The Latest Waterfront Development Hustle

Where there is the allure of the water, there is no shortage of dreamers, visionaries, hucksters, investors, or salesmen willing to expound on the endless new possibilities.

It’s a tale as old as time. Which is why some of the oldest land use regulations, notably the public trust doctrine, have survived as basic underpinning notions of western property law. The importance of the preservation of public control and access to navigable waterways and urban waterfronts for water dependent uses, such as commerce, may not be readily obvious to the average citizen, but that doesn’t change the basic and indisputable logic and necessity of the rules.

While the hustle and the players inevitably change, the allure of private waterfront ownership and development persists. In the 1850’s during the California gold rush, the leaders of the newly formed City of Oakland began to sell off their waterfront (of course, the City’s founding visionaries saw fit to make themselves business partners in the sale). Ultimately, decades later, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ruled that these were public lands and not for sale.

Most of these lands were reconstituted into what is known now as the modern Port of Oakland.

Given our collective waterfront history, it is really no surprise that these exact same lands are now the subject of the latest effort to privatize the waterfront with a grandiose vision for private development – a new housing, office, luxury hotel, and baseball stadium proposal by the Oakland A’s.
This proposal is for an existing marine terminal, Howard Terminal, which is at the intersection of rail, trucking and vessel operations, and would functionally eliminate the existing buffer zone between residential and commercial uses and heavy industry. The terminal currently handles over 325,000 truck transactions a year and serves as a training facility for members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The proposal has had the effect of unifying the Northern California intermodal supply chain in fierce opposition – and for good reason. Should this project cause congestion for truckers, delay vessels, reroute cargo, result in additional operational/environmental restrictions or litigation, one hundred percent of the downside financial risk of this project rests entirely with the port tenants, customers and workforce – not the project proponents.

The Port of Oakland has been pressured to fast-track an approval for this project, but has instead promised the trade community that it will first embark on a process of evaluating whether or not the project can be made compatible with existing seaport uses. This is a critical and important step which could determine whether or not a project can even go forward at this site or what major mitigation measures will be required to ensure no business or labor impacts will occur to the existing working waterfront.

However, direct requests from the maritime industry to the City of Oakland to slow down their environmental review of this proposal until after the Port has actually evaluated the project’s compatibility with a working seaport have gone unanswered. Instead, as revealed at recent hearings by the Oakland City Council, the City staff is already proactively championing the project as an economic development catalyst for redevelopment.
That’s not to say that cities cannot reclaim or revitalize their waterfronts – they can, they do, and in many instances they should – but only so long as they conduct the proper analysis and review and have a thorough, concerted and honest conversation about the loss of their ability to be a working seaport.

While some cities don’t find it would be economically viable, others will protect and work to preserve their maritime industries and communities. In San Francisco, which had limited direct maritime activity impacts at their redevelopment locations; their ballpark development was made part of a holistic multi-year waterfront planning process. In contrast, San Diego rejected a football stadium and hotel complex replacement of their working waterfront.

These types of decisions can only be made properly after the conversations, analyses, and evaluations of port assets have occurred.

But that’s why the public trust doctrine exists – to save us from the salesmen and carnival barkers chasing the allure of a quick buck and from the dreamers seeking a grand redevelopment of our waterfront alike. Our land use regulations exist to elevate the collective and long-term public good in order to force the conversation about how best to preserve our unique and irreplaceable urban waterfronts.

In Oakland, the next fight will be to see who is listening.

By John McLaurin is President of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.