Notes on West Oakland Specific Plan Community Meetings and the Limits of Public Planning Process vs Community Organizing
We talk about California modeling our nation’s future, and Oakland as a forerunner, a progressive, diverse community of people, industry, and culture. West Oakland turns that dial up a few notches – concentrating an historic African-American working class community, legacy railroad/manufacturing operations, emergent gay community, San Francisco expatriates, new artisan and industrial businesses, all in 1500 acres of dynamic, contentious potential. The Specific Plan for West Oakland land use will be the real test of community planning, joining these divergent historic and cultural interests into a plan for jobs-transit-housing mix, high-road economic development, and environmental justice. It’s one of the most important undertakings by City government today.
But it’s getting less media and organizational attention than similar planning projects at Lake Merritt and Broadway-Valdez, which draw reporters as well as advocates from Oakland’s vibrant non-profit community. At a public information workshop held at the Cypress Mandela construction training center on Saturday, May 5, 75 residents joined the architectural team and City staff to hear reports from earlier workshops and learn about next steps in identifying existing building inventory, transportation patterns, and land use potential in 4 areas with 37 opportunity sites. Architects forecast 6,000 new housing units, 200,000 square feet of neighborhood retail, and 400,000 square feet of destination retail, relocation of recyclers and garbage handlers, and improved transit, depending of course on the final plan and its implementation. The resulting plan will set the stage for the next 30 years of land use policy, related economic and neighborhood development, and quality of life issues in West Oakland.
The full and complex history of West Oakland development, redevelopment, and community change was present in the room and the experiences residents brought forward, and reveals both the best chance for and biggest obstacles to the project’s success. No Oakland neighborhood defines itself as sharply as West Oakland, and much of that definition reflects historic struggles around land use and dynamic demography. Race, gender, and class relations dominate both the planning history and today’s process; unlike elsewhere, nobody is being polite about what’s at stake in the West Oakland Specific Plan. Community leaders start with a win to defend: unlike past plans, this proposal is not supposed to include eminent domain, focusing instead on infill.
Wounds from eminent domain, the “urban removal” policies of the past and gentrification struggles of today were strongly, almost physically, present. (See more on the history here, here and here. No, really, look at those links, especially CWOR’s report.)
What was not present in the room was an organized constituency with a set of demands and a plan to bring government, business, labor, and non-profit partners to the table to negotiate results. There are strong voices representing individuals and associations, and bearing witness to West Oakland’s specific history as home to Port operations, but folks are trusting the public process to do the work of informing residents, developing policy goals, and advocating for the community. I see the public planning process as the way that City government assesses and prioritizes conflicting community aspirations, but not a vehicle to deliver the organizing and advocacy that will force concessions from power.
Individual participants, many veterans of past Plans, are sorting out the bureaucratic process, expressing their vision, and navigating the process on their own. Residents cut to the heart of the matter and asked the most important question up front: Once the Specific Plan sets a vision for preserving and building structures, improving traffic flow and transit, creating buffer zones between industrial and residential properties, and creating the basis for regeneration and sustained vitality, who is going to pay for implementation? City staff deferred resource questions to the next phase of work, after the vision and plan process. Residents asked about improving transit links, but the streetcar proposal drew snickers. Stabilizing homeownership and encouraging former residents to return, possibly through a Land Trust, was urged.
Margaret Gordon, West Oakland Specific Plan Steering Committee member, Port Commissioner and co-founder of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, talked about EIP’s campaigns for healthy homes, jobs and development. She asked if there would be adequate housing for workers filling the 1000s of jobs projected at the Army Base, if they would earn enough to live in West Oakland, whether there would be grocery stores and retail, and whether schools and training programs would connect to jobs opportunities. She challenged city planners to create a walkable, healthy neighborhood, incorporate AB32 air quality and SB375 housing standards, and complete infrastructure work in West Oakland neighborhoods before industrial projects on the Army Base.
Ray Kidd, post office retiree, called the May 5 presentation by Art Clark the most substantive in the process to date and encouraged greater collaboration between residents and planners. He is concerned that the neighborhood would be better served by a number of smaller, high-quality grocery stores spread throughout the area, rather than an anchor store now proposed.
The project’s Community Relations Manager Surlene Grant, a former Councilmember in San Leandro, said, “There have been four community workshops to date. As a whole there are some consistent voices at the table and people who have stayed with the process. Maybe about 50 percent of all of those involved are the most familiar and keep engaged without missing a beat. Saturday’s meeting was almost all new faces, which is what we wanted because of the review nature of the agenda. What I am hearing the most is the need for businesses that will generate jobs for people in this community, and land use that finally, after all these years of being dumped on, supports West Oakland residents in a vision for a healthy community - both environmentally and economically. In a very tangible way, I am hearing ‘Make the area around BART more than just a pass through, give it presence; clean up San Pablo Avenue and optimize the opportunities around Mandela and Grand and down near Jack London Square.’ It’s a large reach, but to paraphrase educator Benjamin Mays, ‘It’s better to have something to reach for, than not.’”
Jonathan Dumas, City of Oakland contract compliance & outreach, was looking for a connection to Army Base job development: “I’m looking for the degree to which there will be local impacts…We need to structure our ask in a way that benefits community, through local ownership and occupancy, good-paying jobs. Developers ought to be ready to enter into agreements that generate real prosperity, local prosperity.”
Elois Thornton, from the City of Oakland’s award-winning planning team, delivered a formal presentation on the history of City planning in neighborhoods. She noted that Oakland has between 30 and 40 documents created in the past 20 years for West Oakland land use plans, but many of them lacked strong implementation programs. Federal TIGER grant conditions require completion of the specific plan and environmental impact review by April 2013, less than a year away, under a compressed timeline. The same grant is funding infrastructure planning on the former Army Base. She noted that the design team conducted 30 meetings with community groups including WOCAG, WOPAC, and NCPCs before the first workshop to engage community members. “There’s been a lot of hurt, and too much [of West Oakland] taking the bullet for the greater good… We can’t completely eliminate the hurts from past years but this is a step forward. It’s an iterative process before it goes to Council, and we have to incorporate community comments.”
Lynette McElhaney, West Oakland resident and Richmond community housing manager: “I came to see the progress we’ve made in terms of getting specific. In the early meetings, I had concerns about the cohesiveness and continuity. The energy has been wonderful, people are thinking with real intention and optimism. We have to move beyond the grief and pain, and elders have to be forward-thinking, too. We need a respectful process, then we have to talk about how we fund it, and what it looks like post-redevelopment.”
The planning team is hitting its strides, with great improvements in meeting logistics and agenda compared to a challenging January 31 meeting. Thanks to folks who talked with me then, and apologies for not writing those conversations up sooner and more completely. I appreciated the insights of Marcus Montague, who said it was important to build multifamily housing to re-populate public schools, and school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge, who worked with the project team to engage youth participants.
If you ever have to run a public meeting and you have the opportunity to have Art Clark speak, put him up first. He should stop running campaigns and run for office himself (in his East Oakland neighborhood.) “We’re not trying to be San Francisco or Emeryville, we’re trying to be a better West Oakland. We need to be visionary in what we seek and incremental in how we achieve it.”
A response from Councilwoman Nancy Nadel:
The WO Specific Plan is a process which began at a time we thought we would have some redevelopment dollars to implement the final document. The state’s decision to prevent the opportunity to use public dollars to prime the pump and leverage private dollars is most frustrating after many years of building community confidence in the redevelopment team after staffing it with more experienced planners.
One of the most important and continued struggles will be over allowing housing on currently industrially zoned property. Recently I was approached by a large industrial property owner claiming to speak for himself and another multi-millionaire property owner. He said that if he wasn’t allowed to do mixed-use projects like in Emeryville, West Oakland will never attract a developer. Within a week, I crossed paths with the Mayor of Emeryville, Jennifer West, and asked her about industrial property in Emeryville. She said that areas which are solely industrial are shrinking and housing is causing the industry to move out. I think that is important to study further because loss of long-term jobs is not at all what we want to lose in West Oakland.
I worked many years to create some difficult, but fair boundaries between industry and housing. Unfortunately some of the prime artisan entrepreneurial manufacturing property is quite close to housing. There will always be some push and pull, but having a healthy balance of jobs and housing has been my motivator. Most of my time on the council – 16 years – has been seeing empty industrial property, much of it bought up by very rich people who are waiting as long as they want to, for some administration that will allow them to build housing on land they bought cheaply and never invested in. We already lost Semifreddi’s because one of the property owners would sooner see his property empty than provide a practical lease period for building a high end bakery. The same property owner will likely stand in the way of Costco.
I don’t want to lose our metal manufacturing, in fact, I would like it to grow with students at McClymonds certified to work their way to college.
Because funding is so different from what was anticipated for implementation, the specific plan will include recommendations for prioritization and funding options. I have always been in awe of affordable housing developers’ ability to patchwork funding sources. I did it somewhat to get the West Oakland Teen Center rolling. It is important to remember this is not a specific plan for all of West Oakland but key sites and corridors that could be catalysts for further investment. We will have to be creative as a community and as elected representatives to combine resources, phase, prioritize, and work with new partners but hopefully remembering the 3 legs of the stool that have equal value for every project: economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental enhancement.
What do you think the West Oakland Specific Plan should include? Add your vision below: