UnderCurrents: Brown Giving Away The Store On the Way Out

Friday June 25, 2004

Mr. John Protopappas, the President of the Port of Oakland Commission, informs us of an interesting new math being practiced over there at the commission’s glass palace by the bay. The new executive director for the port started this week. Meanwhile, the outgoing executive director—Mr. Tay Yoshitani—will be allowed to stay on the payroll for three more months as something called “Extra Position No. 1” (no, I am not making this up) at his regular salary of $20,650 per month, complete with full benefits and an office of his own, even though Mr. Yoshitani may actually have left Oakland and is already on his way back to Baltimore. 

The arrangement, Mr. Protopappas informs us through the Tribune, “will actually save the port money.” 

How can that be, the average local citizen and taxpayer wonders. Well, we’ll tell you. 

Mr. Yoshitani, it seems, has a contract with the port that runs through the end of September, but decided to leave early and return to Maryland for family reasons. His contract has a severance clause which requires the port to pay him for an extra six months if the contract is terminated. “So it is a lot cheaper to allow his contract to finish,” Mr. Protopappas cheerfully tells the Tribune. Three months’ cheaper, apparently. 

We wait, patiently, for the question to form in your head. 

If Mr. Yoshitani is leaving early on his own, why should the port (or, to be more precise, the local taxpayers) be required to pay a severance fee? That’s because, again according to the Tribune, “Yoshitani’s current contract calls for him to receive six months’ pay if the contract is terminated by either side” (emphasis helpfully added). 

Like my grandmother used to say, nothing beats government work. Or government contracts. 

We also learn this week of another Oakland government contract that is going to cost us considerably more…some $61 million more. That is the amount of subsidy—in the form of donated land, tax breaks, hazardous waste cleanups, and $15 and a half million in cash—that the City of Oakland is expected to kick in to the developers to get the proposed Uptown Project built. The Uptown Project, which includes the Forest City development and a separate condominium tower, is supposed to eventually put 1,000 new apartment units in the area along Telegraph and San Pablo Avenues just north of downtown. 

"It’s a tremendous subsidy,” City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente said unnecessarily in announcing the council committee vote to approve the package. “But no subsidy, no project.” 

The massive developer subsidy program—where the city essentially bribes a developer to please, please come build something in our town—was a staple of the old Oakland landscape under Mayor Elihu Harris, and was supposed to have ended when Jerry Brown came to town. In its place, we were told, Mr. Brown was going to use his star power to get developers so interested in Oakland that they would want to build here without incentive; in effect, Mr. Brown would “put Oakland on the map.” 

In fact, map-putting is what Mr. Protoppapas (who is also a local developer and an ally of Mr. Brown) said the mayor had already done in a 2001 interview with the New York Times: “Five years ago, downtown was occupied by hostile forces,” Mr. Protopappas said back then. (By terrorists? Alien invaders? He doesn’t elaborate.) “What Jerry Brown is creating is an environment that has people walking around downtown with disposable income,” Mr. Protopappas goes on to explain. “Jerry Brown has been a very effective leader. He’s been a visionary who deals well with the bureaucracy and has put the city on the map.” 

A pirate map, presumably, with a big red “X” marked in the territory along the bay between San Leandro and Berkeley, and the notation, scrawled in drunken script, “Here (Still) Be Suckers.” 

We should consider the Uptown Project as something of Oakland’s involuntary campaign contribution to Mr. Brown as he begins his announced run for the office of Attorney General of the State of California. Downtown development was supposed to be one of the key elements of Mr. Brown’s administration, with friends and boosters like Mr. Protopappas boasting that the mayor “has people walking downtown with disposable income.” True, but perhaps it was a different mayor who did the doing. Following the devastation of the ‘89 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the real Oakland downtown revival came under the regime of Mr. Harris. It was in those years that City Hall was restored and the state and federal buildings built. Without those government workers walking around with disposable income there would be no City Center, and without those shops and restaurants at City Center, the heart of downtown Oakland would be dead. Same is true for the loft development surrounding the downtown area, both to the north along Telegraph Avenue and to the south near Jack London Square. Brown supporters tend to claim all of that for the new mayor, but the truth is, the Jack London Square lofts were mostly (if not all) approved while Mr. Harris was still in office. 

And so Mr. Brown must have a signature project of his own to show that he can actually deliver on his promises, and so Oakland will be stuck with the Uptown Project, and its $61 million subsidy, on down through the ages of our children and our grandchildren and beyond. 

There were other alternatives, of course. When Oakland lost its downtown vibrancy many years ago, it turned back to its neighborhoods for retail centers. Some of them have been remarkably successful. Business is steady in the Grand Lake area, along College Avenue and Piedmont, and up in Montclair. You can hardly walk or drive through Chinatown for the crowds, day and night, and even before the Transit Village the Fruitvale was beginning to take off. Even Foothill Square—remote and generally-overlooked up in the far corner of MacArthur Boulevard—is generally full of shoppers. These districts are made up primarily of business owners who have risked their fortunes to operate in Oakland, without being paid by the government to do so. A more creative mayor—a mayor more in touch with the life of the city—might have spent more time supporting what we already have, instead of wooing developers who need a subsidy to make up for the apparent shame of being seen with us. 

That will have to be the job of the next mayor. Let’s hope Mr. Brown and his friends leave enough for her, or him, to work with. Right now, they seem to be rapidly giving away the store.