A view of the Golden West plot near the BART station at 1396 5th St. in West Oakland. Credit: Ayla Burnett

Citing environmental concerns, Oakland City Council on Tuesday again pushed back its decision on Golden West, an eight-story complex that would provide 222 housing units with ground-floor retail and workspace across from the West Oakland BART Station, at 1396 Fifth St. 

The project has already been delayed for over a year. After the Planning Commission unanimously approved it in March 2021, it was brought before City Council in September when East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, a coalition of labor organizations, filed an appeal stating that an earlier environmental impact report on the site was inadequate and that a second one should be done. 

Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to continue the appeal and conduct further environmental analyses of impacts that may not have been accounted for in the initial EIR. That work is expected to take place over the next two to three months and will determine whether or not the project will need to undergo an additional EIR, which could take up to a year. 

The coalition and the council are particularly concerned about benzene, lead, diesel, and other hazardous substances that could harm workers and nearby residents. 

“I want housing developed near transit,” said Councilmember Carroll Fife, who led the motion and represents District 3, where the project is located. “But what I want to do is ensure the safety of the residents of this particular neighborhood, as well as the people who will be traversing that particular neighborhood.” 

The project is a point of controversy—some residents see its 206 market rate and 16 low-income units as pertinent to addressing the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Others say it will exacerbate the gentrification and environmental justice issues prevalent in West Oakland. 

“No single project is going to solve the region’s and the state’s affordability and displacement crisis,” said Corey Smith, deputy director of the Housing Action Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for building housing at all levels of affordability. “But we will never solve the problem if we do not approve and build projects like this.”

A computerized rendering of the Golden West development. Credit: The Michaels Organization

In an interview, Oakland resident Emily Wheeler spoke against the project, saying it will displace residents.

“I really don’t think we need more market-rate and above market-rate housing, especially in communities of concern like West Oakland,” said Wheeler, who used to live in the neighborhood. “We’re hemorrhaging our Black population, we’re hemorrhaging our low-income population. People are being forced out.”

According to Rent Cafe, a nationwide apartment listing service, the average rent for an apartment in Oakland is $2,772 a month for a 778 square foot unit. Census data shows that the city’s median income is $80,143, meaning that the typical Oakland renter would have to spend 42% of their monthly income on rent. 

Additionally, West Oakland residents are exposed to disproportionate levels of air pollution that lead to adverse health outcomes. According to a 2019 report by the environmental justice group West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, people in West Oakland experience higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and premature death compared with other parts of Alameda County. 

Some residents were concerned about the potential health impacts of exposure to hazardous materials on the site, especially coupled with the already elevated levels of diesel particulate matter in West Oakland. 

“I absolutely do not trust a developer to be upfront about environmental concerns or have our environmental justice in mind,” Wheeler said. 

Sean Taylor, who lives two blocks from the site, disagreed, saying neighbors aren’t focused on environmental concerns. 

“Delaying or blocking the construction of 222 new housing units in this exact location is a failure,” Taylor said. “It’s a failure to our city, it’s a failure to our planet, it’s a symbol of the ineffectiveness of our government to lead and to represent our interests in the neighborhood. Every neighbor I know wants to see this building built. They want more density and they want more neighbors. Please don’t delay this project any longer.”

Members of East Bay Residents for Responsible Development say the project violates the California Environmental Quality Act because the site was approved for use as a vacant lot rather than a residential one. 

The project’s developer, Scott Cooper, said the lot was zoned for residential use under the West Oakland Specific Plan—an initiative launched by the city in 2014 to bring housing, retail, and workspace to the neighborhood. 

Cooper acknowledged that the site contains potentially hazardous material and said it will be mitigated before development. But that work can’t begin, he said, until the project is approved.

Since the September hearing, the developer, The Michaels Organization, has worked with the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health to conduct additional environmental reviews, including soil vapor and groundwater testing. Previous testing revealed residual contaminants in the soil, vapor, and groundwater that can be mitigated through soil replacement, installation of a vapor barrier and other protective practices. Regardless, city staff will take the next few months to analyze whether or not the county Environmental Health Department has found enough evidence needed to move forward with a more extensive environmental review. 

Councilmember Dan Kalb of District 1 closed the meeting by encouraging discussion among the East Bay Residents coalition and The Michaels Organization. He said it is not uncommon for opposing parties to discuss and negotiate matters separate from the city with the hopes of coming to a more timely resolution. 

Cooper said that his attorney tried to reach out to the East Bay Residents coalition’s counsel on a number of occasions to settle the environmental matters. John Dalrymple, a spokesperson for East Bay Residents, said he was not aware of any such contact. 

While it appears that the community is still split on whether or not Golden West should be constructed, more residents at the hearing showed support for the project than not. 

This report was produced in collaboration with Oakland North.