A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento
SERVING THE MASTER EIR
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Okay, this one is a little obscure, which makes it all the more dangerous. Public protections aren’t generally taken away in big chunks, through wars or things like that. Usually it’s done in little pieces…so small that they aren’t noticed by the public. Until it’s too late.
So it is with Assembly Bill 1086, and its provisions to chop away at environmental protections for development in downtown Oakland.
A little background. Thirty years ago, the State Legislature decided that the before any new building project was approved in California, the developers needed to show in advance that the project wouldn’t screw up the environment. To make sure of that, the legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Under CEQA, developers usually have to submit an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), before they can get approval for building projects that might have a big impact on the environment. Hearings have to be held, and the public gets to have a say in the process. CEQA was signed into law in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan, who no-one could ever say was an enemy of developers or development.
Under CEQA, development in California has not seemed to suffer. In fact, until the recent energy crisis, California’s economy has been booming. All of Silicon Valley’s development came under CEQA’s EIR requirements, for example. Developers might not like having to submit Environmental Impact Reports and bringing the public into the discussion about their projects, but it hasn’t stopped development in California.
But now comes Mayor Jerry Brown and his plans for development in downtown Oakland. I say "plan" very loosely, since, as with many of the Mayor’s ideas, there doesn’t seem to be any plan here at all. Just an idea that if we build homes for lots and lots of people in the downtown area (say, for 10,000 people), then a lot of businesses will follow, and downtown will be a nice place to be.
While most Oaklanders think this isn’t such a bad idea, most of us are a little bit wary about rushing into things without knowing all the facts. If you ask Oaklanders to name the worst city screwup of the last 30 years, almost all of us will answer: "the Raiders deal." This was a classic case where it was clearly unwise to be in such a hurry.
But Mayor Brown is in a hurry to get things done, mostly because an election is coming up, and his accomplishments have been a little thin. To speed up the downtown development process, he found an assembly bill (AB 1086) that is trying to eliminate individual EIRs for certain types of housing development. Brown got a provision stuck into that bill that would eliminate environmental reviews for housing and commercial development just in downtown Oakland. Instead of mandating environmental reviews for each project, Assembly Bill 1086 would let Oakland City Council do one environmental review for downtown commercial and housing development…what they are calling a "Master EIR." And if a mistake was done during that Master environmental review or if the review overlooked something, well, we’d just be stuck with it.
AB 1086 as it is written would affect a wide area, from the lake to the estuary to parts of West Oakland. That’s a big chunk of the city.
You’d think that the legislature would have to involve Oakland residents in this grand change, but they haven’t. Almost all of the debate has taken place behind closed doors up in Sacramento, between legislators and representatives of the Mayor and a few opposing environmental groups. Most of the Oakland public has been left out.
The Mayor made his case to me in a long telephone conversation this afternoon, just before deadline. Long enough, in fact, that in fairness, it’ll have to wait for another column to talk about what he said.
Anyhow, stay tuned to AB 1086, folks. This one seems makes sense only if you think that downtown Oakland can be developed only if the public doesn’t get in the way.