Extreme makeover

Leona Quarry to get a new life as
Oakland's biggest subdivision

-Vicky Elliott, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

It used to be a gash in the East Bay hills, but now it is more of a scoop. Smoothed into a towering amphitheater, the Leona Quarry, in its new, streamlined version, is a massive piece of engineering that you can see on the ridgeline all the way from Candlestick Point on the other side of the bay.

Worked since the early 1900s, the quarry is being reclaimed by the DeSilva Group for Monte Vista, Oakland's largest subdivision in more than 20 years. But in its first development venture in the city, the Dublin company has had to contend with an obstacle it might not have been expecting: strenuous local opposition.

Discovery Builders of Concord is working on the first models in a cluster of 404 attached units, luxury condominiums and townhouses of two and three stories, which are expected to be ready to be shown to buyers in December. The first move-ins could come by spring. Prices will probably start somewhere in the mid-$500,000s.

High above, on Campus Drive, at an elevation of 1,040 feet, there are lots where 19 single-family houses with Olympian views will be built. Their prices will start at more than $1 million.

Empty nesters and families in the condos will appreciate the Village Green and park, the community center, the easy access to the rest of the Bay Area and a microclimate where, even when the fog is low everywhere else, the sun always seems to be breaking through.

The Leona Quarry supplied blue and gray rhyolite used for asphalt and the crumbly red volcanic rock you can see today, Leona rhyolite, which was crushed into aggregate to make paving surfaces and concrete.

The quarry was used as a staging area during the construction of Interstate 580, which runs right alongside it, and its products have been used all over the East Bay, for the piers and berths of the Port of Oakland, and for BART, the airport and the Oakland Coliseum.

"I like to think of it as re-use," said Jim Summers, president of the DeSilva Group, who traces the origin of the present project back to Measure D, passed in November 2000, when "Alameda County voters sent the signal that they didn't want any more urban sprawl." Restrictions on building in the eastern portion of the county sent developers scouting for available sites within the rim of the hills.

Reclaiming the quarry, a craggy piece of land that used to include sheer rock faces, has been an uphill struggle. Gallagher & Burk, the company that had been working the site since 1948,approached DeSilva in 1999 to develop the property after neighbors came out in force to shoot down its proposal for a shopping center and Home Depot on the site.

"It was a natural for us," Summers said. Given his company's experience in major public works projects such as highways and airport runways, as well as in quarry operating and ecological remediation, no other company in the Bay Area, he ventures, could offer the combination of expertise DeSilva brings to this vast infill operation.

The maximum permitted density for the site was 3,840 units, and the original proposal was for586, but that number was progressively chiseled away. The 404 condominium units will cover45 acres in the level, lower bowl of the site, and almost two-thirds of the site will be left open for a conservation easement.

About 3 1/2 million cubic yards of earth have been moved to grade the slopes into smooth benches, at a gradient of 2 to 1 at the upper elevations and 4 to 1 lower down. Five miles of concrete V-ditches will drain the surface runoff into a large basin below.

Revegetation of the hillside is being undertaken by H.T. Harvey, a San Jose ecological consultant, which is using as a model the watershed of Chimes Creek, just to the north. Withany luck, in several years, there will be several dozen extra acres where the Alameda whipsnake, a threatened species that has been sighted in the Leona Open Space about a mile away, could live.

The exposed face of the quarry was covered with a layer of topsoil amended with compost. High-pressure hoses were then used to spray the slopes with hydroseed, a mixture of native grass seeds, paper mulch and a glue agent.

To give the grasses a chance to propagate, the slopes have been blanketed with wide strips of a loosely woven net of coconut fiber and straw. This biodegradable covering is intended to mimic a layer of plant debris that can trap moisture and protect the seeds underneath.

About 2,000 holes have been augered and filled with soil for the planting of drought-resistant coastal live oak trees and Diablan sage scrub, and the area will be irrigated and maintained for three years and monitored for five to make sure that invasive species are weeded out and the plants can get established.

Seeds harvested from Chimes Creek, propagules, as they're called in the trade, have been sent off to a nursery to germinate for a year and will be sent back to the site in small containers for planting.

"This is drastically disturbed land," said Max Busnardo, who oversees the restoration, "and it's a difficult process. But we're putting the best science into practice."

Another state-of-the-art touch is a triangular-shaped retaining wall on the north face of the quarry, a manmade, trompe l'oeil cliff face. Painted in earth tones with cracks and striations, it is indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain.

The filtration system for the detention basin at the foot of the site uses technology new to California that was pioneered in Washington State. Runoff from the slopes is passed through crushed crab shells, or Chitosan, to separate out any sediment before the water is discharged into the storm drain.

The hydrology of the site has been a matter of much contention in the Burckhalter neighborhood just below I-580. Where Chimes Creek surfaces, it is a bucolic place, a hidden enclave with shady streets and creekside homes.

"There's a lot of pride of ownership," noted DeSilva's Summers.

In January 2003, after the city had approved the original plans for the quarry, a group of neighbors filed a lawsuit raising questions about the safety of the site.

They managed to obtain a favorable initial ruling and to hold up the grading for 10 months. In a settlement with the DeSilva Group in November of that year, they won several concessions: an expansion of the detention basin, from 12.6 to 28 acre-feet of water; a larger conservation easement; shuttle service and bus service to the development; restricted egress from the development, which was to have had roads leading into the neighborhoods on either side; and the removal of a 54-unit complex for senior housing that would have stood near the entrance to the development.

The neighbors don't want to come off as knee-jerk NIMBYs --they insist it isn't development per se they object to.

"What we are worrying about is that, like the Raiders, this is going to be another mistake that we as taxpayers are going to be saddled with," said Sparky Carranza, who helped mobilize residents all over Oakland against the project. "Why should we pay for special back-room deals when they are pushing the development beyond the limit of this piece of property?"

Carranza and other neighbors resent what they feel is the arrogance of an out-of-town developer and the leeway it has been given, they say, with city ordinances.

"It makes us mistrust any of the assurances that they have put in place," she said. "Time will tell whether it's a safe site for homes."

Carranza, who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, recalls the rains in 1996 that burst the holding pond in the quarry and flooded I-580 knee-deep in water. Last year, muddy runoff disturbed the neighbors downstream when the first rains hit the open grading.

Carranza thinks not enough attention has been paid to the question of subsurface water. She says that a large pond in the quarry collected not just runoff, but the water from underground springs on the property, which she fears may compromise the slope's stability.

Summers insists that these issues have been addressed. "The neighbors' concerns are totally unfounded," he said. "This is a project that was carefully thought out and studied and thoroughly reviewed, and I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that it wasn't." He says that, in a severe storm, the extensive subdrains and drainage now in place will capture the runoff and meter out the water gradually over 24 to 48 hours through the existing 39-inch pipe under the freeway.

DeSilva, he adds, has also volunteered a solution to a runoff problem chronic since the building of the tony Ridgemont community uphill, channeling that, too, into the Monte Vista detention basin.

The city is establishing a Geological Hazard Abatement District in the area, with special assessment of local homeowners, to fund the monitoring and maintenance of the area.

On Delmont Avenue, on the other side of the freeway, where the creek surfaces, homeowner Chiye Azuma isn't reassured. She is worried that the frequency of the flow of water has scoured the creek banks, exposing sewage lines, and says their outlets have been known to shoot raw sewage over neighboring property in heavy rains.

An acacia tree on her property slumped over to the other side of the creek this summer, its rootball exposed by the water.

Azuma, a landscape architect in the public sector, wants Oakland, which promised property owners it would correct any adverse effects downstream, to pay to repair the sewage system and restore the creek. She feels the city let a chance slip by to get enough funds from the developer to deal with the problems.

The Public Works repairmen can patch the sewage, she says, but don't have the authority to do a thorough job. "The city should put it on the capital plan as a high-priority job that needs attention," she said.

Leila Moncharsh, the attorney for the neighbors who brought the 2003 lawsuit, feels that, under the circumstances, some useful concessions were made before the developer brought in its giant earth-moving machines.

"I think we made some definite gains for the community," Moncharsh said. "Now we have a graded quarry, the grading is probably of good quality, and there are a lot of controls in place.  The final settlement should have provided enough control under peer reviews."

Other neighbors are bracing for the inevitable traffic the development will bring to the Edwards Avenue exit off I-580, but one more sanguine resident, Jay Cloidt, is hoping that a new influx of middle-class neighbors will bring some benefits to a neighborhood that is notably lacking in commercial outlets. "Perhaps we'll get a Starbucks out of it," he says.

E-mail Vicky Elliott at velliott@sfchronicle.com.

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