We were curious about the “senior center under construction” where the fire that temporarily closed BART service between San Francisco and Oakland began. It turns out the site has a long and rather unhappy history.
The building under construction was the Red Star Senior Apartments — a name which has nothing to do with the political leanings of Oakland: the Red Star Yeast Factory stood on this site for nearly a century.
Particularly in its later years, the factory was notorious in West Oakland for the odors and the potentially hazardous chemicals it emitted. In this 2002 article in the East Bay Express about the dramatic rates of asthma in the neighborhood, Red Star was called “the largest polluter in West Oakland and one of the six biggest in Oakland”.
Its owners were being pressed, both by environmental activists and Bay Area regulators, to clean up their act. Instead, it closed in 2003, and about 50 people lost their jobs. Still, many people in the neighborhood were glad to see the factory close.
“Hallelujah! I can’t tell you how excited I am,” said Monsa Nitoto, chair of the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, which plans to build housing near the factory. “It’s so important we get this stuff out of the community.”
The fight to clean up or close down the Red Star factory was a milestone for many East Bay environmental and social justice activists. For example, former White House advisor Van Jones, who gave public radio’s Living on Earth a tour of the site in 2005.
But building something new — a transit village, a green jobs center — on the site of the old factory proved more complicated, as Robert Gammons described in a 2008 article for the East Bay Express. The site was bought by private owners who planned to build market-rate condos. Then they discovered a buried fuel tank and other environmental issues that needed remediation. Combined with the economic downturn, the added costs sent the first ownership group into bankruptcy.
The current iteration of the Red Star development was a joint venture of the Michaels Organization, a New Jersey-based firm that company that develops affordable housing; and by nonprofit LINC Housing of Long Beach. They broke ground on the project last September.
The Red Star would have held 119 rental units for lower-income seniors, with “retail space, a computer center, and a state-of-the-art recreation center.” This article in the SF Public Press a few weeks ago included a photo of the Red Star project under construction.
The state’s Pollution Control Financing Authority granted just over $1 million for site remediation. Some grants for the building itself came from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and the California Department of Housing and Community Development; most of it was being financed through the sale of low-income housing tax credits. The city of Oakland did not provide funding.
There’s no immediate word on what happens next to the site. The Oakland Fire Department is investigating reports of suspicious people in the area before the fire began, and is asking anyone with information to call (510) 238-4031.