Vast, hilly, undeveloped land.
The Oak Knoll site includes nearly 200 acres between I-580 and Keller Avenue. Credit: Amir Aziz

Signs of life are starting to appear in the Oak Knoll development area: animal-shaped sculptures, an uncovered creek that attracts wildlife, benches someone will eventually sit on.

None of the 918 homes planned for the swath of land in the East Oakland hills have broken ground yet, but work on the plan that was initially approved in 2017 is continuing.

Once complete, the 191-acre site will include a mix of townhouses and single-family homes and 86,000 square feet of shops and community spaces, as well as new parks and trails. The developer is also restoring Rifle Range Creek, which runs through the property but had been covered up decades ago.

Located between I-580 and Keller Avenue, Oak Knoll was a golf course 100 years ago, then a U.S. Navy hospital from WWII until 1996. Discussions around redeveloping the land began almost immediately after its closure. 

Southern California-based developer SunCal first put forth a plan and bought the property in 2006 with the Lehman Brothers. But Lehman imploded in bankruptcy during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Years later, in 2014, SunCal bought the site again.

“Nobody thought it was going to take this long,” said David Soyka, SunCal’s senior vice president of public affairs. 

SunCal is responsible for the master plan for Oak Knoll, grading the property, installing utilities, and getting broad approvals from the city for each of the parcels of land where houses and townhomes will go up. That process is taking place now, as SunCal prepares to contract with builders who will work within the approved design to come up with more specific architecture. The first phase of construction will include roughly 280 homes spread among a few parcels, some of which have gotten city approval and others which are still seeking it.

“The timing of all of this really depends on the city of Oakland, and how quickly they can process those plans,” Soyka said.

Two of the lots came before Oakland’s Design Review Committee in July.

“We looked at the nicest neighborhoods” when coming up with the pedestrian-friendly layout of the parcels, said architect Chris Hall of WHA Inc. He cited Oakland’s old “streetcar suburbs” like Lakeshore, Trestle Glen, and the area by the Claremont Hotel. 

The commission reviewed designs for single-family homes in craftsman, Mission, and “farmhouse” styles. Commissioners ultimately asked for more variation in the home designs before approval, with one suggesting more “ornamentation or flair.” 

An unusually big single-family home project in the urban East Bay

Architectural rendering of high-end single-family houses in a suburban neighborhood.
Oak Knoll will include a range of townhouses and single-family homes. Credit: SunCal

Soyka said Oak Knoll is a rare example of a new, large single-family development in the region, where there typically isn’t “the kind of raw land available to do that.” 

In recent years there has also been movement away from single-family zoning and development, with calls for more dense housing to address shortages.

The Oak Knoll project contains no affordable housing on-site, with the developer instead opting to pay $20 million in fees to the city, which Oakland can use to finance affordable construction elsewhere. 

Soyka said the city ultimately “agreed it would be of greater value to build more homes somewhere else, rather than us building fewer homes in our project, because of the efficiency.” He said access to public transit is important for affordable housing residents, but is minimal in the Oak Knoll area.

However, some advocates who’ve criticized the lack of affordable options in the project have said such affluent, high-resource areas—which low-income residents typically can’t access—are exactly where affordable housing should be built. 

The city ended up retaining ownership of a 5.4-acre plot of land in the middle of the Oak Knoll area called the “Barcelona Parcel.”Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan and former Councilmember Larry Reid proposed affordable housing on the site.

A house covered with a tarp and hoisted on a wheeled platform.
The old naval officers’ clubhouse was transported in 2021 to a new site where it will serve as the Oak Knoll community center. Credit: Amir Aziz

Another previous sticking point was the fate of the 100-year-old former naval officers’ clubhouse. The Oakland Heritage Alliance successfully pushed to save the building, which had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition along with the other buildings left on the site. 

In 2021, the clubhouse was hoisted onto wheels and relocated. It’s now undergoing pricey restoration work to be repurposed as a community center.

From Soyka’s point of view, the restored creek is the “greatest amenity of the project.”

“The Navy during wartime had to do what’s necessary, and covered it up with concrete,” he said. “We took off everything covering it. Now you can see deer and turkeys.”

Soyka said that even without houses, Oak Knoll’s public art and landscaping are starting to make it feel like a neighborhood.

“You can almost get a sense of what it’s like to live there,” he said.

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.