Column: Undercurrents: Oakland Army Base Story Raises Concerns About Chronicle Coverage

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 04, 2008

With the sad, slow decline of the Oakland Tribune as a newspaper of substance over the past several years, Oakland has begun to depend more heavily on the San Francisco Chronicle for coverage of city issues and events. With that dependence have come expressed concerns—jelling in the Jerry Brown years, escalating during the one year of the Ron Dellums administration—that Oakland is being “unfairly” covered, for want of a better word. 

“Fair” and “unfair” are often difficult standards to judge, since they are all in the eye of the beholder. One of the best ways to make that determination is by looking at the way different media outlets cover the same story. 

On March 27, under the headline “Catellus, Federal Development among bidders for Oakland Army Base,” the East Bay Business Times wrote: “Catellus Development Corp. and Federal Development LLC are among 13 developers who have submitted bids for redevelopment of the former Oakland Army Base. … The companies will compete to redevelop 108 acres of the former base in west Oakland.” 

After giving details about Catellus and Federal Development and the major projects they have bid and worked on, the Business Times lists the other 11 developers and then includes a press release quote by Mayor Ron Dellums that Oakland is “extremely pleased by the strong response. This is a tremendous vote of confidence for Oakland’s economy. It also shows what a unique opportunity we have to revitalize the area, taking advantage of the central Bay Area location, prominent waterfront, and direct visibility and access from the freeways.” 

Straightforward reporting, from a newspaper that specializes in business and development issues, leaving the impression that the Dellums administration is moving forward with development of an important Oakland parcel. 

So how did the Chronicle handle the same story? 

In a March 31 article entitled “Wayans Brothers Drop Oakland Army Base Plans,” reporter Christopher Heredia begins, “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums has released a list of developers interested in building on the former Oakland Army base—but noticeably absent are Hollywood’s Wayans brothers, who had wanted to build a movie studio and shopping center there. Wayans business partner Britten Shuford said Friday that the partners dropped their latest proposal—for a business park and shopping center called Destination Oakland—because it was not compatible with heavy industry at the adjacent Port of Oakland.”  

Mr. Heredia’s story includes the Dellums quote and some history about the value of the Oakland Army Base land and what could be developed there, but mostly it’s about the fact that the Wayans Brothers decided not to compete. The Heredia story concludes: “Shuford, co-managing partner of the Wayans Brothers-Pacifica Capital Urban Development Partnership, said he and the Wayans brothers asked the city to commit to preserving the parcel’s bay views. But that request drew no response. The port intends to stack storage containers and build a dividing wall that would be six to 15 stories tall and block bayfront views. ‘We made clear the importance of the issue of preserving the bay views,’ Shuford said. ‘When that was not resolved by the city, we did pull out because we were left with no other choice. It’s not conducive to a creative environment.’” 

There are two things to note about the inclusion of the Wayans Brothers prominence in the Chronicle story about the response to RFQ of the Oakland Army Base. The first is that it is old news, reported—although prematurely at the time—eight months ago in the Chronicle. The second is that it is told entirely from the point of view of the Wayans Brothers, making it appear as if this is another “Oakland screwed up a development deal” thing. 

First, the old story part. 

In an Aug. 17, 2007 article entitled “Wayans Partnership Says No To Movie Studio In Oakland,” the San Francisco Chronicle said that “Actor/director Keenen Ivory Wayans and a Los Angeles development firm have dropped plans to build a movie studio and shopping center on the former Oakland Army base, a city official said today. Wayans and the Pacifica Capital Group informed city officials earlier this week that the land adjacent to the Port of Oakland would not work for the film studio/shopping center project that was dubbed Destination Oakland, a spokeswoman for City Administrator Deborah Edgerly said today.” 

I wrote two stories on the Wayans deal for the Daily Planet in September of 2007. The first one, on Sept. 7, reported that the deal, in fact, was not dead, and that Wayans representatives were making the rounds of Oakland City Hall to try to renegotiate the deal. The second article, on Sept. 25, went into detail that the plan to stack container cargo on land adjacent to the proposed Wayans development had been in the works since the mid-1990s, and available on public documents, long before the Wayans Brothers looked over the property and documents and signed their exclusive negotiating agreement. 

Around Oakland City Hall, there was a lot of private speculation that the container cargo problem was simply a smokescreen to cover the Wayans’ asses. The Wayans Brothers had reneged on the timetable of their first exclusive negotiating agreement, blaming their failure to submit a proposal on their development partner. They dropped that partner, got a new one, and got an extended ENA with the City of Oakland. When the time for submitting a proposal under the new ENA neared, the Wayans Brothers raised the issue of a problem with the container cargo storage which, as I’ve said, would have been known by anyone with a computer, a browser, and internet connection, and a knowledge of how to use Google. If they didn’t know it was their screwup, not the City of Oakland’s. 

The Wayans proposal had been developed during the Jerry Brown era, when Oakland was essentially running a development scheme in which we told developers we have nice pieces of property, come and tell us what you want to do with them.  

But in an Oct. 23 Oakland Tribune story announcing the Army Base proposals, the newspaper reported that Mayor Dellums “said it was important for the city to move away from a ‘project-driven’ development (such as the Wayans’), to one in which the city established its own goals to see if a developer can meet them. ‘My constant refrain has been we need to have a comprehensive vision of where we’re trying to go,’ [Mr. Dellums] said. ‘When you’re only moving on the basis of one project at a time, you’re never taking the long-term view of where you want to go.’” It was under this new framework--in which Oakland laid out broad plans for a piece of property and asked developers to submit proposals for how they would meet those plans--that the new Oakland Army Base RFQ was sent out. 

Why, then, did Mr. Heredia’s Chronicle article spend so much time on the failed Wayans Brothers proposal, since it was a deal that was long dead, and the new RFQ was put together under an entirely different format, reflecting the views of a different mayor? That’s something you’ll have to ask Mr. Heredia and the folks at the Chronicle. 

But the Chronicle, at least, puts on a pretense of even-handedness. Not so is Oakland’s old friend Chris Thompson, who is back at his old haunts at the East Bay Express after a sojourn at the Village Voice, finding things wrong about, well, everything.  

In an item in an April 2 column, Mr. Thompson writes, “After years of making bedroom eyes at poor, frumpy West Oakland, the comic filmmaking Wayans Brothers decided to court more comely ladies. Last week, the Wayans Brothers announced that they were abandoning all interest in developing a retail and business park in the old Oakland Army base, citing the inconvenient fact that the land rubs up against a hideous, toxic seaport that belches diesel fumes into the air. Meanwhile, Mayor Ron Dellums noticed that other developers were mildly interested in the site, and crowed that this was a ‘tremendous vote of confidence for Oakland’s economy.’” 

The Thompson items shows the danger of the Chronicle as the major source of news for Oakland. Mr. Thompson takes the Chronicle slant on the Oakland Army Base RFQ announcement—that the real story was that the Wayans Brothers chose not to bid—and then embellishes it all out of any sense of human proportion. The Wayans Brothers never mentioned any problem with the Port in their concerns about the Oakland Army Base property, but only with the Port’s plans to stack container cargo, something they said would block spectacular bayfront views of the San Francisco skyline. Mr. Thompson simply alters the facts, changing from a limited concern over a particular Oakland Army Base parcel into a slam at the entire Oakland Army Base property itself—why, after all, would anyone want to put anything in close proximity to “a hideous, toxic seaport that belches diesel fumes into the air?” 

(Dealing with the Port’s toxicity is a difficult problem, too detailed to take up in this column. We’ll tackle it at a later time.) 

Anyway, Mr. Thompson has a history of ridiculing attempts by (certain) East Bay cities to address serious development problems, once writing about an innovative plan by the City of Richmond to develop the old waterfront Ford Plant by spending the first paragraph talking about how bad America’s inner cities are, the second paragraph talking about how Richmond is so much worse than the rest (“If you take a walk through the city center—a center neatly bifurcated by BART and Amtrak lines—you will see a town too poor and dangerous to even support its own panhandlers. St. Vincent de Paul outlets, weed-choked lots, and an endless string of fast-food joints mark the route to City Hall. One evening two weeks ago, dozens of cops swarmed around a ghetto bungalow, conducting a major bust just five blocks from the City Council chambers, where officials with the Redevelopment Agency pondered once again how to dig themselves out of their decades-old morass. Now they’ve settled on their latest dream; Hollywood, they hope, will be Richmond’s ticket back to the big time.” “Bright Lights, Small City,” East Bay Express, May 28, 2003) 

Mr. Thompson’s story was so negative, it is credited by some Richmond officials with causing financiers to drop out of the deal, thus killing a proposal that would have turned the Ford Plant into an art and film center (the city later put together another deal which is revitalizing the site). 

And that’s why there is concern among at least some Oakland residents about the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of Oakland. They don’t expect the paper to be a cheerleader for the city, or to overlook its many problems. But newspapers sometimes have the power to be self-fulfilling prophets. By embellishing the bad, they can make it worse.