Local Group Wants Toxic Former GE Factory Restored, Not Demolished

A proposal to demolish several polluted buildings in East Oakland is under review, but some preservationists say the long-delayed plan would remove historically significant structures without revitalizing the neighborhood.

In the 1920s, General Electric built a factory on a 24-acre site at 5441 International Blvd. The complex has been largely abandoned since 1980, when it was found to be contaminated with highly toxic chemicals. Seven years ago, the city declared the property a public nuisance, but it remains vacant behind a fence.

Officials are now considering GE's latest plan to demolish the buildings, but the Oakland Heritage Alliance, a group that works to preserve cultural and architectural history, wants the corporation to submit a more comprehensive plan for rehabilitating the property.

The former GE factory at 5441 International Blvd.

OHA board member Daniel Levy told Hoodline that the group wants to preserve and restore the buildings and doubts if GE would have left the land vacant for so long if the site wasn't located in a poor neighborhood populated by people of color.

"If this site were in Emeryville, if this site were in San Francisco, would GE take the same approach?" Levy said. "They have the means to do right by the community and they're not choosing to do that in Oakland."

Levy pointed to GE's plans for a new $200 million Boston headquarters, where the company plans to include maker and event spaces, a community work lounge and laboratory space for young companies. The Boston plan also includes rehabilitating two historic brick buildings.

But in Oakland, GE wants to finish demolishing the historic buildings on its property. Beyond that, the company hasn’t said what its plans are.

The main building, with the most historic significance, was once home to radio station KGO. It was built in 1922 and a one-story addition was added in 1927. There were offices in the front of the building and a large factory and warehouse in the back that made switchboards, transformers and motors.

Built for KGO, this building was later converted into a factory. | PHOTO: BAYAREARADIO.ORG

It was that activity that ultimately led to the heavy pollution on the site from polychlorinated biphenyls, a chemical once used as an electrical insulator and coolant that was banned in 1979.

After the site was first found to be contaminated in 1980, GE was ordered to clean it up by state and federal regulators. While the company completed some remediation, a 1993 deed restriction prohibited using the land for residences, hospitals, day care, elder care, raising food or any groundwater extraction, among other prohibitions.

Monitoring and cleanup have continued for years. The city declared the property a public nuisance in 2010, which is when GE applied for a demolition permit to raze all the buildings before learning that the oldest of them are historic, triggering a lengthy review process.

It took years for the city to prepare a draft Environmental Impact Report that gave an overview of the buildings' historical significance but discussed no future uses for the property. The document was reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission in March.

"It seems very clear to us that the EIR is just looking at one part of the project, which is the demolition piece, but it's not really looking at the next piece," Levy said.

"We are here to see this move as quickly as possible, we want to see something done there,” he added. “Even if the buildings must go, we are eager to see this move, but just not at the expense of the community."

Buzz Hines, an attorney who represented GE at the Planning Commission meeting, did not respond to written questions in time for publication.

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Local group wants toxic former ge factory restored not demolished