Construction is beginning on a 181-unit affordable housing development near the Fruitvale BART station. Credit: Amir Aziz

Dozens of community members and Oakland and state officials turned out Thursday morning for the groundbreaking of “Casa Sueños,” an affordable housing project whose construction will bring the 30-year effort to establish a “transit village” by the Fruitvale BART station near conclusion.

The 181-unit complex, set for a city-owned site that was once a BART parking lot, will include studios and apartments with one to three bedrooms, all for tenants making 20-80% of the area median income. Forty-six of the units will house chronically homeless residents making under 20% AMI, who will have access to medical and social services. 

Casa Sueños will also include 7,500 square feet of commercial space, rented at a below-market rate to Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, or CURYJ, a youth leadership nonprofit serving young people who’ve been impacted by the criminal-justice and foster-care systems. 

The mood at Thursday’s gathering, which took place under a tent at the dusty construction site, was one of celebration—and relief.

“I am still in complete disbelief,” said Smitha Seshadri, executive vice president of BRIDGE Housing, which is developing the $131 million project with the Unity Council. SVA Architects has worked on all stages of the village project. 

The crowd in attendance before the opening remarks
Fruitvale community members and local leaders gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony. Credit: Amir Aziz

The first phase of the Fruitvale Transit Village opened in 2003. The project included the mixed-income housing, retail and community space, and plaza that now stretches between the BART station and International Boulevard. The project has been recognized nationally as a model “transit-oriented development” complex, where housing, along with basic services and amenities, including a health clinic and library, are clustered around public transit, reducing the need for driving. Some speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony noted that the project has become “required reading” in urban planning courses. 

But the second phase, the 94-unit affordable housing complex Casa Arabella, didn’t break ground until more than a decade later, in 2018. Residents moved in just a few months before the pandemic began. Casa Sueños, expected to complete construction in roughly 27 months, is the final residential component. Another planned development, Juntos Fruitvale, would renovate the vacant Masonic Temple and include offices, meeting space, and economic development services.

“This has been a 30-year journey,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf, who worked on the first phase of the village as an aide to then-City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente. She said she credits the project with teaching her many of the ins and outs of housing finance. 

Schaaf was one of many speakers—who were periodically drowned out by BART trains screeching overhead—to shower praise on the Unity Council. 

“This started with a fight that Arabella Martinez picked with BART,” said Schaaf, referring to the woman who founded the Unity Council in the 1960s. “BART planned to build a parking garage—to turn its back on the community. Arabella said, ‘Bullshit!’”

Martinez was in attendance at the groundbreaking, and told The Oaklandside that the Casa Sueños groundbreaking is “tremendously rewarding to see.” 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff speaks to the crowd
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recalled working on the first phase of the Fruitvale Transit Village as a council aide years ago. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Martinez returned to Oakland in 1990 after some years away, and reclaimed her Unity Council post, “Fruitvale was a mess,” she said. Community members wanted cleaner streets and safer environments where their kids could play. BART, at the time, felt like it was “sort of separate from the rest of Fruitvale.” 

“It was a big barrier—people were afraid to get off at this station, and they’d rush to their cars,” Martinez said. Her organization successfully resisted the transit agency’s plans to build an imposing parking structure, and eventually BART approached the Unity Council with the idea for a transit-oriented development. 

“We did not look at this as simply buildings or housing,” Martinez said. “We were about the business of revitalizing—economically, physically, and socially.” Now, mothers can drop their children off at the preschool and go to work, she said, and residents can get the medical attention they need at La Clínica before shopping at local stores.

But even after winning the battle with BART, the Unity Council and its collaborators hit other roadblocks along the way. After the transit village’s first phase was built, the Great Recession hit and “everything stopped—there wasn’t any financing,” Martinez said. At Thursday’s event, project leaders talked about other barriers, like Trump-era changes to corporate tax rates, which affected affordable housing financing, and the difficulty of pulling together numerous different funding sources. Casa Sueños is funded by city and county subsidies—including the largest single allocation from county affordable housing bond measure A1—as well as several state sources. 

Sueños means “dreams” in Spanish, but Unity Council CEO Chris Iglesias joked that he called it “Casa Nightmares” for several months, “until we closed the damn thing.”  

He told The Oaklandside that he wants the transit village to serve as a model for other nearby and neglected neighborhoods.

“East Oakland deserves this kind of development, and this shows it can be done,” he said. 

Fruitvale Village as seen from leaving Fruitvale Bart Station
The Fruitvale Transit Village has received national recognition in urban planning circles. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the years since the Unity Council butted heads with BART, cities and transportation agencies have embraced transit-oriented development, and BART itself now has a goal of building thousands of units on its properties. A 2018 state law gave the agency wider authority to build and set its own development standards. Recently, proposals to create hundreds of new units at both the West Oakland and Lake Merritt stations have received initial approval.

During the ceremony, Iglesias spoke about the significance of opening an affordable housing development in a community that’s been hit hard by COVID-19

“This is the land of essential workers,” he said. “They are the ones that have been carrying our economy.” 

George Galvis, executive director of CURYJ, said his organization’s new center at Casa Sueños will serve and foster the leadership of many local youth, as well. 

“We absolutely believe this will be a hub towards decarceration in Alameda County by addressing root causes and creating a safe haven for young people who’ve been formerly incarcerated and systems-impacted,” Galvis said at the event. 

He announced that the center will be named the Oscar Grant Youth Empowerment Zone at Fruitvale Station. Grant was killed by BART police at the station on New Year’s Day in 2009, when he was 22. The shooting, captured on one of the first onlooker phone videos to go viral, set off massive protests and a reckoning over police violence against unarmed Black men. 

Several members of Grant’s family, including his daughter and grandchild, attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

Correction: This story originally described Casa Sueños as the final component of the Fruitvale Transit Village project. Casa Sueños is the last residential complex, but an additional planned element, Juntos Fruitvale, would add offices, meeting space, and economic development services to the village.

Natalie Orenstein headshot

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.