OAKLAND, CA (KTVU/BCN) - A major fire broke out early Friday morning at a mixed-used construction site called Alta Waverly in Oakland between Uptown and Lake Merritt, reigniting the debate over the need for housing and sparking concerns over how the fire was sparked.
The fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of people living in neighboring buildings and it remains unclear when they might be allowed to return, according to city officials. Several neighboring homes and apartment buildings were evacuated over fears that a large construction crane at the center of the site might topple over and cause additional damage.
"With a fire this size it is a miracle that we have had no loss of life, no injuries and nothing more than what appears to be cosmetic damage to any ancillary or surrounding structures," said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
At least 700 people live in just one of the neighboring buildings, according to Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, but city officials couldn't say exactly how many people have been displaced.
But before the embers had cooled, the 4-alarm blaze at the six-story building at 2302 Valdez Street near Grand Avenue, reignited the city's housing debate between those who don't want Oakland to be gentrified and others who support finding more affordable shelter options, especially for low-income and middle class residents. The project, which was slated to open in February 2018, would have added 200 "market rate" housing units in an area of the city known as the "Broadway Valdez Plan," a concerted development stretch aimed at providing a mixture of retail, apartments and condominiums to a city where average rental rates fetch $3,500 a month for a basic place to live.
“Oakland is in the middle of a housing crisis,” Schaaf said at a news conference. “And this only exacerbates the problem.” She said that this Atlanta-based Woods Partners development is the embodiment of what the city needs to help people desperate to find a place to live. “This is a loss for our city.”
The blaze also sparked fresh concerns that there might be an arsonist, and one with an anti-housing agenda, lurking about. Oakland Councilman Abel Guillen tweeted, "burning down housing doesn't help make #Oak housing more affordable. It only speeds up displacement of existing residents."
Acting Fire Chief Darin White would not say if he thought the fire was suspicious or not, but he did make a public plea for any information on what might have led up to the blaze, which was seen as far away as Silicon Valley. Someone called dispatch to report the fire about 4:30 a.m., and a source told KTVU that the motion sensors inside the building had picked up some activity. White said he didn't know anything about that.
This was the second major fire in three months at a mixed-used project under construction. In May, a massive blaze ripped through a project under construction in Emeryville at 3800 San Pablo Avenue near the Oakland border that was being built by developer Rick Holliday. In July 2016, two days after the Fourth, the same retail-apartment complex burned for a second time in a six-alarm blaze. Both of those fires were deemed as a result of arson, Schaaf said. However, the culprit or culprits have yet to be caught.
Some community members immediately began speculating that anti-housing activists might want these large projects to burn. On May 1, 2015 people took pictures of a building that had been vandalized at 20th and Telegraph avenue, during a Freddie Gray protest. The words stated: “If you build it, we will burn it.” That photo resurfaced on Twitter Friday.
To Victoria Fierce, housing is key to helping the people of Oakland. She is one of the founders of the YIMBY movement, which stands for, Yes, In My Backyard. "These fires do not help Oakland," she said.
Even though the fire was so huge, White said there were "zero injuries." The most challenging parts of fighting the fire were when a crane looked like it was going to fall, and when a portion of the building collapsed. Burning embers fell on a nearby Victorian, damaging that building, too. The fire was knocked down about 7:30 a.m.
The project was being built on what was a large surface parking lot and a small commercial building. The building, which according to city plans, was supposed to have 193 residential units and 31,500 square feet of retail. The project also was to have included a fitness room, outdoor BBQs and a dog run with a pet-washing area, according to the architect's Pyatok website.
Wood Partners CEO Joe Keough said in a statement he would be working closely with fire investigators to identify the cause.
"Our deepest concern goes out to those impacted by this unfortunate event," he said. He also hired PR firm Sam Singer to help field questions.
Kasia Gawlik Parker, a spokeswoman for the architects of the project, said that her agency's employees, Pyatok, "woke up to this tragedy and are heartbroken."
A review of city building inspections showed that this site had no enforcement actions against it since it began construction in 2015.
Gibson McElhaney said it was very upsetting to see the building severely damaged; the owners were supposed to have offered market rate units, and the city is in dire need of more housing. "This was supposed to relieve the pressure of some of the housing demand," she told KTVU by phone. "This is very disheartening."
The American Red Cross has set up a resource center for evacuees at the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Light, which will remain open until 5 p.m.
Also, people can find shelter and other assistance from the Red Cross at the St. Vincent de Paul Community Center at 2272 San Pablo Avenue.
It's unclear when people will be allowed to return to their homes since fire officials still don't know how unstable the crane, the site's construction scaffolding and the building itself are, said Interim Chief Darin White.
Alameda County sheriff's deputies will use a drone equipped with a camera to fly into the areas still inaccessible to fire crews in order to try to evaluate the crane's stability, White said.
Part of the building already collapsed across Valdez Street during the fire, and the crane was spinning wildly for a time, buffeted by the intense heat, according to Battalion Chief Zoraida Diaz.
Schaaf said the city will bring all available resources to bear in order to determine the cause of the fire and to protect the city's development projects.
Arson investigators from Alameda County, the Oakland Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are on the scene to investigate.
Anyone with information is asked to call investigators at (510) 777-3333.
4 fires, 4 arsons at half-done housing sites in Oakland
By Michael Bodley, San Francisco Chronicle July 7, 2017 Updated: July 7, 2017 6:53pm
Photo: Jim Stone, Special To The Chronicle
Recent Oakland Fires: The Intersection
A $35 million mixed-use project called the Intersection under construction in downtown Emeryville, on the Oakland border, has burned twice in the past year
The fire that consumed an apartment and retail complex being built near downtown Oakland on Friday wasn’t the first to rip through a half-finished housing development in the area in recent years. It was the fifth.
While the cause of the latest blaze is not known, all four of the previous fires — including two at one site on the Oakland-Emeryville border — have been ruled arson by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said agency spokeswoman Alexandria Corneiro.
One of the four previous fires, which broke out at a development just east of Lake Merritt last October, was publicly identified as arson by Corneiro for the first time late Friday.
Oakland Fire July 7th, 2017 Media: San Francisco Chronicle
That has prompted concern among city leaders coping with a housing shortage, as well as developers who have responded by beefing up security at construction sites and residents shocked by images of flames and billowing smoke. All want answers, but there have been no arrests.
The previous arsons, according to the ATF, to hit projects under development:
A $35 million mixed-use project called the Intersection under construction in downtown Emeryville, on the Oakland border, has burned twice in the past year in fires that were so big they damaged nearby homes and businesses. The ATF’s Corneiro said Friday that both cases were confirmed as arson.
After the latest blaze, on May 13, investigators released grainy images of a man in a sweatshirt riding a bicycle and wearing a backpack in the middle of the night near the seven-story complex, which is located on the 3800 block of San Pablo Avenue. A similar fire struck the project last July, and the second fire happened despite armed guards and surveillance cameras.
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There were no injuries in the fires, which occurred when the complex was roughly half-built. A $100,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to the conviction of an arsonist. The Intersection is set to be built again, offering 105 residential units and 21,000 square feet of retail space.
The developer, Rick Holliday of Holliday Development, has told The Chronicle the fires were an “attack on housing.” The ATF has not commented on a possible motive.
Lester Avenue project
A massive fire Oct. 31 gutted a three-story apartment complex under construction east of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. The fire was reported around 5 a.m. and quickly spread through the unfinished 41-unit building on the 300 block of Lester Avenue.
Corneiro said the cause was considered arson by ATF investigators, but she would not elaborate or specify whether the agency had identified possible suspects.
The owner, who has not responded to requests for comment, was sued in 2015 by former tenants who claimed he drove them out to make way for the new complex, ignoring a rodent infestation and allowing construction workers to tap into their electricity, causing sky-high utility bills.
On June 14, 2012, a blaze that authorities said was deliberately set tore through a construction site for the Red Star senior housing complex near the West Oakland BART Station, shutting down BART service for 12 hours and causing an estimated $25 million in damage. The project at Fifth Street and Mandela Parkway has not been rebuilt.
Federal investigators said they found where the fire started and how it began , but would not reveal what evidence led to their finding. A security guard, though, reported he had been forced to run from the site after being threatened by three young men shortly before the building went up in flames.
Laura Zaner, a spokeswoman for property owner the Michaels Organization, said Friday the company had given up on developing the project and was shopping for a buyer. She said the company was “devastated by the fire,” which halted the building of affordable housing units for senior citizens.
The complex was about two months from opening when it burned down, she said.