Representatives of eight Oakland-based public agencies met privately with business leaders and developers last week to discuss development plans in the politically sensitive area between the western shore of Lake Merritt and the estuary.
The Friday morning “West of Lake Merritt Developments” conference at the Waterfront Plaza Hotel in Jack London Square was sponsored by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Attendees represented the Peralta Community College District, the Oakland Unified School District, the City of Oakland, Alameda County, BART, the Port of Oakland, and CalTrans, as well as developers Signature Properties, Alan Dones, Jack London Square Partners, and McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, and members of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. In addition, representatives attended from Children’s Hospital of Oakland, which has expressed interest in building a hospital in the Laney College area.
Also on the list of invitees was a representative of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency.
The firm of McLarand Vasquez Emsiek, based in Orange County and with offices in Oakland, got its start 30 years ago in developing waterfront condominiums, and has since branched into commercial development. The company developed the Fruitvale Transit Village surrounding the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland.
The closed-to-the-public session did not violate California’s Brown Public Meetings Act because only one invitee—BART Commissioner Carole Ward Allen—was a member of an elected public body. The rest of the invitees were staff members from the public sector.
The only agency head invited was Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris, who arrived a few minutes late to the meeting and left without entering. Chamber officials tried to downplay the significance of the event.
“This was nothing unusual,” chamber president and CEO Joseph Haraburda said in a telephone interview. “As at all chamber meetings, the purpose was to advance our mission to stimulate commerce and industry in Oakland. We do these types of things all the time.”
The conference agenda included some of the most controversial development topics in Oakland in recent months, including Signature Properties’ Oak to Ninth project, Strategic Urban Development Alliance’s proposed Peralta-Laney project, and the commercial development of Oakland Unified School District properties surrounding the district’s administration building.
Also on the agenda was a briefing by development agency representatives from the City of Oakland on “Measure DD/Development Opportunities.”
Measure DD was the 2002 bond measure passed by Oakland voters that was intended, in part, to make improvements to the Lake Merritt Channel between western Lake Merritt and the estuary.
A representative of the Peralta Federation of Teachers and a reporter for the Berkeley Daily Planet were denied entrance to the meeting by Chamber of Commerce officials, who told them that it was a “purely business meeting by invitation only.”
Outside the meeting, Chancellor Harris seemed puzzled by the exclusion of PFT President Michael Mills, but added that he was only an invitee himself, and had no control over the meeting. Mills said any development affecting Peralta would have come before his organization at some point.
“If they don’t talk with us now, they’ll have to talk with us later,” he said. “It makes more sense to bring us in at the beginning of the process.”
Mills said he came to the meeting because he thought it was an open event.
While Chamber of Commerce President Haraburda called the four-hour meeting “positive,” he said it was “doubtful” that any grand, coordinated development plan for the West Lake Merritt area would result.
“This area involves diverse organizations serving diverse constituencies,” Haraburda said by telephone. “The respective approval levels and their various mission statements could potentially preclude any collaborative efforts between the agencies. But you never know. We just wanted to get them together and bring to light the opportunities that exist. If this gathering allows two organizations to find a way to work together, that’s terrific.”