The price tag of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Oakland headquarters, which has risen from $167 million to $218 million, is only the beginning of escalating costs. Too many unknowns are hanging out there. Because of my professional background, I have followed this boondoggle closely.
MTC's due diligence before purchasing the building consisted of the expertise of the real estate agent whose interest was to get rid of a white elephant for which MTC offered the only bid.
Would an astute person buying a fixer-upper take the word of the agent trying to offload it? The 390 Main building is a fixer-upper, a monster one, and MTC didn't spend the time and money to get independent professional evaluations.
The executive director pressured the commissioners to approve its purchase before most had even seen it, claiming the price might go up because of other bidders champing at the bit. (Actually, because Oakland's legal challenge delayed the decision, the
purchase price dropped by $13 million.)
Watching this process reminded me of a former AC Transit general manager's vacuum cleaner-salesman technique to get board approval of the infamous Van Hool buses: "This is a good price, but you have to approve it today." When the board finally realized it had been taken for a ride, it gave him his walking papers.
A prudent developer would deem the tortuous challenge of converting a building built as a factory, and an ugly one at that, into habitable office space too risky.
Unlike a publicly funded agency, a private developer has time and cost constraints. He/she would opt for new construction. MTC was offered such a choice, fully entitled, that precisely fit its criteria.
MTC is not stuck with this building. It is not too late to flip it.
It is months before any work can begin. And it will be years before construction can be completed. This is a gut rebuild that requires carving out an eight-story well to bring light into this humongous ex-factory. There are more suitable uses for buildings like this. Unlike people, computer equipment does not need light; a server farm could move right in with little renovation.
The state audit, which was completed before this rise in cost, stated the purchase "is likely legal, but the transaction exposes toll payers to undisclosed financial risk." It also said, "a court would ultimately decide the legality of the purchase."
How much risk will the public be willing to accept before a challenge in court? The public had to swallow the escalating costs of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge because it is a real need, but this project is not.
The institutional viability of this cohabitation is questionable, when one entity, ABAG, has "to be dragged by a leash to join," as one ABAG member put it.
Better to solve the real problem of lack of coordination between regional agencies by consolidating them into one Metropolitan Planning Organization, as exists in all but a few regions in the country.
That would be the time for a new MPO office building.
Joyce Roy is a retired arch- itect and Oakland resident.