OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | West Oakland thought it had finally stemmed the conga line of big rigs that frequently travelled to and from the Port of Oakland. But a growing controversy over the awarding of a federal contract that could place a U.S. Customs inspections building and one day allow hazardous material to rest adjacent to a popular park for children, has some fearing the worst. The community, however, may have a strong ally after Oakland city staff said Tuesday the area for the proposed customs building is zoned to tightly restrict the handling and storage of hazardous materials.

Scott Miller, zoning manager for the city of Oakland, said the former Horizon Beverage Company building at 1700 20th Street slated for the customs building prohibits hazardous materials, but he could not be certain, since nobody at City Hall seems to have had any contact with U.S. Customs, he said. “We’ve seen or heard nothing from customs,” Miller told the Oakland City Council Community and Economic Development Committee Tuesday afternoon. The city is also beginning the process of figuring out whether the property is properly permitted, said Miller

How the customs inspection facility moved from its previous home at the port to potential lie next door to a children’s park, in many ways followed the tumult over the clearing of the Oakland Army Base in advance its $500 million transformation into a major economic catalyst for the city and county. On that front, city staff reported Tuesday, the land had been cleared of tenants and their belongings and ready to move forward.

However, the inability for the previous customs operator, Pacific Coast Container (PCC) to gain a suitable long-term lease at the port caused U.S. Customs to award the contract to other companies. John Monetta, the city’s property manager for the project, said PCC did not win the bid because it maintained only a two-and-a-half year lease, according to conservations he had with U.S. Customs officials. “Customs traditionally awards five-year contracts,” said Monetta.

During a similar committee meeting two weeks ago, some West Oakland community members recommended the city ask for a risk assessment report by way of Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. However, Carson’s office punted the issue back to the city, according to Monetta, since Oakland has a risk assessment function of its own. Monetta also made it clear to members of the committee city staff does not support moving the customs inspection site to West Oakland.

For residents and activists, the question of whether the proposed customs building may endanger the health and safety of those in the neighborhood is clear: the site rests directly next door to Raimondi Park, an open sports field enjoyed daily by children and adults.

“This is a disaster in the making,” said Rashida Grinage, executive director of PUEBLO, a grassroots organization focusing on Oakland’s low-income residents “There is no public safety provision for the potential risks that sending trucks that off-load from the Port, carrying nobody knows what, because they haven’t been screened yet.”

Darrel Carey, president of the East Bay Small Business Council and critic of the Army Base plan said council members from Oakland’s more upscale neighborhood would not put up with such a proposals in their own zip codes. “We don’t know what the customs is going to do out there. All I know is children play soccer, children play baseball, and children play football over in Raimondi [Park],” said Carey.

“I’m sure my good friend, Ms. Schaaf, wouldn’t want anyone out there delivering unknown customs to the Montclair area or to the Glenview area.” Schaaf later noted she only represents a small sliver of the Montclair district.