BART taps Chinese firm for West Oakland redo

The BART Board of Directors Thursday morning granted a development group led by a Chinese firm an exclusive negotiating agreement to develop a plan to build retail and office space in the parking lots around the West Oakland BART station.

In doing so, the board turned down a competing group of local entrepreneurs, a decision that the local group’s supporters criticized as choosing the group with greater financial resources over the group with stronger local connections.

The group led by the China Harbor Engineering Company will now have up to two years to develop a plan to develop the 5.6 acres of land on either side of the station and BART tracks for retail and office space, though the board will have to vote again to extend the negotiating agreement for a second year.

The China Harbor group proposes building office space primarily for maritime and logistics industries that would benefit by proximity to the Port of Oakland. It would remove much of the existing parking in favor of walkable streets accessible by public transit.

BART officials hope that one impact of the development would be to encourage a “reverse commute,” bringing commuters to both sides of the Bay for work rather than mainly from the East Bay to San Francisco.

The China Harbor group includes locally-owned firms and has pledged to reach out to local and minority-owned businesses to create a development that “celebrates the history and culture of West Oakland.” China Harbor has previously worked on developments at the Pleasant Hill, Powell Street, Embarcadero and Montgomery BART stations, BART officials said.

But the second group, West Oakland Partners, led by the San Francisco-based firm Presidio Development Partners, came up closely behind China Harbor in the selection process, leading many members and supporters to urge the BART board to further vet the competitors or come up with a compromise that involved both groups.

Some expressed concerns that by not working with the locally-led group, BART was repeating a history of disruption in the neighborhood, evoking memories of BART’s initial construction through West Oakland which displaced numerous residents and business by eminent domain.

Developer Jabari Herbert, whose Capital Stone Group is part of West Oakland Partners, said:

“Consider this community. Consider the history of BART in this community.”

Herbert has been working to develop other parcels surrounding the BART station for nearly 20 years and has sought in that time to build on BART property as well.

BART Property Development Department manager Jeffrey Ordway said BART previously negotiated a development plan with Herbert in 2006, ultimately rejecting a proposal he came up with for “various reasons” including the economic downturn.

Others reacted angrily to the BART board’s plan to move forward with China Harbor, pledging protests and disruptions if the development project moves forward. Some board members were hesitant to proceed with the plan given the controversy.

BART Director Gail Murray said:

“The project itself is going to get into trouble if it starts with resentment and anger in the community.”

But since Herbert had already submitted a proposal six years ago, outgoing BART Director James Fang, who was voted out in November’s election, said by conference call that he supported moving forward with China Harbor:

“We’re just giving China Harbor and its incredible team a chance to negotiate with BART.”

The board voted unanimously to move forward with the negotiating agreement, but with the caveat that it has the ability to revoke the agreement after one year if it doesn’t see significant progress and engagement with the surrounding community, a move that Fang said was unprecedented.

Jun Ji of China Harbor said his company’s proposal will “capture all the richness” of West Oakland’s history and culture. He committed to hiring local workers for a majority of the staff and said the company would not be importing staff from China.

Ji said at Thursday’s¬†meeting:

“We see it as a chance to connect the transit system to the community.”

Former BART Director Carole Ward Allen is a consultant with the China Harbor group, managing labor agreements, graphic design, marketing, outreach and public relations.

She said she has lived in West Oakland for 71 years and is working to make sure the development is reaching out to the surrounding community. She said she had previously discussed working with Herbert, but he stopped returning her calls.