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The city of Oakland is planning to build a new fire station in the San Antonio neighborhood east of Lake Merritt, a welcome development for a community that has seen deadly structure fires and encampment fires in recent years. But not everyone is happy with the location city staff have picked, or the process they used to inform the community.
The City Council will have final say over where the station is built, but the plan right now is to move Oakland’s Fire Station No. 4 from its current location in a 112-year-old building on International Boulevard into a state of the art facility on San Antonio Park’s southwestern corner, where several tennis courts are currently located. City staff hope to use up to $2.7 million in Measure KK infrastructure bonds to build the firehouse.
Jose Rosendo has been using one of the courts facing Foothill Boulevard as a soccer field for the past 15 years. The court’s tall wire fences ensure soccer players don’t have to go chasing the ball into traffic when it’s kicked out of play. Rosendo recruits other soccer fanatics for games every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Over the years, he’s made improvements to the dilapidated courts, like repairing broken chain link fences and bringing their lights to play at night.
Rosendo, who lives about a mile away from the park on 25th Avenue, said he wasn’t contacted by the city about the plans to demolish the courts and put a fire station there. “Why didn’t they post any flyers in different languages at the courts with information on who to contact to voice our opinion,” Rosendo said in Spanish. “Our crew isn’t the only one that regularly uses the courts. There are elder Asians, the boxing camp for youth, a Peruvian crew that plays volleyball, lots of different groups use the courts.”
According to city spokesperson Sean Maher, community-based organizations with an interest in the park were notified via email about the fire station project and other proposed changes. Also, about 8,000 homes, apartments, and commercial addresses within a one mile radius of San Antonio Park were sent flyers in English, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese that included a survey about park preferences they could fill out and send back.
The survey informed residents about plans to put the new fire station in the park and asked what features are most important in a firehouse, including whether it should be “high visibility” to promote public safety, or whether it should blend into its surroundings. Ten percent of respondents answered “do not build the fire station at the park.”
Wendy Jung has lived on 16th Avenue directly across the street from the park for three decades and is a member of “Stop San Antonio Land Grab,” a neighborhood group opposed to the project. The group’s members have been lobbying city officials against the project and holding meetings to make others aware. Jung’s group says putting the fire station in the park would violate Oakland’s Open Space, Conservation, and Recreation policy, which was adopted in 1996 and set the goal of having no net loss of open space, including areas like parks. In a letter to the city, the group noted that only about 5.2% of the San Antonio neighborhood’s land is currently open public space, the lowest ratio of any neighborhood in the city.
The group is backed by the Sierra Club, which sent a letter to city councilmembers last month stating that the plan would reduce park space in a low-income neighborhood, which could have negative environmental and health impacts on residents.
Milagros Gonzalez, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who lives on E. 20th Street and 18th Avenue, said she never received a mailer with the survey. Instead, she heard about the fire station proposal from her next-door neighbor, who shared the flyer with her.
“It was just like a simple flyer letting us know that the city was thinking about doing community changes. It had questions about what was needed at the park. What we would like to see,” Gonzalez said, adding that she filled out the survey and mailed it back to the city.
“I answered that we need more lighting, more safety, like bumpers around the park because they’re speeding,” she said. “It also asked how we would feel about having a firehouse at the park. There are beautiful trees at the park and lots of empty buildings around the neighborhood. Why don’t they look into those?”
Rosendo, the soccer player, said removing the courts to build a new fire station without hearing from communities like his is not the right move. “We were not aware that this plan was in motion. We’ve been taking care of the courts and using it for years. Where are we supposed to go if the courts get demolished? Where are we supposed to play?”
If the fire station is built at the park, it doesn’t mean the courts would disappear. Two options proposed by the city for the park’s overall layout would create new courts right next to the fire station. One option includes multi-use courts while the second includes a tennis, pickleball, and futsal court. A third option would get rid of the courts, adding a skate park instead.
According to the city, there are few other viable properties in the neighborhood where the new fire station can be built. Oakland’s real estate division researched various options and evaluated 11 potential sites, including seven vacant lots and three commercial buildings.
From the city’s perspective, the park makes the most sense. The city already owns the land; the location can accommodate the needs of a fire station, which includes enough space so that fire engines can enter and exit; and it’s a central location for the area, allowing first responders to quickly get to any address they’re responsible for.
According to the city’s website, modern fire stations require a piece of land that is at least 140-ft wide and 240-ft deep in order to accommodate the turning radius of the fire trucks. “While not optimal, in order to reduce the footprint, the Oakland Fire Department is opting for a ‘back-in’ station at San Antonio Park, thereby reducing the site requirement to 135-ft wide and 180-ft deep.”
Maher said the new fire station also requires frontage on a non-divided street so vehicles can come and go in all directions. On top of these specific needs, the City Council hasn’t put money in the budget to acquire land, demolish buildings, and carry out environmental remediation, which would be necessary in order to locate the fire station somewhere else.
Last December, the City Council gave staff the go-ahead to conduct a formal assessment at the park for a big redesign that includes much more than just the fire station. The city hopes to rebuild a children’s playground, add a dog park, create a native plant demonstration garden, improve the community garden, while keeping the existing Head Start center, soccer field, basketball courts, and more. The first set of community meetings began in January, and the last are scheduled for April 29, starting at 12 p.m in English and Cantonese, at 4:30 p.m in English and Spanish, and 6:30 p.m in English, Vietnamese and ASL.
Jung, the neighbor, has been a volunteer park steward since 2018, picking up trash and communicating with the parks and rec department about safety and repairs. After hearing about the fire station project, she wrote in an email to City Councilmember, Nikki Fortunato Bas, that “because a profound change to this longstanding park and community center is being proposed, the City should not be in a rush, but rather make sure it gets the careful scrutiny it deserves.” In addition to opposing the fire station, Jung thinks the city needs to do more to improve traffic safety around the park.
“Back when capital improvement requests were coming in from the city, that was one thing we talked about, some sort of traffic stop at this intersection [18th Avenue and E20th Street] and the one on 16th Avenue,” Jung said. “There’s so much speeding, and it is dangerous.”
In recent discussions with the city, Jung said staff aren’t budging on the idea of putting the fire station in the park. “The city is not giving us a choice. They’re saying that the fire station at the park is part of the park’s parcel improvements.”
After the last community meeting on April 29, the updated San Antonio Park Master Plan will be presented at the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, then the Planning Commission, and finally the City Council. The public will continue to be able to give input before a final decision about the fire station, and the wider park master plan is finalized.