Amber Tree Apartments lay behind a fence along 200 feet of the south side of Foothill Boulevard between 25th and 26th Avenue. I first noticed them last summer when I was on a walking tour of the 23rd Avenue area with other members of the Central City East Redevelopment Project Area Committee (CCE PAC). Walking west, the sidewalk abruptly narrows to accommodate the first of two motel-like structures. We look down the cluttered central courtyard and saw that the properties suffered from great disrepair. Staff members Theresa Navarro-Lopez and Doug Cole agreed to contact code compliance about the property.
City inspectors found the property in worse shape than we could determine from the street. They red-tagged the property and the remaining tenants were relocated. The property has stood closed up and vacant since August. But this is not how I killed Amber Tree Apartments.
Every fall, the CCE PAC hears proposals for affordable (meaning not simply inexpensive but deed-restricted based on HUD guidelines) housing. On October 5, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) came with a proposal to purchase Amber Tree and convert it into affordable housing. We learned that the owner of this long-neglected property recently died. Ownership transferred to the spouse. It has been in foreclosure but JP Morgan Chase is hesitant to take possession of the property because of its condition. EBALDC was negotiating to buy the property. Tom Herr of EBALDC reported that at least one private party is also negotiating for the property. EBALDC operates two other affordable properties within a quarter mile of this one.
EBALDC proposed to spend $11,557,507 rehabilitating the 61 units, or just under $190,000 per unit. The proposal looked viable if they could attain the funding, beginning with $2.9 million from Redevelopment. They showed their competence in managing other properties; that was not in dispute.
At the November 2nd meeting of the PAC, we had to make our recommendations to Council. We favored both of the projects that came up before Amber Tree, each without serious dissent. Kathy Chao of the nearby Lao Family Services and Ross Ojeda of the Unity Council both asked critical technical questions, but said nothing negative about the proposal. As chairperson of the PAC, I observed the protocol of mediating the discussion, and reserved my comments until the end. No one had voiced a strong opinion for or against the project.
Finally, I told the PAC that I opposed the project. First, that neighborhood did not need another affordable housing project. Besides the two nearby EBALDC projects, another project about a mile away was also on our docket for that night, requested by RCD.
Second, the project was not currently bound by the deed restrictions of HUD affordability. We should consider what kind of property we want to add to the affordable housing stock, since it could well keep the affordability restrictions for 55 years. New construction affordable housing often has many elements to enhance the neighborhood. The design of this project detracts from the neighborhood. Clearly the property needs someone to turn it around. Just because someone’s single, that doesn’t mean I should marry them.
Third, we should consider the impact of this property on Foothill Boulevard. The development of this commercial corridor is crucial to redevelopment in Central City East. The project’s two buildings look inward and away from the street. They do not form the “hard urban edge” we would to see along a commercial corridor. A more appropriate design would, after a reasonable set-back, run continuously along the street with better controlled entry and no hiding places. Windows would face the street so misbehavior on the sidewalk is less likely because someone might be watching—the cherished “eyes on the street” of New Urbanism.
Finally, removing this property from the tax rolls would be an opportunity lost. The property is perhaps 40,000 square feet. Such large, well shaped properties are rare in this part of the city. Redevelopment and the neighborhood might benefit more if a developer tore it down and started over. The lot is big enough that a developer could actually find this worthwhile when the economy recovers. This will never happen if the property becomes affordable.
I saw no further comments on the proposal so I called the vote. Ten voted against this project and two voted for it with four abstentions.
The project seemed dead at this time. I learned from District 5 Council Aide Claudia Burgos on November 19 that EBALDC is still pursuing the project. Affordable housing is commonly funded by tax credit financing. With investors carrying abundant losses and less tax credit money available, this funding is difficult, even for popular, better designed projects. In the absence of a private developer, this property is likely to sit vacant for years while EBALDC tries to get sufficient financing.
Tom Thurston is an East Oakland resident and Chair of the Central City East Redevelopment Area PAC.