A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Oakland Unwrapped Column
UrbanView Newspaper
September 25, 2002

Folks were out at a pretty good community forum at the Grand Lake Neighborhood Center the other night talking about Forest City’s multi-million dollar proposed uptown development project and what it might mean for Oakland’s future.

Oaklanders have seen downtown development plans come and go, but there is a particular sense of urgency about the uptown project coming out of the Brown Administration these days. Odd, because this is an administration that just won a smashing re-election victory and has not even begun its second term. But not so odd, maybe, because Forest City may be Jerry Brown’s last chance to put his stamp on downtown Oakland development, the thing we keep hearing is his strong point. The development, I mean. Not the stamp.

The Harris years gave us the rebuild after Loma Prieta…City Center and the state and federal buildings and the revamp of City Hall…as well as all those new lofts along 3rd and 4th. But other than the Gap store and, maybe, the old Sears Building renovation, and a nice, round resident number for us to shoot for (10k), you can’t really look around downtown and say, "That’s Jerry. That’s what he did for Oakland."

Who knows what really goes on in the Mayor’s office…like the girl in Don’t Say A Word, they’ll never tell…but my guess is that the Brown Administration suffered from an early failure to focus, and a squandering of city resources on small-picture projects. Even if you think the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School For The Arts were good ideas, you have to admit that the Mayor put an awful lot of energy…staff’s and his own…into two relatively small projects, when larger things might have been more properly on his mind.

As a contrast, look at former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who made the cleanup of the Times Square sex shops his initial city accomplishment, and almost parlayed that alone into a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Brown’s urge to get the Forest City project moving…from his personal political future point of view…is understandable. Forest City estimates that the project completion…if it is completed…is four to five years down the road, with a nine month Environmental Impact Review process alone. I know little of much about engineering, but it seems to me that this would bring us to the summer of 2004 before we would see anything concrete going up in the uptown area, and even then, only if the project goes forward without any hitches. The summer of 2004, by the way, would be right around the time that the campaign for Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat would be heating up.

While Oakland’s future can certainly survive minor delays of a year or two in the uptown project while we make sure everything is done right and legal, Jerry Brown’s political future might not. So if the Mayor is getting a little testy about questions raised about downtown and near-downtown development, it’s understandable.

Recently he (or someone putting up a good imitation of he) has taken to email bickering over citizens’ complaints about that 2,000 square foot (according to Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt member John Klein) advertising bedsheet hanging down over the new Essex high-rise residential palace on the lake. Some folks have charged that the sign violates the signage limitations of Oakland’s zoning code, by about 1,925 square feet.

"De minimis non curat lex," the Mayor (or someone doing a damn good fabrication of the Mayor) emails around, describing the phrase as "a common law principle whereby judges will not sit in judgement of extremely minor transgressions of the law," and adding that "the zeal and punctiliousness with which many of you want to enforce the zoning code in [the Essex] case strikes me as rather unfriendly. I would more expect such bureaucratic intolerance in a totalitarian country than in a city deeply committed to freedom and diversity."

One wonders how large a transgression of the zoning law it would have to be in order to become maximus in the eyes of our Mayor. One wonders how much the Mayor, out of concern for his own political future, might be willing to overlook potential violations of zoning law and other legal processes in the Forest City project.

One wonders. One watches.