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Oakland Zoning Proposal Reversal Reflects Long-Term Community Lobbying

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday March 27, 2007

The decision by the administration of newly elected Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums to delay going forward with an Oakland Planning Commission staff plan to alter industrial zoning in portions of West Oakland is the result of a political climate shaped by lobbying from Oakland housing advocates and positions taken by Mayor Dellums’ Housing Task Force, as well as by long-term efforts of one of Dellums opponents in last year’s mayoral race, West Oakland Councilmember Nancy Nadel. 

And at the heart of the conflict is a proposed 13-acre redevelopment of industrial property on the corner of Mandela Parkway and West Grand. 

Last December, members of Just Cause Oakland, a local housing and jobs advocacy organization, sponsored a “gentrification bus tour” of West Oakland, in which top Dellums advisors and representatives of the local news media were invited to make stops at several West Oakland locations where tour organizers said low-income local residents were being pushed out in favor of higher-income newcomers. According to a Just Cause e-mail announcing the event, “the tour [was] meant to bring new decision-makers up to speed on the rapid changes under way in West Oakland and to highlight the crisis these changes are causing among low-income African-Americans and other members of the neighborhood.” 

One of the stops along the tour was the massive, abandoned, 102,000-square-foot Pacific Pipe Factory on Mandela Parkway near West Grand Avenue. 

Developers want to turn the Pacific Pipe Factory building, and the grounds of the adjacent 240,000-square-foot abandoned American Steel Building, into a 13.3-acre mixed use development. Under the name Mandela Grand Mixed-Use Project, the development proposes “a mixed-use/mixed-occupancy project that would contain a residential, custom industrial/commercial, light industrial, and retail commercial activities in a cluster of buildings on the project site,” according to the report from the Planning and Zoning Services Division of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency. The project proposes light industrial uses on the first two floors of the proposed eight buildings, with 1,600 high-density residential units rising above it, among them three 300-foot residential towers. 

According to the city staff report, the project proposes “custom industrial and public access commercial uses in all ground floor spaces that would be suitable for retail, light industrial/commercial uses, custom manufacturing, artisan activities, support industries, and similar enterprises.” For the existing Pacific Pipe Building, city staff said, the project intends to develop “retail facilities such as food services, boutique shops, indoor markets, and neighborhood-serving offices on a mezzanine level.” 

Architect for the project is Hannum Associates of San Francisco. 

The project is scheduled to be built in four phases over approximately 15 years, with completion contemplated for 2022. 

But to build the project, the developers would need changes to Oakland’s zoning to allow a mixed-use project on a site that is currently zoned for industrial use. 

It was these proposed changes that were at the heart of the Planning Division staff report that was pulled from consideration by the Planning Commission subcommittee meeting last week. 

Under a timeline published by the city staff members last January, the Mandela project was scheduled for a final environmental impact report to be published in April, public hearings before the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, the Planning Commission, and the West Oakland Project Area Committee in April and May, and hearings on both the project and the proposed zoning changes before the City Council in June and July. It is not certain how the withdrawal of the zoning change recommendation will now affect that timetable. 

Last December, Councilmember Nadel told a crowd gathered at the Just Cause tour stop at Pacific Pipe Building site that she considered the proposed development “a problem of incompatible mixed use. Mandela Parkway is being transformed in a way that is driving out long-term residents. Most of the existing residents don’t have the capital to buy the live-work spaces that are being proposed, or to set up small businesses in the spaces that are being offered.” Nadel also criticized the developers for “not being committed to any affordable housing” in the Mandela Grand Project. 

Among the listeners was former World Bank senior economist Dan Lindheim, then working on Dellums’ transition team, now serving as his budget director. Lindheim also monitored the discussion and presentations at last week’s Planning Commission subcommittee meeting where the new zoning proposals were to be presented. 

Nadel reiterated her concerns in a telephone interview earlier this month. 

“To be a healthy city, you should have a range of available development options,” Nadel said. “But Oakland only has 3 percent of our land left that is designated for industrial use in the General Plan.” Saying that was “not nearly enough,” Nadel said that the erosion of industrial land in a city that was once known for its industrial jobs threatens to “turn us into a bedroom community for San Francisco. We don’t want to be that.” 

Nadel said that it is a common belief that the manufacturing industry is dead in the United States, “but that is not true.” She named a number of growing manufacturing industries that would be desirable for Oakland, including biomedical supplies, the production of “high-end food products” such as chocolates, health food, and expensive bread, and the manufacture of solar panels and wind-turban machines. “West Oakland in particular has the large sites available that these industries need,” she said. “We need to preserve them.” 

The preservation of Oakland’s industrial land was one of the most popular issues considered by Dellums’ Housing Task Force, with task force members voting 19 to nothing (7 members abstaining) to recommend that the Dellums Administration “develop and review an industrial land conversion policy to prioritize industrial retention and prioritize rezoned industrial to residential land for affordable housing.” 

The Housing Task Force’s industrial zoning report focused specifically on the area surrounding and including the Pacific Pipe Building and American Steel Building, proposing that the city “prohibit conversions of land in the Mandela Parkway and San Leandro corridors other than in exceptional circumstances in order to ensure that Oakland retains enough industrial land to provide badly needed jobs in those areas.” 

The Task Force recommended that the city protect industrial sites that either contain existing businesses or have “high potential” for attracting such businesses, and that conversion to residential use should be allowed only if light industrial uses compatible with housing are preserved, and at least 25 percent housing is available in the conversion for low-to-extremely-low income residents. 

The staff-proposed West Oakland industrial zoning changes that were withdrawn last week included references to the industrial zoning recommendations from the Dellums Housing Task Force report, including the section concerning Mandela Parkway. 

But the Planning Division staff added that “staff believes that the proposed land use strategy for Sub-Area 16 [of West Oakland] is not in conflict with [the Housing Task Force] guidelines. Residential land uses are not replacing industrial land uses, nor is industrial land being converted to residential uses.” The staff report said that what it was proposing was consistent with the Task Force recommendation that conversion of industrial to residential be permitted if it retains residential-compatible light industry. 

But during testimony before the Zoning Update Committee last week, Housing Task Force member Andre Spearman, who served as Dellums’ campaign manager last year, accused the staff of “cherrypicking” the task force’s report to support an industrial zoning change that the task force itself did not support. 

“The staff report left out our primary recommendations and just picked up what sounded convenient,” Spearman said. Saying that the proposed zoning change would primarily benefit “one large developer,” Spearman said that “we have to look at who is driving this issue? Who is moving it?”