A 24-story apartment tower that two developers want to build next to Oakland's MacArthur BART Station would loom above an area of modest houses, pizzerias and bagel shops.
It's the kind of project city and BART officials see as sensible, fulfilling a shared goal to build dense housing near transit. But to some residents of the surrounding Mosswood neighborhood, the tower seems grossly out of character, a symbol of wealthy exclusivity.
"To some of us, it's like a vertical gated community," said Eden Brukman, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Appropriate Development, a group of neighbors who oppose the project. She and others worry that the tower, which would add 402 apartments to the blossoming MacArthur Transit Village, could block views, clog traffic, and become a nesting ground for San Francisco commuters.
"It's 'haves' versus 'have-nots,'" she said. "The people in those luxury apartments would literally be staring down at us."
The coalition is demanding that the city conduct a new environmental impact report of the tower before approving its design, saying the city had failed to consider its effect on nearby residents. Such a report would probably delay the project, which could otherwise get its entitlements early next year.
In September, the group hired a lawyer and set up a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 for legal costs. Its members are considering filing a lawsuit if their demands aren't met.
The fight began shortly after developers Boston Properties and McGrath Properties applied to build the edifice in July, amending an 8-year-old plan that called for a much smaller building in the lot at 39th Street and Turquoise Way. In their revision, the developers raised the height from 80 feet to 260 feet, and increased the number of apartments from 150 to 402, 45 of which they designated as affordable housing.
"If the context is to compare it to other buildings in the neighborhood, then yes, it's tall," said Aaron Fenton, development manager at Boston Properties. "But it's on top of the most heavily used BART station. And putting high density housing on top of transit is an appropriate thing to do."
MacArthur Transit Village, which broke ground in 2011, is one in a slew of such projects that have bloomed next to BART stations throughout the Bay Area. Others include Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, and the Fruitvale Transit Village in East Oakland, which added a palm-lined plaza with mustard-yellow apartment buildings, a craft brewery and a beignet shop to an area once known for blight and crime.
There are numerous practical and environmental reasons to cluster housing and retail near transit nodes, said Tomiquia Moss, chief of staff to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
"It's not just a trend, it's how urbanism is really done," Moss said. "We have a housing crisis, so we need to build at all income levels. We need to make room for more people, and we need to reduce the number of cars on our streets. Dense housing and commercial development near transit is the trifecta for supporting growth in neighborhoods."
Designed as a bustling core where Oakland's Uptown, Temescal, and Rockridge neighborhoods intersect with the city of Emeryville, MacArthur Transit Village includes three-market rate housing developments and 90 affordable dwellings, a copious BART parking garage, clean pedestrian walkways and new bike paths. The tower would include about 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.
Plans for the village gestated for roughly a decade before the project broke ground, involving countless community meetings and lots of bickering. By 2011, the neighbors were more or less satisfied, said Ann O'Connor, a retired nurse who has lived in the Mosswood district since 1979.
"We really like the affordable housing, and although the BART parking structure is rather unattractive, it gets the job done," she said.
But when Boston and McGrath submitted their new tower plan in July, neighbors balked, O'Connor said.
"In every meeting I've attended (since then), when they show a picture of the height of the tower, there's a gasp," she said. "And it's not a gasp of delight."
She and Brukman fear that the tower will blot out the skyline and overshadow everything else in the neighborhood: the open fields in Mosswood Park, the shops dotting Telegraph Avenue, and the single-family homes that border every side of the BART station. They worry that hundreds of new residents will create traffic snarls. In recent years, Oakland converted some traffic lanes in the Mosswood area into bike lanes, so the streets now accommodate fewer cars, Brukman said.
Above all, they shudder at the thought of affluent newcomers hovering above what had long been a quaint, working-class neighborhood.
"People in towers like that won't come down to shop," O'Connor said. "They're going to order in a lot. They'll have Ubers, Lyfts, food deliveries and shopping deliveries — we have no idea of which kind."
She added: "And they'll have to be much higher income, which is going to create some discord."
"We're not Rockridge — we're a gritty little neighborhood," said Marty Price, a retired school administrator who grew up in the Mosswood district. "And they want to bring in people who will be working downtown for the new Uber."
To Fenton, those fears are unfounded. He said the building would attract a mixed demographic of students, employees at nearby hospitals, and commuters working at biotech jobs in Emeryville. He noted that more than a tenth of the building's apartments will be set aside as affordable dwellings.
BART board member Robert Raburn echoed those points, saying the tower would add desperately needed housing and serve as a catalyst for new businesses, such as bike shops and a grocery store.
"It's beautiful we have developers who are willing to put money on the line for this," Raburn said.
Asked whether the new residents would insulate themselves from the rest of the neighborhood, Fenton demurred. "I'll let the public think about that and decide whether it's going to be the case," he said.
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