Huge Oakland fire reignites housing crisis debate

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. On Saturday night, residents of The Grand apartment building at 100 Grand Ave. were being allowed back home.

Others had to wait to go home until a crane at the construction site had to be brought down. The crane was successfully removed on Saturday evening. At its peak, about 700 people who lived nearby were temporarily displaced. Despite the size and magnitude of the blaze, no injuries were reported.

"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.

The 4-alarm blaze at the six-story building at 2302 Valdez Street near Grand Avenue did more than just destroy a $35-million project under construction. The fire fueled the 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 nearly 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."

At this point, there is no evidence of criminal activity, though arson investigators were quickly dispatched to the scene. 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 fourth major fire since 2016 at a mixed-used project under construction in Oakland or near Oakland. 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. Another fire was likely set on Oct. 31, 2016 on Lester Avenue. The ATF believes arson might have been the cause of all three. No one has been 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.

Councilwoman Lynette 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."

Anyone with information is asked to call investigators at (510) 777-3333.

(KTVU reporters Alex Savidge, Christien Kafton, Lisa Fernandez and Rachel Ibanez contributed to this report.)