As someone who’s commuted down Mandela Parkway to Downtown Oakland via car & bike for over a decade and in fact lives one block from West Oakland, I can’t help but think “Oakland deserves better”. The vandalism, the dumping, the historic but dilapidated buildings, homeless camps … all masking the enormous potential of an area that former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown once declared “closer to San Francisco than San Francisco is to itself.” Speaking of (now “Governor”) Brown, it was his plans to develop the Uptown area of Oakland that caused the same fears of displacement 15 years ago. I remember the opposition referring to his development plans as “Jerryfication” and “Jerry’s 10K white men march” to conjure these fears and manufacture a racial divide.
Nobody is complaining about this now and nobody can say Downtown & Uptown aren’t better places than they were 15 years ago. As a downtown Oakland employee of 15+ years, I witnessed this firsthand. In the late nineties, I got the hell out of downtown Oakland after sundown. Today, I often hangout, frequenting my favorite establishments and spending my hard-earned cash. Arguably, all of Oakland “Got its swag back” because of the shot in the arm given to it by the rebirth of the epicenter of the city. I’ve personally spoken with many native Oaklanders who were once ashamed of their town but are now brimming with pride over the reinvigoration of their home. There’s no doubt that a lot of what happened in Oakland occurred organically but the foundation of development & influx of residents to help perpetuate it cannot be refuted.
Sights like “Camp CalTrans” are common in W. Oakland. Is this what we’re fighting to preserve?
Basics of the Plan
Now West Oakland is looking to apply this same formula and experience the rebirth that other areas of the city have experienced from a comprehensive development strategy. The West Oakland Specific Plan, which was initiated in 2010, was funded by a $2MM federal grant. The Oakland Planning Commission approved the “WOSP” back in June and City Council subsequently provided initial approval on Tuesday July 15th (District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks abstaining) with finalized approval expected on Tuesday July 29th. It’s slated for adoption on August 29, 2014.
According to the city description, WOSP will support:
- More mixed-use development
- Transit choices
- Present strategies for resolving conflicting land uses
- Provide a framework for developing undervalued and blighted sites.
The Plans’ purpose, as stated on the city website, is to “develop comprehensive, multi-faceted strategies for facilitating the development of selected vacant and/or underutilized commercial and industrial properties within the West Oakland community. The Plan will be a tool for supporting, attracting and developing commercial and industrial enterprises to provide jobs and services needed by the West Oakland community and the city of Oakland at large”. In other words, a “Blueprint” for prosperity. Emeryville residents are probably familiar with our own General Plan. A 236 document that effectively provides a roadmap to where we want to be … eventually. E’ville is pretty small so apparently a single plan will suffice but the vastness of Oakland necessitates several neighborhood plans and The West Oakland Specific Plan is just one of them.
A big part of the success of the WOSP and the most fertile opportunity will be the Oakland Army Base Project which the city has targeted as a source of creating local jobs. Emeryville residents might get excited over the plans for a streetcar that would loop around West Oakland BART, Jack London Square, Downtown, Uptown and Temescal.
Opponents Battle for control over “The G Word”
Like any “General Plan” type of document, the city is obligated to solicit & implement community feedback which they have. From my observations, it’s not until these plans are close to adoption that the most vocal critiques emerge. Not surprisingly, the plan has been met with quite a bit of resistance and protest. One of the more pragmatic pieces I’ve read is on the Live-Work Oakland blog that states “The WOSP is not a spontaneous conspiracy between capitalists and politicians to impose their interests on an otherwise autonomous, organic community. It is standard bureaucratic procedure.” In other words, these plans don’t happen overnight, it took years. The fact that people are just now rising up to defeat it is, well … a bit lazy (Did they oversleep again?). Was their feedback not implemented … or was it not provided?
While a great deal of us think of safe, activated streets and the “renewal and rebuilding” that it promises sounds pretty good … opponents are painting a grim scenario of displacement for longtime residents. Perhaps the most divisive word in the english language and one that can be skewed in any extreme direction one chooses. Yes, I’m talking about “Gentrification”. If you ever want to kick the hornet’s nest (no WOSP pun intended), drop “The G-Word”! Well-intentioned Opponents like Just Cause are likening it to SF’s mission district and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and framing the plan as “development WITH displacement” and declaring that it “makes no effort to mitigate the impacts of gentrification and instead opens up the neighborhood even more for investment opportunities”.
Other opposition groups have gone on the offensive against the WOSP circulating flyers that encourage activists to “vandalize developments and gentrifying businesses”. Sadly, these battle lines have been drawn at the independently owned coffee shop, Kilovolt. The fact that the building they reside in has been vacant since the ’89 Loma Prieta Earthquake? Never mind, this is “Gentrification”! Buildings need to be vacant (Are you starting to see a pattern here?). They’ve been the subject of repeated attacks including vandalism and broken windows. Their most recent attack prompted them to defiantly post a sign “here to stay” (Meanwhile, liquor stores that have been poisoning the community with cheap liquor and tobacco for decades seem to get a free pass … but I digress). “It was important for me to not close,” Kilovolt owner Ethan Ashley noted in this NPR interview “I don’t want to let people attack my business with their cowardly act of vandalism”. The tactics seemed to have backfired as community support for Kilovolt has strengthened in reaction to the attacks and the publicity garnered from them has apparently provided increased exposure and business.
Advocacy groups that only paint a grim scenario without at least acknowledging any benefits are showing bias and a lack of journalistic integrity in my opinion. It’s no different than the “death panels” hysteria that the right-wing generated to try to defeat Obamacare (They’re coming for Grandma!). You need to examine the entire equation instead of focusing on one aspect of the plan. Plenty of research will point to the benefits of development to blighted urban areas and this should be cited. In Sam Levins very thorough EBX report “The Fight to Develop West Oakland“, he cites a 2008 study from the University of Colorado and Duke University analyzed data from more than 15,000 US Census tracts and found no evidence that minorities left gentrifying neighborhoods in the 1990s at disproportionate rates (compared to similar low-income areas that did not gentrify). The study further found that the average income of a black household in which at least one of the adults holds a high school diploma increased at least 20 percent more in gentrifying areas than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. “Gentrifying areas were particularly attractive to middle-class black families,” noted co-author of the study Terra McKinnish.
Oakland: Tough, Tenacious and Authentic
Defiance is what you come to expect from Oakland, a city with protest in its blood. Oakland is not only the birthplace of some very influential advocacy groups like the Black Panther Party, it basically defined the Occupy movement on the West Coast. Nothing in this town is going to happen without a fight & Oakland loves a good fight. Oakland embraces its tough, gritty reputation. Burglary, assault, theft … it’s all part of earning your Oaktown stripes! If you haven’t been robbed or had your car stolen (both things I can personally claim as part of my own Oakland “street cred”), it’s hard to call yourself a “true” Oaklander. There’s almost an unwritten “The soft need not apply” rule. Apparently this is what the city has come to expect.
Oakland also values authenticity. A city that has pioneered so much of the culture of not only the Bay Area … but the country! It is a city that does not imitate … but is often imitated. A city that has been through so much turmoil, it has hardened it and made its people skeptical & even cynical (perhaps even a bit bitter?). Oakland will not go along quietly. Oh, and a little advice for SF transplants: Don’t say you moved here because it’s “all you could afford”. Say you prefer the weather and appreciate the opportunity to help build a community instead of living in one that others already established.
What West Oakland can learn from Emeryville
So what do Oaklanders want? Oakland I assume wants prosperity … but without the “Rat Race” culture of SF or the homogenized retail of Emeryville. In the 90’s, Emeryville sold its soul just to get developers to even look at us. It left us with some god-awful projects but it effectively worked. This Oakland Local article refers to the plan as “Emeryville Part 2” and this one refers to the above renderings of the proposed projects as “Emeryville-esque” implying how pretty drawings can sell the people on projects that don’t always pan out as promised and portray an idealistic view of things. It may be true. Emeryville was able to transition from one-big EPA superfund site into a vibrant live-work area (There’s way more to this of course but not the point of this post). It is only now, 20 years later that we have leverage and we can now dictate to developers what we want for the community. The high quotient of rentals and lack of access points has left us a bit disconnected as a city. Dense retail often leads to a cluster of criminal activity and any developers that want to create these opportunities, shouldn’t leave the city stuck with the bill of enforcing it. Learn from our mistakes Oakland!
So I think West Oakland has established that it doesn’t want to be another Emeryville. That’s fine, we’re not offended. We’ll gladly take the lion’s share of the estimated $470M “retail leakage” that West Oakland residents spend shopping in places other than your own neighborhood like, say, Emeryville? We’ll hoard the local employment opportunities and the tax revenue that help keep our streets safe and free of potholes. Oakland doesn’t want Emeryville’s version of “better”. This is understandable.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. If it wasn’t for the housing shortage and runoff of wealth from SF, Oakland wouldn’t be in this place. I’m just not convinced that West Oakland is in a position yet to be making demands and calling all the shots with developers. I’ve sat through enough Planning Commission Studies & Workshops to see how they work. Everyone has an agenda. While this can ultimately be beneficial to the project and the community, sometimes you end up with a “Franken-project” that is a compromised vision or worse … cause the developer to pull out. Oakland experienced this with their proposed Sybase expansion to West Oakland decades ago that would have brought jobs to the area. A recollection of the story had the community and politicians making such unrealistic demands (Pay for everything!) that it effectively scared them away.
And of course my personal opinions …
The epicenter around uptown’s rebirth was the Fox Theater (built with $52M of redevelopment money). I’d personally love to see the historic 16th Street train station become West Oakland’s “Fox”. It could be a mecca celebrating the culture of the historic neighborhood … instead of a mecca for graffiti (much of which I personally admire). The culture of West Oakland needs to be maintained and honored.
Simply stated, the state of West Oakland cannot wait for “progress” to happen organically … it needs a kick in the ass, and it needs to think big. Is West Oakland so terrified of “Gentrification”, that they’re willing to support the status quo of gun-violence, poverty and lost opportunities … all to preserve cheaper rents? Are Oaklanders really willing to sacrifice the health and safety of generations for the short-sighted goal of maintaining rents instead of attacking the problem? At what point do you concede that the status quo is not working and come to terms that the area need a sea change? Look around West Oakland, is there any indication that it’s going to look like the Mission or Hayes Valley anytime soon? Sorry, but I don’t see a Starbucks on every corner in the near future.
This plan is not going to happen overnight and locals will be given the opportunity to benefit from it. Not recognizing the opportunities being provided to us by the virtue of being born in the Bay Area is partially a matter of choice and we need to all take more personal accountability. There are areas of the U.S. and the world for that matter that would do anything for these opportunities for themselves and their families and we should recognize this (Great, now I sound like my parents!). As East Bay residents, it’s time to identify them and demand higher expectations for ourselves, our children and our neighborhoods and break this cycle. Demand more affordable housing. Demand jobs for locals and apprenticeships for your youth and living wages for adults … but don’t squander the best chance you have to move Oakland forward. You cannot assume that this opportunity will be around forever. West Oakland is poised to make a stride forward. Will is seize the opportunity or shoot itself in the foot … again?
So where do you stand on the WOSP?