What the BUILD Act could build: Tassafaronga Village in Oakland, CA

Image: Matthew Millman

Tassafaronga Village has brought affordable and accessible housing to east Oakland, California, and created bright public space and environmentally innovative design on land that was once contaminated.

In 1945 the U.S. government developed the land and built temporary housing for wartime workers in Oakland’s shipyards. In 1964, the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) acquired the property and replaced the original structures with 87 public housing units: grim low-rise concrete buildings in a barren hardscape. GreenSource magazine explains the challenges the original development faced:

Literally fenced in, and choked off by dead-end streets, it stood isolated from its adjacencies: industrial facilities to the west, and to the east, a battered neighborhood of small, cheek-by-jowl, single-family homes. Tassafaronga Village, as the project was quaintly and optimistically christened, devolved into a breeding ground for drug and gang crime. “We tried to revitalize it 10 years ago, but that didn’t work,” says Bridget Galka, an OHA senior program manager who helped spearhead Tassafaronga’s recent transformation. Deep fissures in the concrete and seismic issues added to the deteriorating scenario. In 2007, OHA secured permission to demolish the project, officially deemed “severely distressed.”

Compounding these challenges was newly discovered soil contamination, left over from the site’s industrial past. To build a vital affordable housing community, OHA would have to both remediate the site while designing a safe, accessible neighborhood.

To help accomplish this OHA received a Brownfields Cleanup grant from the U.S. Enviornmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Brownfields program. The grant provided OHA with the expertise and funding necessary to clean up the site and overcome other hurdles to redevelopment. The cleanup, completed in October 2008, removed petroleum and pesticide contaminated soils.

Today, Tassafaronga Village offers 157 affordable apartments that house over 500 residents. The architecture firm David Baker + Partners designed Tassafaronga’s cream, sienna, and canary yellow walls. The units are varied in form in direct contrast to the monotony of the site’s former war housing. Completed in 2010, the apartments were immediately fully occupied.

The Village also set benchmarks for environmentally sustainable development. Tassafaronga achieved LEED Platinum status from the U.S. Green Building Council, employing recycled materials and green design strategies. The design included solar power for on-site generation of electricity and hot water as well as a green roof. Tassafaronga is also distinguished as the first community to receive a Gold rating for LEED for Neighborhood Development. Sheltered, enclosed public spaces, ample space and facilities for children to play and the site’s proximity to transit provide residents with an enjoyable, safe atmosphere.

Tassafaronga is also catalyzing broader neighborhood improvement. The Oakland Police Department has reported a 25 percent drop in crime since the project received the Brownfields Cleanup grant. Habitat for Humanity has constructed 22 family townhomes as part of a project called Kinsell Commons. And Acta Non Verba established the Tassafaronga Youth Urban Farm adjacent to the Village site, which teaches neighborhood children farming principles three days a week. Several bus lines and a BART station mean the whole neighborhood is well-connected to the rest of the greater Oakland area.

A new bill in Congress could help more communities create projects like Tassafaronga Village. The Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development (BUILD) Act, introduced in early March, would help communities to clean up and redevelop contaminated and abandoned land. Tassafaronga Village is a great example of how federal support can help breathe new life into distressed sites and the BUILD Act would help make more projects like this possible. Voice your support for the BUILD Act: Send a letter to your Senators today.