A woman attaches signs to a chain-link fence that separates a sidewalk from an empty dirt lot. The signs read "Shell, clean up your mess."
Casey Farmer, chair of Rockridge Community Planning Council places signs on the fence of an empty lot Credit: Amir Aziz

At the corner of Claremont and College avenues in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, surrounded by shops, restaurants, apartments, and sidewalks teeming with pedestrians, is a fenced off barren plot of land that sticks out like a rock in a salad.

“It’s ugly and it contributes to an unpleasant urban landscape,” said Tim Mulshine, who lives close by.

The roughly half-acre site used to be a Shell gas station. Now all that’s visible there is dirt, gravel, and the occasional weed. It’s been vacant for the last dozen years.

Mulshine hopes a building can soon be constructed on the site that would be good for the neighborhood. Like many other neighbors, he’d like to see more housing.

District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, who represents Rockridge, thinks it’s a prime location for something new.

“I’d like to see this property developed,” Kalb told The Oaklandside. “It’s walking distance to the BART station, and we need more housing.”

Kalb also said he thinks the city would require any developer who builds on the site to create “at least a few affordable units.”

Recently, the city has planned for the possible construction of over 26,000 housing units throughout Oakland in its recent Housing Element plan. After the state ordered the city to analyze why housing is scarce in Rockridge and other affluent Oakland neighborhoods, the city decided to rezone and identify sites where 1,000 new housing units could be built in the neighborhood. 

Oakland specifically identified the former Shell station site for the construction of “moderate-income development.” The land is zoned for mixed use, meaning any development would have to include a business on the bottom floor, but the upper floors could include apartments.

With neighbors and the city open to development, what’s keeping the site empty? 

According to the Rockridge Community Planning Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the neighborhood, both Shell and Alameda County are standing in the way. 

RCPC has criticized the county for not forcing the oil company to do site analysis for pollutants, and, if necessary, cleanup of pollutants left there from the operation and deconstruction of the gas station.

“Do not let a major oil company off the hook for potential pollution in our neighborhood,” RCPC Board Chair Casey Farmer wrote in a petition to the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health. “Oakland, Alameda County and the greater Bay Area are in the midst of overlapping housing and climate crises. The county must do its part to solve, not perpetuate, these crises by ensuring contaminated sites are remediated and suitable for redevelopment.”

The petition currently has over 800 signatures.

Shell did not respond to a request for an interview. 

Dilan Roe, the chief of the county environment department’s land and water division, told The Oaklandside in an email that the county will consider written comments from the public about the site and respond to them if they are submitted before August 28 through the State Water Resources Control Board’s Geotracker website. The Oaklandside asked Roe about concerns the Rockridge Community Planning Council raised in their petition, but received no answer.

Will the county push Shell to clean up the site, or wait for a developer to take a risk?

Rockridge Polluted Farm 3
Casey Farmer of the Rockridge Community Planning Council says the location is perfect for housing. Her group fears if Shell isn’t made to do further tests, and clean any contamination, no developer will move forward with a project. Credit: Amir Aziz

Following its gas station’s closure, Shell demolished its building, removed pumps, and dug up three 10,000 gallon underground storage tanks in 2013. The tanks, it turns out, had leaked, polluting the soil and groundwater with dangerous chemicals like benzene. Long term exposure to benzene can cause cancer

In 2015, a county investigation confirmed that benzene and other chemicals were present. Based on this, the county opened up a case to consider whether it should require the company to survey the site for pollutants, and possibly clean it up.

Shell has requested that the case be closed based a state policy that allows this when sites are “considered to present a low threat to human health, safety and the environment.” 

The county has determined that harmful chemicals and indoor vapor exposure could still be possible at the site but that this poses a low risk to people because it’s currently a vacant lot. The county plans on closing its case against Shell “provided no public comments are received that cannot be adequately addressed.” If it does this, the land would remain as-is.

At least two dozen community members have submitted public comments to the Alameda County Department Environmental Health urging it to keep the case against Shell open.

“Shell should not be off the hook as development is likely at this site in the near future, which cannot happen without proper clean up,” wrote Rockridge resident Pauline Vinson. “Most neighbors abhor this vacant site and want to see it activated.”

Kalb agrees with the community members’ requests about the site.

“I fully support the community members,” Kalb said. “It’s possible that the county agency has options here, but they should choose the option that will lead to the most significant remediation of this location. Anything short of that would be a mistake.”

Lucas Williamson, a Bay Area based lawyer who has practiced environmental law for 15 years, reviewed environmental records about the site. He told The Oaklandside the law allows the county to force Shell to do more, and that, given its current state, he thinks the county should.

“Alameda can definitely make Shell clean up,” Williamson said. “I’m mystified why this case is being closed when it’s so likely the low threat classification wouldn’t apply as soon as someone decides to build something.” 

Currently, two companies own the land: Russell J. Bruzzone Inc. and Montrose Investment Company Inc. The companies are attempting to sell the land to a developer. Zack Walton, who has worked in environmental law for over 25 years, is representing the companies in their efforts to get Shell to address pollutants at the site and do any necessary remediation. He’s also a Rockridge resident who wants to see the site developed. In an interview with The Oaklandside, he criticized the county’s decision to close the case against Shell just because the site is currently vacant.

“The zoning anticipates its potential use for housing,” Walton said. “But closing the case fundamentally discourages making a site suitable for mixed-use development. Why not make efforts to make it suitable for development?”

Walton wants the county to make Shell do a survey of the land to determine if dangerous chemicals are present “at levels of concern.” He described the process as relatively easy and said it would “only take a day.”

“There may not be anything that needs to be cleaned up,” Walton said. “It could be really easy to get a clean bill of health. But Shell will resist anything they can, especially if the county is giving them a pass.”

According to Walton, since no survey has been done it’s possible the site could currently pose health risks, as people at the business next to the site could be exposed to benzene vapor.

“In all likelihood this is a problem that could be dealt with quickly,” he said. “But if there is a real environmental problem, it ought to be dealt with sooner rather than later.”

According to the county Department of Environmental Health, in the event that development plans were approved by Oakland, the county would “reopen the case for re-evaluation based on the planned change in land use.”

Amy Shrago, who is Alameda County District 5 Supervisor Keith Carson’s chief of staff, told The Oaklandside if a developer proposed a project at the site, and the city approved the plans, the county could take action to make Shell ensure there aren’t dangerous levels of pollutants.

But Farmer, of the Rockridge Community Planning Council, worries that if the case gets closed, it could discourage developers from considering building the site.

“I really don’t think it should be on a developer to have to go through bureaucracy, possibly by having to file a lawsuit, to get this case reopened if it closes” she said. “It’s Shell’s responsibility to clean it up now, especially since the land is for sale.”

Walton agrees. He thinks if the case is closed, reopening it could be difficult, make it harder to get any construction plans approved by the city, and that might “delay the process of development for years.”

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.