Despite ongoing state audit, MTC poised to move to San Francisco; ABAG unlikely to join them

27 Sep

You might remember that two months ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) voted to move their headquarters from Oakland to San Francisco. After the City of Oakland raised questions of Brown Act violations in this initial vote, the MTC voted in August to rescind its initial vote and to create a committee that would review the decision and return with a recommendation to the MTC within 60 days.

To recap, in case you missed the excellent guest blog post from Joyce Roy about this issue a month ago, the MTC has been searching for a new headquarters for MTC and the Associations of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) – who currently share offices next to the Lake Merritt BART station – as well as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District). The plan for the three agencies to locate together makes total sense, as they work together frequently and it would make it easier for the public to interact with the three agencies. MTC narrowed down their location search to two options – building a new building on top of the 12th Street BART station in downtown Oakland at 1100 Broadway or purchasing a 1940’s warehouse half a mile from BART in San Francisco at 390 Main Street. At the meeting in August, East Bay officials and advocates turned out in force, advocating for the Oakland site, and State Senator Mark DeSaulnier – chair of the Senate Transportation Committee – sent a letter informing the Commission that his committee would audit their proposed use of bridge toll funds for the move to San Francisco.

It hasn’t been 60 days yet, but the committee appointed at that August meeting has apparently completed its work and recommended that the MTC move forward with its initial plans to move to San Francisco. The MTC will be voting tomorrow, Wednesday morning, September 28th on whether to move forward with the San Francisco building purchase (meeting details at the end of this post).

The state audit continues

They’re moving forward, even though the state audit has not been completed yet. The Oakland Tribune checked in with Mark DeSaulnier about the committee’s recommendation:

DeSaulnier said Friday that he was “shocked” that the committee would make such a recommendation without waiting for the audit results.

“I’m really shocked, it’s inconceivable to me that they would go ahead without waiting for the audit to come back,” he said.

DeSaulnier said the agency has also not yet responded to his request for needs assessment for the purchase and relocation.

MTC’s response is that they can’t wait for the audit to be completed because they might lose out on purchasing the property. But what if the audit finds that the MTC cannot use bridge toll funds on this purchase? This finding would happen after the building has been purchased so what funds would the MTC then use? It’s baffling to me that they would take this gamble.

I’ve talked to a bunch of people about the relocation over the past month and when I bring up the state audit, often they respond that the MTC would have the same problem using bridge toll funds to purchase the Oakland building. However, the two purchases are not the same. The main problem (as I see it) with using bridge toll funds to purchase the San Francisco building is that the MTC would be using those funds to fund real estate speculation, since the building is much larger than the agencies need it to be, and the MTC expects to rent those spaces out to private companies. The Oakland building – since it will be constructed expressly for the purposes of the regional agencies – will be the size needed to house the regional agencies and will not involve leasing out space to private entities. Using bridge toll funds to purchase a building for the agencies is very different from using bridge toll funds for the purpose of real estate speculation.

ABAG isn’t on board

The initial concept (and driving force) behind the move was so that MTC, ABAG and the Air District could be housed in one building. But ABAG does not seem to be on board with the move, meaning that MTC would need to rent out even more office space in the San Francisco building to private entities.

ABAG recently released documents that had previously been closed session material, which explain their sound reasoning for not wanting to be part of the move to San Francisco. You can read these memos here and here, but here’s a summary of what it would take for them to come on board with the move to San Francisco:

  • A complete analysis comparing the Oakland and San Francisco sites.
  • Information on the compared commute times of employees and board members to the two sites.
  • “An analysis of alternative financing options, so that the conditions of any use of financing are not the determinant factor in the choices available to the agencies.”

The memos also point out the following concerns about 390 Main Street:

  • 390 Main Street is significantly less accessible to the board (coming from the 9 county region), staff and the public – both by car and by transit.
  • 80% of ABAG employees live in the East Bay, and an employee survey showed that many staff consider 390 Main Street a significant hardship.
  • Staying in ABAG’s and MTC’s current location hasn’t been considered or compared to the other two sites.

Without ABAG, MTC would simply swap out the regional agency it shares headquarters with – from MTC and ABAG to MTC and the Air District – thereby failing to meet the initial laudable goal of housing all three agencies together.

Location, location, location

As ABAG’s memos indicates, the location of their headquarters is very important to that agency. Many MTC commissioners and the press have tried to paint the debate as one between San Francisco and Oakland. Sure, that’s the convenient story (and the dramatic one), but it isn’t the full story.

If MTC was proposing moving to a San Francisco location on top of BART or next to a few big Muni lines, I would be annoyed, of course. I would be sad that Oakland would lose so many jobs and that our regional agencies would be a bit farther for me to visit. But, I would have moved on. I wouldn’t have posted anything on my blog and I certainly wouldn’t have spoken at the last meeting, because really, what could I have said? “You shouldn’t leave Oakland because Oakland is awesome!” Yeah, that wouldn’t have happened.

Why I and many others are involved is because this location isn’t nearly as easy to get to as either the current headquarters or the proposed 1100 Broadway location in Oakland. For three agencies that are pushing for smart growth, increased transit usage and decreased congestion, it’s incredible to me that they would move to a location that would likely increase congestion and pollution, especially since the vast majority of employees at the three agencies live in the East Bay.

Getting to the location will take a long time for most anyone, no matter what direction that person is coming from, but it will be especially difficult for disabled people. There are a lot of photos worth looking at in the property condition assessment report, but this one stood out to me:

Sure, technically that ramp makes the building entrance – which is lower than street level – accessible, but I can imagine that it will not be an enjoyable trip for anyone in a wheelchair or with limited mobility. Older buildings like this one are usually not as accessible as new ones, since often these buildings were not initially accessible and had to be made so later on in their lives. A new building in Oakland at street level would provide much more accessibility. And though I don’t have a photo of it, if you’ve ever been to MTC’s headquarters you know that their current wheelchair ramps are very short and easy to navigate.

When an earthquake strikes…

A lot of question have been raised about the cost of retrofitting 390 Main Street. While the cost of the building – $106 million – is significantly cheaper than the cost of 1100 Broadway – $153 million – the San Francisco building from the 1940s will have to be significantly rehabilitated and retrofitted, while 1100 Broadway would not. MTC estimates the cost of rehabilitation for 390 Main Street to be $74 million, and the property condition assessment explains what that might get them.

There’s a lot I could write about here, but the scariest part is the part about the proposed seismic retrofit. There are a lot of earthquakes in the Bay Area. Most are relatively small but the big ones historically have been devastating. That’s why we have such high building standards here for new buildings like 1100 Broadway. Sadly, we don’t have such high standards for older buildings. Here’s a chart from the condition assessment that shows the range of how buildings perform during an earthquake.

Ideally, all buildings would perform at the highest level – operational – particularly buildings housing public agencies that would likely have quite a bit of work to do after an earthquake struck. Sadly, this report indicates that the seismic retrofit of 390 Main Street would bring it only up to the life safety level. So hopefully nobody would die and there wouldn’t be major injuries, but it is unlikely that the building would be able to be used again for quite a while after a major earthquake struck.


I could go on and on about why this proposed move to 390 Main Street is a terrible idea. (If I had time I’d probably write at least three separate blog posts on this.) And when I talk to people about the MTC’s relocation, I do tend to go on and on. Inevitably, after they realize what a horrible proposal this is, they ask why. Why would the MTC move to a location that’s far from BART, not easily accessible, in an old building with rehabilitation issues, and leave out one of their key partners – ABAG – in the process?

This question isn’t so easy to answer. My sense is that there’s a lot at play here and there’s no way I could fully answer this question, but I’ll share some of my thoughts. First, most of the commissioners as of August had not even gone to see the location. They’re about to spend at least (I imagine much more) $180 million on purchasing and rehabilitating this building and they didn’t even bother to go look at it. Hopefully by now they’ve taken some time to do so.

There’s of course this San Francisco vs. Oakland issue. There are some people who just think San Francisco is superior. They’re worried about an investment in Oakland vs. an investment in San Francisco, which normally might be somewhat understandable. Yet the choice here is not between downtown Oakland and downtown San Francisco – it’s between the heart of downtown Oakland and a much less accessible and less desirable (in terms of office space) part of San Francisco. Yet there are some people who will always choose San Francisco over Oakland, even if the facts indicate that this decision is foolish.

MTC is a very staff driven agency, which is not very surprising since the commissioners all have other primary elected positions to focus on. So by and large the commissioners go along with staff and staff has a lot of power. Staff is pushing hard for the move to San Francisco and vehemently defending this proposal so considering that the Commission seems to always go along with staff on controversial issues, it’s not very surprising to me that they’re with staff on this too. (Update: To clarify, by staff driven, I mean driven by senior staff. In this case, Executive Director Steve Heminger is pushing very hard for the San Francisco move. Heminger lives in San Francisco.)

Commissioners repeatedly have asked whether someone on staff or anyone was benefiting from choosing 390 Main Street over 1100 Broadway and staff said that no one was. But at the August MTC meeting, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan brought up something she had discovered in a huge pile of papers she acquired through a public records request. It’s not a very surprising fact, but an important one.

The broker does not get paid by the seller until the close of escrow. Since 390 Main Street is ready to be sold, escrow will close years before the 1100 Broadway escrow would close. Which means the broker would get paid out years earlier if MTC moves to San Francisco. There’s a trade-off, as the amount paid is based on the selling price, and the selling price in San Francisco is lower than the 1100 Broadway price. But this trade-off might be worth it, especially in the still dragging real estate environment.

I want to be clear – I’m not accusing the broker of pushing 390 Main Street over 1100 Broadway just so they would get paid out earlier as I have no proof or indication of that. However, it’s important for the commissioners and public to know what is at stake for everyone involved, including the broker.

What can we do?

Speak up at the meeting! MTC needs to hear from the public that moving to 390 Main Street is not the right choice. The meeting begins at 9:00 am on Wednesday, September 28 (tomorrow) in the MTC auditorium at 101 Eight Street in downtown Oakland.

And/or (if you cannot attend the meeting) email the Commissioners:,, Thomas_W._Azumbrado@HUD.GOV,,,,,,,,,, ,,,,,

Previous posts on MTC’s relocation:

4 Responses to “Despite ongoing state audit, MTC poised to move to San Francisco; ABAG unlikely to join them”

  1. Joyce Roy September 27, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Becks, that is such a great write-up on the situation.

    Just one little slant I would like to add; I don’t think it is the staff as a whole that is pushing this. Would they prefer moving to 390 Main? It is the Executive Director who lives in SF, Steve Heminger, who is twisting arms but staff have to go along if they want to keep their job. I saw this in AC Transit; staff did not dare bad month Van Hools.

    • Rebecca Saltzman (aka Becks) September 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

      Thanks Joyce!

      I agree – staff in general likely wants to stay in Oakland. By staff driven, I meant senior staff and probably should clarify that.

  2. Joyce Roy September 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    And another comment. At the Aug. meeting, Heminger ended his presentation by claiming Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities” was his “favorite book” and put a paragraph from it on the screen about the value of “old buildings.” I think he is not clear on the concept! I don’t think she meant an ugly old warehouse in a desolate site with poor transit. She meant something like the historic Key System building on Broadway that would be restored by the developers of 1100 Broadway. Imagine having MTC meetings in the original East Bay rail system agency!! Jane Jacobs would love that!

  3. Jame Ervin September 28, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    This is so frustrating! I sent over some comments. Also, considering 390 Main’s poor location, what tenants do they thing they could find for this site. What wishful thinking!

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