Public Comment

Commentary: Oakland Planning Commissioners to Citizens: ‘Eat Cake!’

By Bob Brokl
Tuesday July 10, 2007

The U.S. Supreme Court, likely to be controlled by reactionaries for a generation, will be one of George Bush’s many unfortunate lingering legacies. The Oakland City Planning Commission will be Jerry Brown’s. While Brown has been yanked by the chain of his ambition back to Sacramento, all of Brown’s appointees, nearly a year into the Dellums’ mayorship, still run the Planning Commission. (Planet readers may be unfamiliar with the Oakland model, where—unlike Berkeley—the mayor makes all the appointments to the planning commission and landmarks board.) 

It is true, as Planet writer J. Douglas Allen-Taylor has noted and a Dellums’ staffer confirmed, the mayor has chosen two appointees to the Planning Commission, but they may be months away from being seated. The City Council takes a month and a half summer break and must give formal approval to appointments—meanwhile, the commission goes on meeting through most of the summer. A Planning Commission with the equivalent of two Sandra Day-O’Connors and five Clarence Thomases is cold comfort to most residents of Oakland. 

Dubbed the Approval Commission for good reason, the commissioners have yet to find a condo project they don’t like (the plug was pulled from above on the controversial West Oakland industrial rezoning Pacific Pipe project.) They follow staff directives and give variances out like candy. It is also true, as Allen-Taylor noted, that a process is underway to update the zoning throughout the city, something that should have been done when the general plan was approved in the late ’90s. But then the general plan update was itself decades overdue... Updating the zoning has been no godsend either. Temescal has received the dubious distinction of being one of the first areas where the process has been started. Despite overwhelming support for height limits of 45 feet on Telegraph and Shattuck, staff has recommended and the Planning Commission/City Council will likely approve limits of 55 feet (or even higher) by simply building underground parking, “affordability”—all considered community benefits deserving of extra stories. 

The Planning Commission has routinely approved one massive condo project after another. The latest in Temescal, a five-story 33 unit condo project, is slated for a hearing July 18. The mother of all Temescal projects so far—a 115-unit, six-story behemoth where the Global Video store now resides at 51st and Telegraph—is nearing a Planning Commission hearing and expected approval. 

The new coalition group, STAND, has appealed the 4801 Shattuck project, in which all of the buildings between Shattuck and the dying-on-the-vine Gate 48 condos will be demolished, for a solid five-story wall of 44 condos butting up to Gate 48. (Appeals of commission approvals to the City Council cost $710; “smaller” projects first considered by the zoning administrator can only be appealed to the commission—the last recourse is litigation.) 

During all of the controversy over the zoning update and the myriad condo projects, the Planning Commission has been, to a person, unsympathetic and critical of neighbor’s concerns. One commissioner in particular, Suzie Lee, married to and “business administrator” of the architectural firm of Yui Hay Lee, has a stump speech in which she opines about the employees in her office desperate to buy houses, for whom these condos are a blessing, and lectures opponents of projects to “adjust to change.” $400,000-$600,000 condos are not affordable housing. Her speeches remind me of the scene in Interview with the Vampire, in which the poor victim is soothingly told to just settle back and enjoy. 

All of the commissioners have adopted the smart growth rhetoric of lively, dense streetscapes, “urban vitality,” and transit corridors so well served by mass transit and walk-to-retail that cars are superfluous. 

What a unexpected shock, then, for even such a cynic as myself, to learn from public records just where these commissioners determining the new face of the city choose to live themselves. 

All are homeowners, some owning more than one, in a city where the majority of the citizens are renters. All live in single family homes, despite their fondness for density. Only one, Colbruno, lives anywhere near mass transit, on Moss Avenue, near the border with the City of Piedmont. None live in the flatlands of West, East, or North Oakland. Only one lives below MacArthur, the only black member, Paul Garrison, owner of two houses in the tony Haddon Hill neighborhood. Doug Boxer (yes, the son of Barbara Boxer and rumored to be politically ambitious—Planning Commission as stepping stone) lives in an exclusive area of Trestle Glen so quiet that even the leaves didn’t dare rustle the day we drove by. Nary a pedestrian or vehicle in sight—so much for urban vitality. 

The officious, wanly smiling chair of the commission, lawyer Anne Mudge and the most vociferous Smart-Growther, Michael Lighty, an employee of a progressive union, live high in the hills, Mudge in Montclair and Lighty just off Skyline Blvd. on the edge of Huckleberry Botanic Regional Reserve. Zayas-Mart lives in the hills overlooking Mountain. View Cemetery and Lee lives in the wooded Oakmore area off Park, close to the Montclair Golf course. All will be driving their cars to Planning Commission meetings and to work. 

Whatever their rhetoric, one might reasonably conclude they were defending their in-perpetuity-low-density neighborhoods by increasing it elsewhere. 

But the “smart growth” Planning Commission whose members live almost exclusively in the hills in large single family homes is, in some sense, the legacy of Brown, who prominently maintains (and perhaps lives in) a loft in the old Sears Building on a still gritty part of Telegraph Avenue. This proves Brown can talk the talk, encourage those with spotty memories to still think he’s KPFA Jerry, but given his purposeful choice of commissioners, he never intended to walk the walk. 


Robert Brokl is a member of STAND. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the official position of STAND.