By Tim Frank---SunCal’s sprawling Oak Knoll project wouldn’t be responsible land use most anywhere in the state. In Oakland, with an acute housing shortage, skyrocketing housing prices and a daily in-commute population that endures some of the longest commutes on the planet, SunCal’s proposal is downright appalling.
At 190 acres, the Oak Knoll project will occupy one of Oakland’s most important housing opportunity sites. The parcel is large enough to fit an entire neighborhood. The city helpfully zoned portions of the land at up to 125 units per acre so that the site could accommodate a significant contribution towards solving our acute housing shortfall. If the developer were to take the cue and commit to a more ambitious program, the result could be a win for the city, a win for the developer and a win for the environment.
Instead, the developer has chosen to pursue an ultra-exclusive low-density residential subdivision with an adjoined single-use commercial district. The problem isn’t that the Oak Knoll project features giant homes targeted at tech millionaires and multi-millionaires; it is that that’s the only housing type the developer is planning to build on a huge, strategically located parcel. Of the 935 homes in the proposed project, not one would be less than 1,600 square feet and many would be as large as 3,500 square feet, all on their own parcels. There is not one apartment building in the entire project.
It is like 190 acres of dessert. On some level it is tasty, but it is also gross, like eating a quart of ice cream for dinner. Some of the neighbors are thrilled with the exclusivity, as it would almost certainly boost their real estate values. But approving the proposed design wouldn’t be healthy for the city as a whole.
What is particularly frustrating about the design is that it could so easily have included more diverse and sustainable housing types. For instance, the developers could have put mixed-use buildings in the commercial district, but didn’t. Instead, their commercial district features short single-use buildings surrounded by surface parking. This is classic post-war suburban sprawl that would have been dated 20 years ago.
Before WWII, neighborhood shopping districts all over the country featured apartments over retail. New Urbanists have resurrected this form and created modern versions that are extremely livable and pretty, and commercially viable. SunCal chose to eschew the mixed-use strategy in favor of single-use districts and a low-density auto-oriented map.
SunCal brags about their “complete streets.” But complete streets alone can’t make an auto-oriented map walkable, let alone sustainable. To be sustainable, a neighborhood needs to meet a certain threshold of density, mix of uses and mix of housing types. This project does poorly by those tests and needs improvement.
The reason all this is so important is that Oakland faces a serious housing shortage that is causing prices of both rental and for-sale housing to skyrocket and forcing too many people to commute from extreme distances. This is partly Oakland’s fault, and partly the result of the cumulative failure of cities all around the inner bay to build enough housing to match their jobs. The result is a true crisis. Oakland currently has California’s highest annual appreciation of home values and the biggest rent growth of the 50 largest U.S. cities as of June, according to data compiled by Zillow.
In the face of this crisis, the Oakland City Council needs to lead, and SunCal must play a part. It is simply unacceptable to use such a strategically important large urban infill parcel to build an extravagantly exclusive low-density auto-oriented enclave.
Rather, this project should be redesigned to accommodate more homes and to include a greater diversity of housing types. It should include its fair share of affordable housing in a proper walkable neighborhood center.
To get back to our culinary metaphor, this is about eating an entré before dessert. But the meal can still be tasty. Building at higher densities can offset the costs of providing affordable housing and make the project more sustainable.