Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




November 16, 2007

Development battle opponents are often depicted as pro-development on one side, anti-development on the other, but that’s almost always a mischaracterization. Just as it would be virtually impossible for someone to be in favor of all development, regardless of what that development happens to be, you never run into someone who is against any and all development. The questions for both sides always is: what type of development are we talking about? Where will it be located? And, probably most importantly, what portions of the community will it benefit?

When Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, bless his heart, he was wonderfully successful in casting all of the battles over his various development proposals as pro-development/anti-development, charging that anyone who stood in opposition to what he had put on the table was interested in a stagnating, moribund Oakland that would eventually sink back into the Lake Merritt tidepool and estuary marshlands from which it had been wrought. And so, rather successfully, Mr. Brown managed to avoid most public scrutiny over what exactly his proposals would do, and who they would do it to.

With the benefit of hindsight, now that the former mayor has left the building, we have begun to get a clearer picture.

Mr. Brown responded to three political imperatives, two of them generated from inside Oakland, one of them generated from without.

The outside imperative was that California has begun to see the end of the suburban sprawl-building policies of the last 50 years and it is not pretty, for any number of reasons, and the state is now returning to its original core cities to house the expected continued boom in population. The inside imperative is that Oakland residents are running out of places to live inside Oakland, and Oakland residents are tired of having to cross the city boundaries into San Leandro, Alameda, Emeryville, and other nearby communities to do their big-ticket shopping.

To “solve” all three imperatives, we all remember, Mr. Brown proposed his flying-phrase 10K Development plan, in which he would encourage the building of units in Oakland’s downtown-uptown core to house 10,000 new residents.

There were always two flaws to 10K, if its intent was to satisfy the Oakland two-thirds of the three imperatives. The first was that the uptown and loft area (2nd, 3rd, and 4th street) developments were always geared more towards people who did not live in Oakland at the time the developments were put up, thus not satisfying the demand of resident Oaklanders for more housing stock for themselves and their children. The second was that 10K was always a two-parter, with the residential component to come first, and the commercial development to follow. How the commercial development was supposed to happen was never quite spelled out in detail, and Mr. Brown, as we said, has moved on to higher calling, leaving his successor, Mr. Dellums, to sort out the pigs (you’ll have to see Terry Gilliam’s movie “Time Bandits” to understand that reference).

In many ways, at least as far as Oakland is concerned, we are no better off than we were eight years ago. There are residences available or in the building stage for 10,000 new citizens, true, but those new citizens are going to be needing and demanding city services, and city government economics in the post-Proposition 13 years dictates that residential development is always a net loss for a city. City services for citizens, in other words, cost more than the tax revenue brought in by residency. It’s only commercial or job development that is a net tax revenue gain for cities. That’s why tiny Emeryville, with its massive shopping centers and high-tec campuses, is able to do so much for its citizens, per citizen, while the much larger Oakland, with more citizens, is able to do less.

So in many ways, the Dellums Administration must look afresh at Oakland’s commercial development landscape, as if the eight years of loft district and uptown development never happened. If the question is, where should the administration best concentrate its efforts to increase Oakland’s commercial package, the answer is the same as it was eight years ago: in Oakland’s existing neighborhood commercial districts.

Let’s revisit the old arguments.

Cities—whether it be in America or Europe or in ancient times along the Nile or Tigris-Euphrates—almost always begin with transportation-friendly trading centers—often at a crossroads or along a river or, in our case, beside a bay—that later develop into larger commercial centers that, in America, at least, we begin to call “downtown.” That was the case with Oakland, and for the first hundred years of its existence, the city maintained a downtown commercial core that was the shopping center of the East Bay. That core was lost for a variety of reasons—too detailed and numerous to go into in this column—and with a few notable exceptions, Oakland’s downtown has remained largely retail-vacant in the past twenty to thirty years.

This has been the source of concern for city officials, as Oakland has lost massive amounts of tax revenue to the malls at Hilltop, Emery Bay, Southland, South Shore, BayFair, and the like. But it has also been the source of no small measure of civic embarrassment and shame. Cities have traditionally been defined by their commercial downtown core, after all, and Oakland, toiling ever in San Francisco’s giant shadow, has often felt without such a downtown—no disrespect intended, and forgive me in advance if there is—like a woman having gone through a radical mastectomy.

Thus the long and continued drive and cry in Oakland—preceding the Jerry Brown years—for a downtown commercial revitalization.

But if we separate that feeling of “sense of worth” about a city having or not having a vibrant downtown commercial core, this drive and cry does not make nearly as much sense. Why does it matter where high-end retail is located in Oakland, so long as it is located somewhere accessible to the population?

And that is where Oakland’s existing neighborhood commercial centers enter the picture.

Oakland has three distinct levels of such centers.

The first are thriving and close to going over the top as major commercial centers, with a wide variety of retail, service shops and restaurants and an enormous amount of foot and vehicle traffic. Among those I would count Lakeshore/Grand Avenue, the Fruitvale, the often-overlooked Chinatown, and probably Montclair Village as well. The second level would be those commercial centers revolving around supermarkets and restaurants and smaller retail and shops, such as the Laurel and College Avenue and Piedmont Avenue. The third would be the struggling—Eastmont Mall, Foothill Square, and the Acorn Shopping Center.

Instead of looking to commercially develop the downtown area—where we are still waiting for people to move in—I would suggest concentrating on the neighborhood commercial centers where Oakland residents already live, and where a pattern of shopping has already been established.

Such a strategy would involve using city resources to improve the business climate in the neighborhood commercial centers that are already thriving, while simultaneously rescuing and rebuilding those that are on the verge of collapse.

For the thriving neighborhood commercial centers, access—meaning transportation—appears to be one of the major impediments for growth. Try finding a parking place at peak hours around Grand Avenue or in Chinatown or along Piedmont Avenue, it can be virtually impossible, and the prospect of parking in an insecure location and having to walk several long blocks to your destination is often what drives prospective shoppers or restaurant visitors to the more convenient parking lots of Emery Bay.

Given the current problems of congestion, it is understandable by residents of the neighborhoods surrounding these successful centers would be reluctant to have them grow.

Increased parking in the neighborhood commercial districts, first and foremost, then, is something the city should be studying, planning, and moving forward with.

But public transportation should not be overlooked.

AC Transit used to well-serve Oakland’s neighborhood commercial areas, but the district long-ago ran low on money, and began cutting back on service. When BART was built, it was designed to move people from the suburbs to work, with stops in the downtown commercial centers and the malls. Oakland’s neighborhood commercial centers—with exceptions like the Fruitvale or Chinatown or the neighborhood surrounding the MacArthur BART Station—were almost entirely left out.

Unfortunately, AC Transit, with its proposed Bus Rapid Transit project, would replicate that problem, laid out on a route that touches on several of the commercial centers that BART currently hits—downtown Berkeley, downtown Oakland, the Fruitvale, BayFair in San Leandro—while going far from the neighborhood commercial centers in Oakland that BART bypasses as well.

AC Transit is a necessary core component of our public transportation system, hurting for money, and they are looking at BRT as a way to get an infusion of needed federal funds. But the Federal Transportation Agency’s new policy of encouraging public transportation along commercial corridors—while commendable in theory—is the kind of micro-managing from Washington that our conservative friends are so often, and often correctly, complaining about. Sometimes, such as in Oakland, the commercial and population centers are not along the major thoroughfares—Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard, in this instance—but are tucked away in pockets on MacArthur Boulevard or College Avenue.

My guess is that if the money was there to expand its service back to fully-serving those outlying commercial areas as it once did, AC Transit would do so. But the transit agency is not able to change federal policy on its own to allow for more local flexibility in meeting the goal of public transit serving commercial districts, and only a concerted, joint city-transit lobbying effort would stand a chance.

The struggling commercial centers of Deep East Oakland and West Oakland are a different matter, of course, one that cannot be solved by simply figuring out a way to make room for more people to get there.

But it’s here, in the neighborhoods, where Oakland’s commercial future lies, and where the concentration should be placed during the remaining three years of Mr. Dellums’ first term. If major retail wants to follow Mr. Brown’s 10K into downtown Oakland, I certainly wouldn’t turn it away. But if I were running Oakland, it is unto the hills—and down in the flatlands—where I would turn my eyes for commercial development. That is from whence cometh our help.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Safero Home | UnderCurrents Home