission approval in March 2021.

Then it was appealed by East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, a labor coalition, which alleged the project needed another environmental study to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

The coalition and the council expressed concern about benzene, lead, diesel and toxic substances that could harm workers and nearby residents. Others said the project, which included 206 market-rate and 16 low-income units, could help gentrify a black neighborhood.

Cooper maintains the labor group filed the appeal to force his company to sign a project labor agreement, which requires union labor during construction. The same tactic was allegedly used by a labor group that appealed a project linked to a Los Angeles corruption scandal.

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The East Bay Residents group has denied those accusations, saying it was concerned for the safety of West Oakland residents, including its workers who live there.

Housing advocates contend Golden West was exempt from CEQA because it falls under an umbrella environmental review conducted for the West Oakland Specific Plan. The city had already assessed the environmental impact of developing the 5th Street site into housing.

Even so, it took the Oakland City Council three public hearings to hold a deciding vote on the appeal.

The council’s dithering to approve the project led the state Department of Housing and Community Development Department to open an investigation into the council’s actions last fall.

It was Oakland’s planning staff that ultimately stopped councilmembers from formally voting to require additional environmental review, the Business Times reported.

But the vote to reject the appeal came with conditions that Michaels provide air filtration and work with the county to ensure soil, ground and water contamination be remediated – tasks normally required of all developers in the county.

“Everything they asked for was going to be given to them anyway,” Cooper said. “So what are they really getting out of this other than potentially killing the project?”

Dana Bartholomew

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