'It's unacceptable:' Asbestos discovery leads to indefinite halt of Oakland mall construction

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A hulking, half-demolished, now-defunct Chase Bank now sits at the corner of a prominent corner in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. And it will continue to sit there indefinitely. 

That’s because the developer of Shops at the Ridge at the corner of Broadway and Pleasant Valley, in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, found asbestos in April and had to stop all construction, according to the developer and the city. Demolition on the building began five months prior to the discovery, the city said, in November 2016. Asbestos, which was a popular building material first used in the 1950s, is dangerous only when inhaled over a long period of time.

And despite resident concerns over the fibers being potentially released, according to the city, the contractor discovered the asbestos before it got into the air. Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesman Walter Wallace said the asbestos was found in a tarlike material wrapped in paper. And if the developer wants to resume tearing down the building, the company would have to notified the district first.

In an email on Sunday to KTVU, TRC Retail's director of property management said that the asbestos is "specifically contained in the roof deck and no airborne hazards exist." 

But the discovery of the asbestos was just the tipping point for the construction stoppage.

The developer, TRC, doesn’t have any scheduled timetable to resume demolition or complete the retail project that was supposed to anchor the edge of the affluent neighborhood instead of looking like a construction war zone, according to its property manager and the city.

“I’m frustrated,” said Stuart Flashman, the chair of the Rockridge Community Planning Council who has been working on this project as an involved citizen for a decade. “It’s like you were promised a five-course meal and instead just got drinks and the appetizers.”

Neighbor Pamela Farmer put it more bluntly: "I think it's hideous. I’d like it to come down. I hear it has asbestos and I have asthma. That makes me a little nervous. It looks like Baghdad. It looks really bad. It looks like the seed of urban blight."

TRC property manager Shannon Naraghi told KTVU that the cost of the asbestos removal is hugely expensive and that her company is now rethinking its original plans to finish the second phase of the retail project at The Ridge, mostly because the retail industry is faltering throughout the country. Forbes recently wrote a piece called “Retail is Dead,” and cited the downsizing or closing of Macy’s, Sears, CVS stores and more, all because of online shopping.

In fact, Safeway, the original developer of the project before TRC took over,  began closing stores all over the country in 2015.

“The temperature of retail has changed,” she noted. “People are more cautious now.”

The first part of The Ridge is done: A gleaming new Safeway and Chase Bank stand along a row of palm trees on the Pleasant Valley Avenue side of the road. Smaller shops and restaurants also dot the updated strip mall. The second part of the project – the part that fronts Broadway – remains unfinished, and by all accounts – an eyesore. A crane has knocked down portions of the building, leaving gaping holes. Graffiti marks the wooden boards outside it. Nearby neighbor Pamela Weimer has been quite vocal about her displeasure of both the possible health concerns and unsightliness of the building, firing off several emails to get more information from the city.

Oakland deputy planning and building director Darin Ranelletti said leaving the project site this way is not OK.

“It’s unacceptable to leave an unfinished building like that,” he said.

Ranelletti said he has been in discussions with a vice president at TRC and that while no decisions have been made, he’s hoping to get an update this week.  

Ranelletti said Oakland officials would love to add high-density apartments  to the retail-only plan, but that the landowners – Alvin Chan of Texas – has expressly denied any addition of housing to the project through the developer.

While retail might be suffering across the country, Ranelletti said that this retail site is the only major construction project of its kind that has stalled in Oakland.

Chan could not be reached for comment.  He does not have a phone number listed with the city; only a PO Box.

Ranelletti said he realizes that asbestos removal is quite pricey, but that the city might have to use its “limited enforcement tools,” such as code violations for blight, if the project languishes for too much longer.

To learn more about asbestos, click here.

KTVU's Cristina Rendon contributed to this report.