Column: Undercurrents: Brown Leaves Oakland With Legacy of Improper Planning

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylo
Friday December 08, 2006

Folks generally think about city planning in the same way that we think about central plumbing. It’s noticed only when it fails, and even then our attention is mostly on how to clean up the resultant mess, not on fixing the internal structures that originally caused the problem. 

Over the last couple of years, therefore, most of us have been focused on the battles over such individual projects as the big downtown developments—Oak to Ninth and Forest City’s Uptown—or the proposed sale of the Oakland Unified School District Lake Merritt lands to be turned into luxury high-rises, or the numerous smaller developments springing up all over the city. Last weekend, more than a hundred North Oakland residents showed up at Councilmember Jane Brunner’s regular community advisory meeting, most of them to announce adamant opposition to one or more of the some 845 new condominium units being built in or planned for that area. 

But underlying the glare and glitter of the Oakland building boom that was the Jerry Brown years is a growing public awareness by some—and a growing willingness to talk openly about it by others—that for all of that rash of development activity during the mayor’s two terms, the most important things to secure this city’s economic future may have been left undone, to the city’s detriment. 

And this is often coming from people who are normally staunchly pro-development. 

Last month, in anticipation of the changing of Oakland’s mayoral guard from Jerry Brown to Ron Dellums, the San Francisco Business Times produced a 20-page supplement on Oakland development. Towards the end of an article on Oakland developer Hal Ellis, reporter Ryan Tate made some interesting revelations about the results of Mr. Brown’s development policies: 

“Though downtown has added 4,000 housing units in the last eight years, filled up its office towers, including seven at City Center … retail has lagged,” Mr. Tate writes. “Instead of a regional mall, City Center has 60,000 square feet of mostly fast-service restaurants and small shops … A more recent mixed-use development from Forest City … also drastically scaled back its retail ambitions. In 2000, at the height of the dot-com boom, the project was to include 100,000 square feet of retail. Plans now under way call for 9,000 square feet of retail … That sort of organic retail growth can add character and bring excitement to a neighborhood. But it does not bring the kind of sales tax revenue that big-box retail … can bring the city. Nor does it meet many of the retail needs of new and soon-to-come residents. The resulting retail vacuum is the greatest failing of the development boom under Brown, [Hal] Ellis said, a boom he otherwise praises in no uncertain terms.” 

One has to remember a little history in order to understand the implications of that little business revelation. 

During his original 1998 run for mayor of Oakland, Mr. Brown repeatedly said that a central goal for the economic revitalization of Oakland was to bring retail back to the city’s downtown core by first opening up the downtown area to residential development. Once a critical mass of residents were living downtown, Mr. Brown assured us, the retail establishments would quickly follow, without our having to do all that embarrassing begging and subsidizing that past Oakland administrations had to resort to. Oakland, he said, would be “put on the map.” 

The idea became a powerful campaign slogan when Mr. Brown announced a goal of bringing 10,000 new residents into downtown Oakland—the 10K plan—and that campaign slogan later became official city policy during the Brown Administration, complete with its own page on the city’s website. 

But somewhere along the 10K way, the goal of 10,000 new downtown residents became an end in itself for the Brown Administration, with the retail revival gradually shuffled to the back until, finally, it was forgotten, conveniently and completely, as the program’s original goal. 

This is more than a matter of minor inconvenience for the new downtown residents. California’s post-Prop 13 economy works so that cities tend to go in the red on residential neighborhoods—paying out more for services than they get back in tax revenue—but make that money back on commercial districts. Without the promised added retail, Oakland is actually in worse shape financially, budget by budget, than we were before all the new downtowners moved in. 

And even in those areas where Mr. Brown’s policies have succeeded in bringing life back to Oakland’s downtown—residential development and entertainment establishments—he has left a minefield of potential problems in his wake. Prudent planning would have set aside a specific area of downtown for entertainment only—clubs and bars—with residences far enough away that people wouldn’t be bothered in the late night hours by loud music or the general coming-and-going associated with entertainment night life. Instead, by adopting a whomsoever-shall-come-let-them-build downtown policy, putting clubs and condos together side-by-side, hip-and-thigh, Mr. Brown has ensured enduring clashes between residents and party-goers in the downtown area, with the inevitable result that either both will suffer or one or the other will eventually collapse, and leave. 

The downtown resident-nightlife problem might have been easily solved with a plan. Oakland, in fact, has a plan for such things, but under Mr. Brown, the steps necessary to carry out that plan were long delayed. 

During an Oakland City Council meeting this week, At Large Councilmember Henry Chang noted that 10 years ago, Oakland began a process of updating its General Plan, the document which lays out the guidelines for what type of development is supposed to go where in the city. According to the city’s economic development agency, the General Plan is “the long-range vision and policy framework to guide development for the next twenty years in the City of Oakland.” The two major portions of that General Plan—the Land Use and Transportation Element, and the Estuary Policy Plan—were adopted in 1998 and 1999, about the time that the Brown years were beginning. 

What was supposed to come next was the updating of the city’s zoning map to conform to the General Plan. Normally, the two documents should be in sync, with the General Plan giving an overall view of what types of development and buildings should be allowed in a particular area, and the zoning map following with the detailed specifications. But Oakland’s zoning mapping was held up during the Brown years—some observers say purposely by Mr. Brown—leading to the present situation where the zoning map says one thing is allowed, while the General Plan says something entirely different. While legally the General Plan is the controlling document, developers and builders often have to apply for zoning variances to get their projects through. And the resulting confusion means developers and neighborhood residents are often unsure what will be allowed, and what will not. That makes for bad development in some cases, and completely halts it—to the detriment of the neighborhoods—in others. 

Pointing out that the zoning conformity project should have long ago been completed, Mr. Chang noted “I always complain about that.” 

In the meantime, some neighborhood groups have charged that in projects like Oak To Ninth Mr. Brown’s Planning Department has thrown out the General Plan altogether, ignoring the Estuary portion of the plan in its approval of what Signature Properties could put along the waterfront. 

Why would Mr. Brown hold up conforming the city’s zoning map to the General Plan? In the resulting confusion, it allowed him the ability to support various developments, without regard for how they all fit and meshed together for Oakland’s future economic health. 

For the average Oakland resident, much of this talk of General Plans and such has an eyes-glazing-over quality to it, with most people wondering why it matters. It only matters when you try to go down to the neighborhood shopping center, and you can’t find any parking. Or you can’t get down to the shopping center when you need to—just after five—because the streets and freeways are hopelessly clogged, and public transit is either inconvenient or nonexistent along the line you need to travel. Or, worse yet, there is no shopping center in your neighborhood at all. Proper city planning would not ensure that those particular needs would be met, but it is almost certain that without proper planning, most of Oakland’s problems got progressively worse in the Brown years. Most of the planning Mr. Brown was doing over the past eight years, it seems, was for where his hindparts and nimble feet would next land.