On the waterfront -- Oak to Ninth

Oaklanders decided to turn Oak to Ninth into a waterfront park, but in a backroom deal, the land was sold to a developer.

"Oak to Ninth" is a ten block stretch of the Oakland waterfront that a developer is proposing to convert into a truly massive building complex -- 3100 units of stylish housing with shops, restaurants and two marinas. There will also be parks. The Oakland Tribune is appropriately calling it the "mini-city" plan.

Not everybody around here considers it such a good thing, and in March 2006 I attended two public hearings to see what people were saying. The first was a session of the Oakland Planning Commission on March 15th. By the time I got there, the chamber was already packed; even in the balconies there was standing room only. Many of these people had come to support the developer; even more were there to dispute him, or at least ask for changes in various aspects of the proposal.

The developer, Michael Ghielmetti, CEO of Signature Properties, showed slides of waterfront projects which his firm had developed in other cities, showing before and after photos of how the firm had turned rundown, industrial waterfronts into attractive residential areas. It was an effective presentation.

He was followed by speakers from community groups. The first was the Community Benefits Coalition, which asked that twenty five percent of the units be built as affordable housing. Other community organizations spoke on such issues as health, safety and open spaces. Speakers from the Oakland Heritage Alliance argued for the preservation of the historic Ninth Avenue Terminal Building.

An unforgettable moment came when a person in a three piece-suit, speaking in support of the developer, gave a rebuttal to the health and environmental concerns of the community people. "Working people want jobs," he said. "They don't care about leukemia!"

At the end of the hearing, the Planning Commission approved the developer's plans. Their approval was hardly a surprise. It's what the Commissioners nearly always do. They go through the motions of listening to hours of community concerns, then, at the end of the hearing, they routinely ignore all this input and rubber stamp the developer's project.

It came as a surprise when one of the planners, Michael Lighty, dissented from his colleagues. Commissioner Lighty objected that the decision should be postponed until they saw an independent financial review which was in the process of being prepared.

Newspapers missed the "leukemia" speech. "Planners put faith in [the] mini-city," reported the Tribune; the Montclarion had a similar headline. They also played down the remarks by Commissioner Lighty, denying them headline status.

A week later, Tribune columnist Peggy Stinnett wrote a foreboding critique of the project: "This deal could become one of the city's most devastating financial blunders since the days of Horace Carpentier." (Carpentier was Oakland's infamous founding father, the first mayor, and the developer who stole the waterfront in 1854. An annual Horace Carpentier Dinner was established in 2004 to celebrate his ignominy.)

On March 28, two weeks later, there was a special session of the City Council. Once again the place was packed, this time even more so than before. My neighbor and I could barely make our way up the broad stairs of the entrance hall. The Community Benefits Coalition was there in force, many of its members wearing yellow T-shirts and large paper keys on strings around their necks. Some were handing out cardboard signs. "Build Oakland for Everyone" was printed on one side, and on the other, "The KEY is Affordable Housing."

Somehow, we managed to get seats in the right hand balcony, at the extreme front end where it was hard to see the projector screen. Still, we had an excellent view of everything else. Directly below us were the City Council members, sitting in a semicircle. In front of them was the audience, packed into the seats and aisles. More people were still trying to get in the door, and some of them were finally directed to overflow rooms where they could follow the proceedings on a closed circuit TV.

At first I thought all the people in yellow T-shirts were part of the coalition. However, there were also many in yellow T-shirts with a slogan reading "Support Oak to 9th." The developer's people? I wondered if it was by accident that both sides had shown up in T-shirts of the same color, nearly identical shades of yellow. A handful of people wore the large, shiny "I support Oak to 9th" buttons that had been so prominent in the previous hearing. Also in contrast to the previous hearing, hardly any them were dressed like office staff--I wondered if perhaps the developers' PR team had decided to have their people look more like supporters from the community.

The people sitting immediately around us at our end of the balcony weren't carrying signs or wearing slogan-bearing T-shirts or buttons. But if they weren't with the coalition, they didn't quite seem like pro-developer people either.

As before, CEO Michael Ghielmetti of Signature Properties was the opening speaker. Once again he came across as a decent guy, a reasonable, likable person, someone you could talk to and work out a solution with. A lot of people seemed to have come under his spell. He turned to the audience and asked supporters of the project to raise their hands, and perhaps a third of the gathering did. There was applause, followed almost immediately by booing. The group seated around us joined in the booing, expressing their disapproval at the top of their lungs.

Next to speak were two Oakland high school students, Brian Dotson and Aaron Smith. At first I assumed they were from the coalition; it turned out they had another perspective.

"I'm here speaking against the Oak to Ninth Street project," said Brian. "As many of you know, the Oak to Ninth Street project calls for a 42 percent cutback of open space and park lands previously allotted in the Estuary Policy plan.

"This is an atrocity and as a member of Oakland's future generation I must object to this crime against Oakland's environment. Ninety five percent of Oakland's wetlands …" He was interrupted by applause from the audience, then continued, "… wetlands have already been destroyed or covered up. We can do better than this. I urge you not to support this project unless major changes are made to save our beautiful waterfront."

There was resounding applause for Brian and for his classmate who also opposed the project.

Now came the coalition's turn. They asked all their supporters to stand up, and a third or more of the audience rose to their feet and applauded. I noticed that the group near us remained seated. They watched in silence.

The coalition had a dozen speakers. These included labor union members, economic analysts, students, clergy and an elderly person who addressed the assembly in Chinese. Later in the evening, the pro-developer team also had a presentation in Chinese.

"We are not here tonight in support of this project. However we are here to make a proposal that can result in our support," said the coalition's first speaker, Leonore Godines.

"Whereas our original proposal called for 750 units of the 3100 unit project to be affordable, our covenant now calls for 560 units of affordable housing," she said. "We ask that twenty percent of the project be made affordable to families earning less than fifty thousand dollars a year."

Just twenty percent? At the previous hearing, the coalition's request had been for twenty five percent -- but tonight they were only asking for twenty percent.

Meanwhile, as they spoke, supporters held up the signs reading "The KEY is affordable housing!" At the same time, a long file of people, mostly in yellow T-shirts, made their way though the crowed aisle to the speaker's stand where they, each in turn, laid down their cardboard keys. Eventually there was a tall pile of paper keys on the stand.

Clearly, the coalition people had put a lot of work into this whole thing. But I wondered why they'd scaled back their demand from twenty five percent affordable housing down to just twenty. Actually, the law required the developer to provide fifteen percent, so all this effort was just to get an additional five percent.

They were also asking that a certain percentage of the jobs be reserved for Oakland residents and that there be apprenticeships for local youth to enter the building trades. Since we live in an age of outsourcing, this seemed like a worthwhile stipulation, and the developer seemed willing to go along with it. However that does not seem like enough to make this a good and worthwhile project that would benefit the community as a whole.

Since the land was public property, being sold to the developer at a fraction of its value, it seemed that the coalition people should've at least been asking for more than they were. Perhaps they believed that the community would be lucky to get anything at all.

The coalition speakers finished, and other groups took their turn, pointing out further aspects of the project that needed to be looked into and changed. One was a member of an artists colony, "The Fifth Avenue Artisans," who have been at that waterfront location for over 40 years.

"I heard the developer, Mr. Ghielmetti, say just a few minutes ago, 'There's nobody there,'" the artisan pointed out. "Well, there is. We're there! We're there at Fifth Avenue."

This elicited roaring applause, and the group near us was standing and cheering enthusiastically. "Tell 'em!" shouted one of the group, calling to the speaker by name. Then I realized, or rather guessed, who these people sitting in our vicinity were.

The artisan waved to the audience, obviously grateful for the expression of support. Then he continued. "We are in fact a very vibrant artisan community doing things, things that go out into the world and have an international repute.

"What is Oakland? What is Oakland about? There is really a soul. And that soul exists in the crevices and cracks of where you find it. In our case, the artisans of Fifth Avenue, we work in that kind of environment.

"This development can be altered to help support and enhance it," he said. "The problem is that the developer said that he would embrace the Estuary Policy Plan. That's not what's happening. … Don't let the developers be the arbiters of value for the city!"

So these artisans who presumably live on small budgets and pay truly low rent would be evicted to make way for a project where even the so called "affordable housing" would be for people earning as much as fifty thousand dollars a year.

Several speakers reminded the council of the 1999 Estuary Policy Plan, which is abandoned. One of these speakers was former council member John Sutter, who is now a judge.

"I speak on behalf of the Estuary Policy Plan," said Judge Sutter. "That's your plan. You adopted it unanimously in 1999 -- after a lengthy study involving an advisory committee of 27 people. And you spent a lot of city money on that plan. So what good are the plans if you don't follow them?"

"I'm not wearing a yellow T-shirt," said Naomi Schiff, indicating she was neither a supporter of the developer nor a member of the coalition . She and several others from the Oakland Heritage Alliance spoke of the importance of saving the historic Ninth Avenue Terminal building.

"The Planning Commission and the staff are not serving you well," said James Vann, an architect and housing activist. "They were willing to vote [on the project] with no discussion at all. They are stenographers for the developer. … Don't give our city away!"

"We're here as the result of an entirely bankrupt planning process," said Jim Ratliff, who is an economist and also a member of a city advisory committee on the waterfront and Lake Merritt. As an example he mentioned "the self serving consultant's report that the Ninth Avenue Terminal cannot be reused."

It's hardly necessary to say at this point that all of these received abundant applause.

Following them were some twenty pro-developer speakers who represented a number of building trades unions as well as real-estate and business groups and associations. There were speakers from various Chambers of Commerce, the president of the Jack London Aquatic Center, several architects, a representative of an environmental engineering firm, members of the clergy, a president of a local YMCA and people from job training centers. These people enumerated ways in which the project would benefit Oakland and expressed a high regard for the developer.

The final group to step up on the speaker's stand was the Oakland Green Party. Their candidate, Aimee Allison, who is running for City Council from District 2 (which includes part of the project area) said, "There are several excellent reasons not to rush forward. There is still time to change the project and support the Estuary Policy plan. [It's] a vision that took five years of public input and resulted in a very balanced thoughtful plan. . . . I'm recommending that this council delay the final decision until some of the issues we heard tonight can be addressed."

She was the last speaker. Finally, it was the turn of City Council members to ask questions of the developer. So far, the Oakland City Council has not issued a decision.

Actually, the City Council had already approved a plan for the waterfront -- back in 1999. That was the Estuary Policy Plan, which many speakers brought up. According to the plan, Oak to Ninth was to be turned into a recreational centerpiece of the city. A network of large open spaces would provide for a wide variety of recreational opportunities. The historic 9th Avenue Terminal building was to be preserved, and the artisan community would continue to play a valuable role in the life of the area. But all this seems to have been officially forgotten. What happened?

While dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people were spending thousands of hours on the Estuary Policy Plan, and doing this in an open and democratic way, another group was quietly making plans of its own. In 2001, the Oakland Board of Port Commissioners, simply ignoring the Estuary Policy Plan, revealed that it was selling Oak to Ninth to a developer.

So, in effect, those thousands of hours that so many people put into the Estuary Policy Plan were just thrown away. The real business was conducted in some backroom. Hopefully it was a smoke-free backroom, in accordance with nonsmoking laws.


Estuary Policy Plan of 1999

Oak to 9th: Lessons for democratic community planning by Rajiv Bhatia

Peggy Stinnett's warning

Greedy Development Threatens Oakland by Pamela Drake

Artists colony fears development -- 7/15/2003 Oakland Tribune

Report from the March 15th hearing by Daniel Borgström

The developer's website

Community Benefits Coalition proposal July 2005

League of Women Voters' Waterfront Study 1993

Daniel Borgström
April 2006