A group of well-intentioned individuals (North Oakland Cohousing) with a laudatory goal—creation of a cohousing community in the heart of Oakland’s Temescal District—partners with local entrepreneurs of several controversial projects.
They enter a marriage of convenience with a high-density/multistory advocacy group.
After turning out in force to support their developers on other projects, their own building doesn’t “pencil out.” They pretend the dream is still on the table when their project comes to City Council. Councilperson Jane Brunner enthusiastically promotes the development and her conviction that a deal will be struck.
The sad saga of “Project Kingfish”—cold-hearted developer ambition in an ebbing housing boom leaves cohousers and neighborhood activists alike licking wounds.
The backstory: “Project Kingfish”—a generic pseudo-Craftsman five-story block—would level the funky pub (and steal its name), two historic Victorian cottages, and another residential building—seven units of housing under rent control. The unwieldy, chevron-shaped parcel at the gore of Claremont and Telegraph that resulted when the garage at the tip of the gore wouldn’t sell was perhaps why the developers attempted to slough off the parcel.
I had my own narrative of what came down as a member of Standing Together for Accountable Neighborhood Development (STAND), writing the nonrefundable $918 appeal to the City Council of the Planning Commission’s approval and meeting with cohousers looking for common ground. STAND had battled the same developers (Ron Kriss, Roy Alper, Patrick Zimski) over their projects at 4700 Telegraph Ave. and 4801 Shattuck Ave., the latter sparking a lawsuit. Their Civiq project (“coming soon”) is a lot opposite the eponymous Bakesale Betty’s.
A glimpse into the workings of the “other side” was provided by a member of the North Oakland Cohousers’ yahoo group who shared internal e-mail communication. The co-housers were enlisted as foot soldiers in the development/density wars, prodded by the developers and Urbanists for Livable Rockridge Temescal Area (ULTRA)—a pro-development advocacy group. They saw STAND as their problem. We had made the logical argument before the Planning Commission and City Council that the project being touted as Cohousing was a massive, out-of-scale market rate condo project, but neither body would require the development ultimately be cohousing.
Key leaders of the cohousing group were also stalwart ULTRAists. One urged the members to turn up in support of zoning changes, exhorting: ”If the master plan isn’t upheld, any building higher than four stories may be denied a building permit....Higher-density development will help renew the neighborhood, and make affordability possible. ”
Greater height and more units were linked to affordability of the cohousing project publicly. Privately, the same spokesperson divulged: “At my request, and for the sake of argument at the City Council, Chris has prepared an alternative pro forma with 20 units to show how much less affordable the units will be if we can’t build five stories. One of the...complaints of the people who don’t want five stories is that these condos aren’t affordable. So I want to show that their opposition to five stories will have the opposite effect; lowering the density will limit the possibility of building affordably)...I have to stress that we purposely made it quite dire. (For example, we’ve included only 20 units when, in reality, with only four stories we are likely to have more than 20 units. Also, in the agreement with Project Kingfish...we would pay them less if we weren’t able to build five stories as planned).”
The co-housers with their “heart-tugging coho stories” were especially useful as other condo projects and Temescal rezoning made their way through the approval process, since cohousing “has a ‘warmer, fuzzier’ feel” than “evil, congenitally rapacious developers.”
One especially rousing appeal from Kriss to the co-housers: “Help!! The NIMBYs are massing and planning a full scale attack on Tuesday night at the City Council meeting. Various infill development projects are now on the boards for North Oakland, including my project at 48th and Telegraph...and things are getting hot... If the silent majority does not show up on Tuesday and speak it will be difficult for the politicians to hold their ground and do the right thing for N. Oakland, Oakland, the Bay Area, and the Earth. The politicians will kowtow to the NIMBYs....” Developer Kriss, wearing his other hat as principal of Lawton Associates Realty, purveyor of tony Rockridge houses, presumably parks his overheated anti-nimby rhetoric at the door.
Co-ho fuzziness had a calculating side: “..the developers need us as much as we need them. If there is opposition to another 5 story building going up in the neighborhood, we can all go to the meeting...—with North Oakland Cohousing t-shirts and signs—and say that we are partnering with the developers and that we all expect to be living there...The developers are aware of this, too, which gives us some bargaining power. Moreover, they have gone so far down this road that it will be much more expensive for them to drop our project and change plans midcourse—especially with an unpredictable housing market.” Little lambies, whistling in the dark...That’s just what happened. Before the hearing on Oct. 16, the development had already gone south.
Denouement: An internal feasibility study showed “the reality is that—even if the land was FREE, the project...would be totally unfeasible...Short of getting them to contractually agree to guarantee to personally build and sell units at the old pro forma unit prices, the project at that site is basically dead.” Prospective buyers wouldn’t even qualify for Oakland first-time homebuyers’ subsidies.
The purchase price of the property from the developers by NoCoHo was $2.6 million. Some $150,000 in payments, perhaps nonrefundable, had already been turned over. Thousands was also spent by cohousers on consultants.
There were a flurry of anxious e-mails about “misleading the City Council”: “...all of the people being encouraged to come down on the basis of supporting the project AS cohousing (should) not be confused or feel misled in the way they were rallied to attend the hearing...one of STAND’s major arguments has been ‘what if we support this project at a larger scale because it is cohousing and then it later doesn’t turn out to be Cohousing?’ ...then they will say ‘I told you so’...”
Coho members were already looking at alternate sites. Eerily silent at the hearing, they left the talking to the ULTRA diehards and the developer’s attorney, David Preiss, who made the de-coupling explicit: “The cohousing element of the project is not a basis of the city’s approval...The ownership configuration...is a purely private social and financial arrangement that has no legal nexus with any legitimate requirements for the Project.”
All that was left was for Brunner to spin her upbeat scenario. Whether anyone had bothered to tell her the truth beforehand, who knows? As a recipient of $6,000 in campaign contributions from these developers, perhaps she didn’t find it necessary to care.
Robert Brokl is an artist and activist and has lived in North Oakland (aka Dodge) for 37 years. This letter reflects his opinions, not necessarily those of any organization to which he belongs.