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
June 27, 2001

"Until the early 1960s, downtown…was a thriving retail district that served the city’s…neighborhoods and surrounding communities. … The construction of [the city’s] freeway network created opportunities for the rapid development and renovation of large suburban malls in the 1970s... This led to the closure of downtown department stores and other major retailers, which began the demise of downtown…as [a] major retail center. …

"On October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck... While it did not destroy the remaining downtown retail buildings, it did cause damage that required significant structural work, which further disrupted retail trade and led to the relocation and closure of more shops...

"[The city’s] once vibrant downtown retail area has severely declined…
"Downtown currently has no attractive, uninterrupted streetfront retail facades, which–especially if they offer extended hours–could
link entertainment, work, and recreational activities to downtown residences, offices, public transit, and parking garages…

"People view downtown parking as both limited and expensive..."

A page from Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K proposal for downtown Oakland? No, actually it’s part of the introduction to last year’s advisory report on downtown San Jose, prepared by the Urban Land Institute of Washington, D.C. What it shows is that big, booming San Jose’s downtown problems are remarkably identical to our own. What the ULI report—and other evidence—shows is that San Jose is taking a markedly different approach from Oakland’s in trying to solve its downtown problem. In a word, San Jose is making a plan.

In addition to contracting with the ULI last year to do its 44 page study, the city of San Jose also put together a 33 member citizen task force to give more detailed recommendations to the city’s Redevelopment Agency, Mayor’s office, and City Council. The result has been the adoption of a Greater Downtown Development Strategy, which is expected to guide downtown development in San Jose for the next ten years.

Sure, this took up some money and some staff time to develop. But think of what Mayor Brown had his troops doing during that same period. Last year, as just one example, Brown had City Manager Robert Bobb and several members of his staff running around for months lobbying and putting together proposals for charter schools. Not even the Mayor has argued that charters are more important than downtown. The point is, concentrating so much energy on a lesser goal while ignoring the greater seems to be a case of the Mayor’s setting out the wrong priorities for city staff.

The need for a comprehensive plan for downtown Oakland development ought to be evident, even for those of us who didn’t get degrees in City Planning from UC Berkeley. Transportation. Parking. Things like these have to be looked at from a long-range perspective.

Mayor Brown is hinging his hopes for downtown retail on bringing a critical mass of residential housing into the greater downtown area. Everybody’s talking about how these people are going to buy their refrigerators and summer shorts downtown, but has anybody wondered where they are going to buy their groceries? My suspicion is that rather than riding around West Oakland looking for a supermarket, the new folks moving into those lofts on 2nd and 3rd and 4th are going to drive through the Webster Street Tube and find the closest Albertson’s in Alameda. In fact, Alameda seems already to be eagerly preparing for the influx of shoppers from downtown Oakland, doing a spruce-up of the South Shore mall that includes adding a Trader Joe’s.

I have my doubts that Oakland’s retail shopping center can ever be revived. I’m not even sure that it’s all that important to the economic future of Oakland. Doing downtown retail development practically from scratch may be a 19th century idea that can’t be duplicated in a new millennium, where traveling to Hilltop or Stoneridge is so convenient. But if we’re going to give it another try in Oakland, we ought to do it right. And doing it right starts with a comprehensive plan, not some scheme off the top of somebody’s head.

That’s my opinion, anyways.