Public Comment

Commentary: Basta! Stop the Condo-glomeration of Oakland

By Robert Brokl
Tuesday December 12, 2006

Condomania—the current answer to developers’ prayers for short-term gain—is sweeping the commercial corridors of MLK Jr. Way, Shattuck, Telegraph, and Broadway in North Oakland. Variances and conditional use permits are being handed out like candy by the Planning Dept. to allow condo developers to exceed height limits, eliminate or reduce setbacks from neighboring properties and residences, and provide the barest minimum of off-street parking and required open space. Inadequate noticing of projects under consideration means most neighbors are in the dark until too late to do anything. 

No smaller apartment buildings or neighborhood-serving retail in existing buildings are safe from deep-pocket developers, who count on decking out the smallest parcels with the maximum number of units. UNLESS WE DO SOMETHING, YOU WON’T RECOGNIZE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD! 

Many individual projects—some known, some unknown—are already in the pipeline. The developers and their allies are cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of Smart Growth, Density, and In-Fill. Opponents of these out-of-scale projects are now not just vilified as “anti-development Nimbys” but as promoting Global Warming! 

Development proponents—many of whom also pay lip-service to “affordability”—ignore the tenants being forced out of rent-controlled units to make way for the upscale market-rate condos. We already have woefully inadequate infrastructure—overwhelmed police and fire, failing schools, potholes and broken sidewalks—and can’t even cope with existing conditions. 

There is no legal linkage and no guarantee that building generic condo high-rises in North Oakland preserves farmland and open space elsewhere. Nor is the city making the developers put their money where their rhetoric is. The city has not demanded mitigation of money for parks, schools, and police and very little for street and traffic improvements for our neighborhoods. 

What can you do? 

The Planning Director serves at the whim of the Mayor, and planning staff may have to rationalize these projects in order to keep their jobs. Staff are not likely to oppose politicians who receive contributions from developers, who justify their projects saying they contribute fees, taxes, and jobs. But our ELECTED officials are as responsible as WE want to make them. District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner should be aware of our concerns. She can’t pass the buck, blame Planning, or just throw up her hands. This is HER problem, too. 

•Demand a more representative Planning Commission that’s not just a developer Rubber Stamp! Appeals to the City Council of Planning Commission “decisions” are time-consuming and expensive. Mayor Brown makes ALL of the Planning Commission (and Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board) appointments. He just recently backed down from a parting-shot pick of a Republican social conservative to the Planning Commission. His pro-variance/pro-development predisposition SHOULD have prevented him from even being considered—luckily he was also pro-gun, anti-choice, and for heterosexual-only marriage! 

Major and controversial projects should go directly to the Planning Commission and bypass the Zoning Administrator. Projects first approved at the Zoning Administrator level can ONLY be appealed to the Planning Commission. Their decision is final, leaving litigation the only other step possible. 

Two side-by-side Shattuck Avenue projects exemplify the trend to development-on-steroids. 6535 Shattuck, three stories with six residential and two retail units, is already under construction after two years in the pipeline.  

More recently, planning staff readily granted a conditional use permit for a 4-story, 12-15 unit residential/ground floor retail project directly south at 6525 Shattuck, impacting the plans of the developer of the smaller project for solar energy. The Approval (oops, Planning) Commis-sion denied the appeal of the 6535 developer when he challenged his new neighbor’s proposed height, although they did lower portions of 6525 by all of two feet and limited the number of units to twelve. 

Brown’s most recent appointee, a Clear Channel executive, helpfully suggested the miffed lower-rise developer put his solar on the looming neighbor! Instead, the 6535 developer has signaled he’ll cancel the solar instead. What’s Green about that, you City Council self-styled Progressives and your Smart Growth allies? 

Another fallout of this steriod injection is the possible loss of a unique local business and de facto public park—the Dry Garden at 6556 Shattuck. The operator is in negotiations with the owner and hoping to buy the property, but with the condos-up-the-kazoo stampede, the price of the land nearly doubled after the approval of the twelve-unit condo complex. 

•Demand variances and conditional use permits be thoughtfully granted, not routinely to powerful developers so every new building exceeds the height limits, eliminates setbacks, and crowds neighbors. Ordinary people, of course, shouldn’t count on the same ease getting variances or conditional use permits for themselves. 

•Demand developers making killer profits underwrite the additional costs of police, fire, schools and other services their pro-jects require. 

•Demand a master plan—as Jane Brunner once upon a time proposed—from Lawton Associates—single-handedly morphing Temescal into Lawtonville—before more of their projects are approved. On Dec. 5 the City Council took up the appeal by outraged Temescal community members who collected over 1,000 signatures opposing Lawton Associates’ plans for 4700 Telegraph. They intend to demolish the three existing 1903 buildings with 11 affordable/rent-controlled units of housing for a five story, 51-unit market rate condo project, garnering five variances along the way. 

•Demand consideration be given to the impacts these out-of-scale projects have on the R-40 residences on the “side streets.” Property values may rise on the transit corridors with these over-sized projects, but ours will fall as we lose on-street parking spaces, views, and sunlight. 

•Demand TRUE in-fill housing—vacant lots, truly blighted buildings, NOT removal of functional, useable buildings. 

•Demand adequate noticing, including PROMINENT, eye-catching posted no-tices and project descriptions in front of development sites. If Berkeley can do it, so can Oakland. 

•SAVE what’s left of historic, interesting buildings on our shopping streets! 


An ad hoc, growing coalition of concerned neighborhood groups, including Neighborhood Preservation (655-3841) and North Oakland Coalition for Sustainable Community (654-2329)