When Oakland Mayor Jean Quan revealed plans to take advantage of the federal government’s EB-5 visa/foreign investment program, I called it creative and a good potential source of funds to replace redevelopment. What was missing prior to this year was a healthy, rebounding real estate market to encourage investment. That moment has come, culminating with Governor Jerry Brown’s announcement in Beijing of the Brooklyn Basin development, formerly Oak-to-Ninth (or “O29”). I don’t know for certain that Chinese firm Zarsion Holdings Group Ltd. is a pool of EB-5 investors, but considering the lack of information about the company and the City’s push to get EB-5 investment in China, it seems quite likely. The first phase of the project will include 1,300 of the planned 3,100 housing units.
Brooklyn Basin, comprised of two small peninsulas jutting into the Estuary to the east of Jack London Square, has undergone a painful and grueling process to get to this point. Formally initiated in 2006, the mixed-use development plan went through multiple lawsuits, EIR challenges, and even required legislation to make the land transaction work. When the recession hit, any hope of the project breaking ground before the end of the decade was dashed. Former councilman Ignacio De La Fuente occasionally spoke out for a ballpark as a favor to his developer friends at Signature Properties, to no avail. The land was included in the 2001 HOK study, coming up short compared to Uptown and other sites. I visited community meetings in 2006 to gauge sentiment on a ballpark there, and it was not met with much support due to the infrastructure problems that exist along the Embarcadero. In addition, not all of the land was available, as Oakland landowner J.W. Silveira fired off lawsuits against Oakland to send a message that their slice was not up for sale or eminent domain.
So no, Brooklyn Basin has never been considered a serious ballpark site contender. Could it be a catalyst to complement a ballpark at Howard Terminal? Perhaps. The question at Howard Terminal, as ever, is how will any of it get paid for. The East Bay Express reported yesterday that the Port of Oakland, which controls Howard Terminal, is in debt up to its eyeballs. This is a problem, because the loss of funds from redevelopment could be backfilled by additional debt on the Port. If the Port is strapped for cash, it’ll be hard to build the proper infrastructure that would be required to support a ballpark. Even AT&T Park got help from San Francisco on the infrastructure front. Victory Court died partly because costs to prep the site far surpassed the $85 million that was originally budgeted for the site. The loss of redevelopment money was the final nail in the coffin. At this point there is no true cost estimate for Howard Terminal, and there won’t be unless an EIR is done there to ascertain the cost of cleaning up the site in advance of a ballpark’s foundation work.
Mayor Quan has talked about Coliseum City as a candidate for EB-5 funding, which I can see happening. While that’s promising, it’s important to keep EB-5’s impact in perspective. For the first phase of Brooklyn Basin, Zarsion is only putting in $28 million, or less than 2% of the entire project’s cost. With Coliseum City’s much larger price tag, developers and the City will have to either get foreign investors to bump up their share (which may be limited by how EB-5 works) or find other sources which don’t include redevelopment, state, and perhaps even sales tax money. In the end it all has to pencil out. It’s unclear how either site pencils out with the limitations set on the City and County.