Column: Undercurrents: Debating the Future of Oakland By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday January 27, 2006

Competitive elections give citizens a rare opportunity: a chance to participate in a discussion that could actually affect the future of their community. 

The Oakland mayoral race—which includes heavyweight candidates Nancy Nadel, Ignacio De La Fuente, and Ron Dellums—gives Oaklanders such a chance. But this is simply an opportunity. It works only if citizens take advantage of it by demanding that candidates answer questions about issues that are important to us. 

In a recent Oakland Tribune article on a De La Fuente fundraiser, reporter Heather McDonald attempted to outline some of the terms of the current mayoral debate in the area of economic development, writing that “De La Fuente promised to encourage the influx of private investment in Oakland, and use it to revitalize the waterfront and other blighted areas of Oakland. Dellums has articulated a very different philosophy, saying he supports development—but only after city leaders ensure that it embraces Oakland's racial and economic diversity.” 

I’m not sure if this accurately portrays the views of these two candidates, or shows the differences between their positions, since it seems to imply that Mr. De La Fuente is not in favor of Oakland’s racial and economic diversity, or that Mr. Dellums would not encourage private investment to help cure the city’s economic problems. I doubt if either one of those assertions is true. And, even though Ms. McDonald neglected to mention the third major candidate in the race, I would also guess that Ms. Nadel would also encourage development and promote diversity. So if we’re to understand the differences and the possibilities, where should the debate go? 

There is one view of city planning that cities are defined by their central core—their “downtown,” in the old way of saying things—and that without a live and lively downtown, a city is dead and has no identity at all. I’m not sure if Mayor Jerry Brown holds this view—one can never be quite sure what Mr. Brown actually believes—but he certainly acts like he does, and during his administration we have seen most of the economic development attention coming out of the mayor’s office concentrated in the downtown area (and by downtown, of course, we also include the Forest City “uptown” project, which is located in the northern end of downtown). 

There is another view that modern cities can be better defined by their neighborhood commercial/social centers, and that concentration on the economic health of those neighborhood centers can make for a living, vibrant city, even with a downtown that is virtually dead, or never existed. 

In this view, the City of Oakland is bustling and thriving, and only in need of a little help from City Hall in order to burst out once more as the East Bay’s economic, social, and cultural center. 

The common complaint about Oakland’s downtown is that it lacks a variety of shopping outlets, and that it virtually shuts down after dark in many places, turning into a virtual ghost town. 

That is certainly not the case in many of Oakland’s neighborhood commercial centers. 

A visit to these centers—Grand Avenue/Lakeshore, College Avenue, Montclair Village, the Laurel, the Fruitvale, the wildly-successful Chinatown—delivers a far different experience: sidewalks jammed with shoppers, restaurants and clubs filled with patrons, parking lots and metered spaces at their capacity. In some of these areas—International Boulevard between 29th and 35th, for example, or most of Chinatown—vehicle traffic comes to a virtual halt at times, Manhattan-like, because of the massive amounts of commercial and social activity. 

Traffic and parking, in fact, not “how to attract development,” is Oakland’s major economic problem that the newly-elected mayor ought to address, and where the mayoral debate ought to focus. 

Oakland’s streets were laid out in a slower, more elegant time, and if you ever get the chance to drive San Pablo Avenue from the Berkeley border to downtown, and then International out to San Leandro at, say, 4 in the morning, you can see how much the street patterns once made sense. As the population rapidly fills in, and vehicles increase both in size and in number, that is no longer the case. At the same time, it is easy to see that the available parking in any of the neighborhood commercial centers no longer meets the demand. 

Those twin problems, lack of sufficient parking and lack of flowing traffic, are what have halted the further development of Oakland’s neighborhood commercial centers, why it’s not practical to try to entice a J. C. Penney’s to, say, Lakeshore Avenue instead of Broadway or Telegraph. Residents of these areas are rightfully resisting further development because the city streets and parking areas can’t handle what is already there. 

But are these problems unsolvable, simply the curse of modern city life? A quick look around the East Bay shows that they are not. 

No local city has packed more commercial development into a small space than little Emeryville, and no East Bay city had a greater traffic problem in recent years. Many people thought that the Emery Bay development would be the death of that city, bringing traffic to a halt. It didn’t. Instead, Emeryville has combined creative solutions ($1 for four hours of parking in the lots, for example) with some sort of deal with Caltrans that caused the creation of a four-lane flyover overpass that connects Stanford Avenue with Emery Bay and Ikea and on back up to San Pablo Avenue. If Emeryville has the smarts and the state political clout to develop such remedies, the new occupant of the Oakland mayor’s office—whoever that will be—should certainly be able to do the same for the transportation problems along College Ave. 

One of the stories about Oakland is that in the early 1960s the city leaders—swollen with their assurance that the city had always been the East Bay’s economic engine and always would be—looked on the development of the malls as a passing neon-driven fad that could never compete with Oakland’s brick-and-mortar downtown. That might simply be urban legend, but it certainly has the ring of truth to it. The malls in Pleasanton or Hayward or Richmond are booming. (At the same time, none of these cities has what one would call a thriving downtown.) 

I’m glad that Oakland missed out on the malls. They are for the most part sterile, artificial economic environments, most often completely divorced from the social environments of the cities in which they temporarily exist. 

But for Oakland, the neighborhood commercial/social centers are the malls of the 21st century, the place where our commercial and social future ought to lie. Are these neighborhood centers important to the three major candidates for mayor of Oakland? If so, how would each of them preserve what we already have, and what would they adopt as policies of improvement? How would they bring similar development to the areas that have been left behind—much of West Oakland, for example, or the far reaches of East Oakland going towards San Leandro? Specifics are in order. A candidate who could successfully answer those questions—and build a campaign around those answers—could develop a coalition that would include neighborhood residents and activists as well as the majority of the city’s business owners, stretching across all of the city’s diverse economic, racial, social, and cultural lines. That’s the kind of coalition that Oakland needs. That’s the kind of political debate that Oakland needs. 

I’ll wait, patiently, to see if that happens.