Commentary: Seeing Through the Fads of City Planning By JANE POWELL

Friday September 02, 2005

I think that in the beginning, redevelopment was either a good idea or an act of desperation. I believe it was initially spurred by massive disinvestment in inner cities in the East. I have to laugh when I hear redevelopment people in California talking about blight and abandoned buildings; do you know that Baltimore has 40,000 empty buildings? Oakland only has 80,000 buildings altogether. In any case, the good idea or act of desperation, once it was in place, turned out to be not so good. It led to “urban renewal”—the destruction of mostly historic and intact neighborhoods deemed “blighted,” and the removal of the residents. Eventually urban renewal fell from grace and was replaced by new planning fads like: turning your downtown into a pedestrian mall, festival marketplaces, building aquariums, gambling facilities, or the current favorite, downtown baseball stadiums, and of course, “smart growth.” Because you have to understand, planning is subject to fads, and planners like to think big. Politicians like to think big, too, because it gives them big things to point at when they run for reelection.  

Smart growth is the current fad, and they can all repeat the tenets like gospel: density in the inner cities will save farmland in the Central Valley, density near transit will get people out of their cars. Let me be clear: The only connection between density in the inner cities and farmland in the Central Valley is money- money for developers. The developer spouting the Smart Growth line at the Oakland Planning Commission is exactly the same developer who is paving over farmland in Ripon. And the same developer who is making large political contributions to the city councilmembers who also just happen to be the board of the Redevelopment Agency. 

All that aside, my primary problem with redevelopment is that historic buildings are always the first thing to go. They are always the ones that are (and I’m quoting now from the California Redevelopment Association), “aging, deteriorating, outdated and inefficient building configuration and design that does not meet current business needs, vacant, underutilized, incompatible adjacent or nearby uses of land parcels that hinder economic activity.” 

You should always run screaming when any politician or city planner uses the word “underutilized.” 

No one ever tears down an ugly building from the 1970s to put in a parking lot, but the argument whenever someone wants to demolish a historic building is “It would cost too much to fix it.” On top of that is what I call “hate the building syndrome.” Most people simply cannot see beyond a bad use or bad tenants, so if a historic building was a crack house or a porn theater or a liquor store, or was allowed to run down by an uncaring owner, although it is not the building’s fault, everyone will say, “Oh yes, it’s so awful—tear it down!” And then several thousand board feet of old growth timber will be sent splintered and useless to the landfill, and in its place will rise an overly dense building that dwarfs everything around it, built of crappy materials, that looks like hell inside of five years. 

I find this particularly amusing because one of the “adverse economic conditions” listed under blight is “residential overcrowding.” 

Redevelopment is not about giving homeowners low interest loans to fix up their houses. It is not about giving low interest loans to business people so they can open up bookstores or hardware stores or bakeries or shoe repair shops or other things that benefit the neighborhood. Rather, it’s about removing long time homeowners and existing businesses in order to assemble large parcels that can be turned over to developers.  

And development is apparently the only business in which you can demand a guaranteed profit, and refuse to do things you don’t want to do because they “don’t pencil out.”  

Russell Baker said, “Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things.”  

Half of Oakland is already IN redevelopment areas—the downtown area was recently renewed for another 30 years, because the first 30 years where we threw millions of dollars at the Warrior practice arena, the Oakland Ice Center, and everything else that was supposed to “revitalize downtown Oakland” didn’t work. Now we are prepared to spend $65 million at minimum, remove thriving small businesses through eminent domain, all in order to build a suburban-style apartment complex for the benefit of a developer from Cleveland, with no guarantee that it will revitalize downtown. 

With the recent Kelo decision by the Supreme Court, no one is safe from eminent domain. Cities can take your property (or your landlord’s property) and give it to a private developer in the name of “economic development.” Oakland city officials are salivating over the possible tax increment money to be gained from annexing North Oakland to the existing redevelopment area. North Oakland is not blighted—that’s why they want it. The millions of dollars they will get from increased property taxes on houses that are selling for $600,000 to $800,000 will get sucked into the black hole of the MacArthur Transit Village or some other project that a developer is pitching to them even now, that will be a snowball rolling downhill before we even hear of it. 

According to officials at the California Redevelopment Association, if Tom McClintock’s bill SCA15, the Homeowner and Property Protection Act, ever becomes law, they will be out of business. I suggest we should all do our best to make sure that happens. 


Jane Powell is an Oakland preservationist.