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
December 5, 2001

In Oakland, it pays to take notes.

A year or so ago, Port of Oakland officials defended the demolition of the Jack London Village retail center, in part, by saying that the Village structure had become dilapidated through neglect. When asked why the Port had allowed that neglect to happen, they replied…rightfully so…that it wasn’t their fault. For most of its life, the Village had been owned by a private developing company that eventually gave up on the project and allowed it to go into disrepair. Port Director of Commercial Real Estate Omar Benjamin said at the time that since the Village property was privately managed, the Port was powerless to step in. The Village was eventually demolished.

Last week, we learned that the Port may have other things in mind for its real estate ventures. Port Commissioners Phil Tagami and John Protopappas told the Tribune that they want to sell the heart of the Jack London Square properties…a four-building block that includes Barnes & Noble bookstore and The Spaghetti Factory restaurant…into private hands. Coincidentally…or not coincidentally…Tagami and Protopappas want to sell the buildings to local developers Ellis and Falaschi, who have also been chosen to develop what has been called the Jack London Square Phase II project which includes, among other things, the Jack London Village site.

Me, I don’t know jack about real estate. But still, I got questions.

One question is: will anything be written into this deal to ensure that we don’t make the same mistake as the port says was made with Jack London Village…that is, to ensure that the public won’t be powerless to step in if the developers do a half-ass job at keeping up the project? I mean, I know everybody has such faith in Ellis and Falaschi. But we’ve had so much faith in all these other developers, as well.

Another question is: what happens if the City wants to go in one direction with Jack London Square/Warehouse District/Produce District/Downtown development, and Ellis and Falaschi want to go in another?

One of the easiest-identified problems with Oakland development is that it’s been undertaken piecemeal, with one hand seemingly not knowing what the other hand is doing, and the hands sometimes working at cross-purposes with each other. This is a problem even when there are only public agencies in the mix. Bringing in private ownership of key public-owned properties would seem to be a prescription for compounding the problem.

And, finally, why is this being done at all? Port Commission President Tagami says he wants to get the port out of the real estate and development business. I’m all for that. But then why not sell the property to the City for, say, a buck and a half, instead of to private developers? It’s all a shell game, anyway. Whether Jack London Square is owned by the Port Commission or by the City of Oakland, it all belongs, in the end, to the city’s citizens. That is, unless we sell it away.

Hal Ellis tells the Tribune that he thinks the sale of the Jack London Square properties and the Jack London Square Phase II development are joined at the hip…if we don’t sell him the property, he and his buddies will pull out of the entire development project.

Odd. Maybe all of that was included in the fine print. But such a tie-in wasn’t included in the Port’s announcement of the Phase II project last April (you can look for yourself at http://www.portofoakland.com/globals/news_press_45.html). Is this just some hardball negotiating tactic of Ellis and Falaschi, or was there some backroom understanding in the original Phase II deal that didn’t get out to the public?

And what’s the Mayor’s position on this issue? After all, he was the one who appointed Tagami and Protopappas to the Port Commission. Are they proposing the sale under his direction, or is it against his will, or does it just not matter to Mr. Brown?

The Jack London Square property sale was scheduled to be discussed yesterday at the Port Commission’s regular meeting. But maybe it’s not too late to ask. Hard to get property back, once you’ve let it get out of your hands.