Editorial: Can Oakland Re-Think Oak to 9th?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday August 18, 2006

Sunday morning we enjoyed a visit to the DMV offices on Claremont Avenue in Oakland. That’s a first—when has anyone ever enjoyed a DMV trip? The reason it was a pleasure is that we weren’t actually visiting the DMV, but were taking advantage of Oakland’s newest urban amenity, the Sunday farmers’ market which has set up shop in the parking lot there, just blocks from our home on the Berkeley border. It’s a tasty mixture of organic produce, booths for specialty cooking and a rotating roster of craftspeople and selected musicians.  

This week the market also hosted an act in the liveliest ongoing series of political psychodramas: The People Try To Take Back Their Cities from The Evil Planners. Petition gatherers for the referendum opposing the project plan which the Oakland City Council majority has approved for Oakland’s huge “Oak to Ninth” waterfront area were much in evidence, along with men handing out fliers urging shoppers not to sign the petitions. As non-residents, we couldn’t sign the petitions, but that didn’t stop the antis from tackling us. I bearded one of them, trying to find out a bit about why he was so anxious to keep the referendum from getting on the ballot. 

He started out by saying that “the circulators are all paid.” Well, I happened to recognize one of them, Oakland architect James Vann, an active volunteer with the Oak to Ninth Referendum Committee, who works for the Pyatok firm in Oakland, well-known for its affordable housing project designs, so he lost me on that one, as well on his second claim that affordable housing proponents all support the project. Another reason he wanted to keep the referendum off the ballot, he said, is that the project as approved would provide jobs. Well, yes, but for whom? I asked. Construction workers, he said. Like you? I asked. He (a middle-aged white guy) allowed as how he was a sheet metal worker. Where did he live? I asked. Martinez, he said. I suggested that projects which simply brought established white workers into Oakland from their rural homes might not be the kind of job creation Oaklanders need, and that their auto commuting to the job site would be a net loss for the environment. But perhaps they’re planning to take transit to work? In any event, he disengaged from the conversation pretty quickly after that, so I didn’t find out. 

I learned later that referendum circulators had been having run-ins with opponents who were not nearly as polite as the guy I talked to on Sunday. They’d sent a letter to the Oakland City Council on Saturday night complaining about it:  

Today, at various locations around the city, many petition circulators were harassed and interfered with by a groups of unnamed individuals. We were able to ascertain that at least some of the harassers were from a Sacramento labor union group. At each of the locations where harassment occurred, the same leaflet was being handed out. The leaflet did not identify any organization and gave no contact information. When asked, the circulators provided vague responses, if any, about who they were, or where from, or who ordered the interfering harassment. It seemed apparent to our circulators that the groups that appeared today had been hired by, and/or directed by someone. 

Their e-mail asked the City Council and/or the police to do something about it, since such harassment is illegal. That’s probably what produced the relatively civil exchanges I saw on Sunday. But League of Women Voters member Helen Hutchison told me that she’d received a call on her cell phone Saturday night from an official of the Central Labor Council calling her e-mail “scurrilous and libelous.” Not good PR for the unions, that’s for sure. 

Yesterday (Thursday) the Referendum Committee sent out a triumphal press release announcing that 30,000 signatures had been collected for submission, when fewer than 19,000 are needed. This brings the curtain down on Act I in this particular drama. Now it’s up to the Oakland City Council to decide whether to withdraw their approval of the project as it stands and try again, or to place it on the ballot as-is for a popular vote up or down.  

Things have changed somewhat in Oakland since a divided council first approved the plans. They were influenced, perhaps unduly, by an early stampede of some of the “good guy” groups to endorse what turns out to be a pretty poor deal for the public interest. The Greenbelt Alliance, for example, green-stamped the project early on, though the more judicious Sierra Club is now supporting the referendum. Greenbelters don’t seem to understand that protecting the environment means more than a green ring around increasingly crowded and unpleasant acres of urban concrete.  

And the promised “jobs” offer no more than 6 or 7 percent to local workers, as contrasted with, for example, the 40-50 percent local hiring developer Phil Tagami promises for his rehab of the Fox Oakland theater. Even the affordable housing promises are sketchy—the vast majority of buyers in the proposed project will just be newbies using its pricey condos as stepping stones to suburban McMansions.  

Berkeley’s sister drama, the initiative to save its Landmarks Preservation Ordinance from developer-driven emasculation, is definitely on the ballot for November. Berkeley council members have missed their chance to avoid a confrontation over that one. But Oakland’s new mayor, Ron Dellums, is well-positioned to give Oakland a second look at a bad deal. If he wants to get his term off to a positive start, he would be well-advised to bring all parties back to the drawing board to see if they can’t do a lot better by what everyone agrees is a world-class opportunity. It’s such a good site that it merits a seriously big-time international design competition, instead of just another routine Big Ugly Box condo development on steroids.