Public Comment

A Jean Quan Land-Use Backstory: The Past as Prologue? With a supporting cast including Don Perata, Ignacio De La Fuente, and Jerry Brown

By Bob Brokl
Tuesday September 14, 2010 - 09:52:00 AM

Jean Quan has gotten endorsements from neighborhood activists, and others praying for change, ANY change for the better, in Oakland. She’s the default candidate people return to after considering the others in the race. Don Perata’s victory isn’t assured, as evidenced by Rebecca Kaplan’s entrance into the race (and triangulating for votes on issues like Nic-Nak Liquors). Quan is a determined precinct-walker (the lawn signs dotting front yards show that), and this outreach may be interpreted by some as respect and appreciation for the grass roots and local communities, which would persist if she were elected. 

We have also heard defenses of Quan’s leadership on the school board, a rationalization of her stewardship as the school district careened into bankruptcy and state receivership, even as she was jumping ship to run for City Council. 

The truth is, based upon some pivotal land-use decisions made while she was on the school board, and her trumpeting of “smart-growth” to rationalize pro-developer positions while on the City Council, she isn’t that different from Don Perata.  

The Montgomery Ward Building Mess 

As critics have noted, there are very short memories in politics. Bush & Co. had forgotten all about the Vietnam War quagmire, as they invaded Iraq. While certainly not on the scale of those mistakes, the Ward case history —involving key players on the School Board, City Council, and Mayor’s office —offers lessons still applicable today. Too often, botched, notorious contretemps get pushed under a rug. No one afterwards claims ownership, since many would just like to forget the mess. Not surprisingly, similar mistakes recur.  

Therefore, Quan’s role in the Ward case is too important to ignore, too timely to dismiss.  

The Sordid History: 

One of the most important decisions Quan made on the school board was to promote the demolition of the Montgomery Ward Building on International Blvd., to build a new school in that location. The Montgomery Ward Building, which was owned by the City, was a “blighted” target to Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) which wanted it torn down, as did the district Councilperson, Ignacio De La Fuente. They ignored the adaptive reuse possibilities of the reinforced concrete building, and examples of other repurposed, income generating Ward Buildings in cities like Portland and Chicago.  

Budget Busting 

De la Fuente and OCO, with the support of then City Manager Robert Bobb and brand-new Mayor Jerry Brown, crafted the “solution” of selling the site to the School District for a new school for 600 students. This was a politically-inspired “solution” —school districts often prevail in battles of these sorts, whatever the overriding highest and best use for the sites in contention. (The Ambassador Hotel demolition in Los Angeles is a recent example, with the brand-new $578 million “Taj Mahal” school building replacement, in a school district with a $640 million budget shortfall and layoffs of 3000 teachers over 2 years.) Although it was outside her school district in the hills, Quan played a passionate leading role in seeing the Ward Building come down. She never equivocated, or sought common-ground.  

The loss to the City, in terms of the bottom line, was substantial: one-time school impact fees of $850,000 and approximately $650,000 in property taxes to the City’s coffers every year if the building had been renovated as live-work lofts under a serious offer on the table. School districts don’t pay property taxes. 

At the end of the day, the new school cost over 48 million, way above the original estimated $10-15 million price tag.  

The battle to save the Ward Building was a long one, with the school district hiring expensive outside legal consul, the firm of Goldfarb & Lippman. Round One was lost when the City issued a “negative declaration” allowing the demolition, saying the National Register-eligible building (although with no official landmark status) could be demolished without any environmental review. Noted environmental attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley took the case to court, and the Court of Appeals ruled against the City. The decision had statewide importance —local jurisdictions, including Oakland, began to mandate EIRs for demolitions of A or B-rated (significant, landmark-eligible) buildings. 

Global Warning: Not to Worry! 

A real developer (unusual for Oakland, which often attracts “developers” with hands extended for subsidies) was interested in renovating the building with his own capital. The developer, San Francisco-based Emerald Fund, partnered with a big national developer, Forest City, which went on to do the Uptown project. Emerald Fund proposed sharing the site with the school they would build, in addition to 414 units of housing —167 live/work lofts and 247 apartments —in the 8 story, 900,00 square foot building, at the time, the largest remaining industrial building in Oakland. The Ward Building was a 5 minute walk from the Fruitvale BART station and transit village, something a smart-growth aficionado like Quan has since been promoting fervently on the City Council.  

Quan Crosses Sierra Club  

The simple logic of creating housing at the Ward Building, if lost on the politicos, made a lot of sense to the Sierra Club. In a Nov. 7, 1998 letter to Brandt-Hawley, the Sierra Club waded into the battle:”.... support(ing)... more inner city infill housing and development instead of suburban sprawl, especially projects near existing transit lines ...demolition of large existing buildings creates great waste disposal problems and expense...(and) new construction projects exert economic pressure to log precious public and private forests...”  

Then Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope spoke out forcefully and attended pro-Ward Building events. De La Fuente threatened to retaliate, calling out the Sierra Club on economic injustice issues. (One wonders if Quan will revisit this history as she seeks the Sierra Club endorsement for Mayor.) 

Ultimately, in 2001, after a second lawsuit, years of delays, rejection of alternate sites by the School district and thousands of dollars in legal fees, the Ward Building came down. Quan, taking the lead along with the other school board members including the Fruitvale District rep (and City employee) Noel Gallo and Kerry Hamill, Perata’s former chief of staff, had prevailed, even though, by this time, the Ward Building had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But not before the developer reportedly made numerous large contributions to the political campaigns of local politicians —the usual pay-to-play that Oakland is notorious for. (An interesting footnote: Paul Cobb, who had been appointed by Mayor Brown as one of three new school board members in his attempt to makeover the School Board, defected from Brown on this issue and rallied against the demolition). 

Environmental Disaster  

The lead paint from the building in the dirty, fast, and cheap demolition was scattered to the winds and waters of the Bay, with no tarping or any special care taken to protect nearby residents or the environment. Paint was blasted off the facade with high-pressure water hoses, where it collected in gutters, sidewalks, and streets before scattering to the winds or running into the Bay. A City fire marshal was brave enough to write up a complaint and verify the lead toxicity, but the estimate for a lawsuit by the environmental group Baykeepers STARTED at $10,000. Needless to say, the City’s Environmental Affairs Office kept its distance from the toxic, political mess!  

The upshot: the school was built on toxic soil, next to busy streets, where accidents including fatalities to pedestrians are a common occurrence, and in a polluted atmosphere —dangerous for children with asthma —next to the heavily-trucked 880 freeway.  

Too late to do any good, the powerful Spanish Speaking Unity Council, which steered clear of the battle, lamented the lack of a diversity of incomes in the Fruitvale, which would benefit businesses. The Ward Lofts would have helped fill that need. 

Before the housing crash, with numerous controversial condo projects in Temescal coming to the City Council, Quan was vociferous in promoting dense housing development on transit corridors, in one instance, citing word for word the language of SB 275, the state law which encourages dense transit development at the local level. Yet when she had the chance to promote a housing development in an existing landmark and structurally sound building, sharing the site with a school, funded with private capital, next to a BART station and alongside a major arterial, she made the easy, calculating, politically-expedient call.  

Vaulting to the City Council as the school district slid into bankruptcy, she defied Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. 

Another wrong-headed land-use choice involved her support for the expansion of redevelopment to all of North Oakland. Because we’re so blighted, right? This effort, which would have committed even more money to redevelopment at the expense of the General Fund (police, fire, libraries, etc.), was luckily doomed, coming on the heels of the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision. Before Councilperson Brunner pulled the plug on the effort, Quan was openly horse-trading to commit a stretch of MacArthur in her district, too, to redevelopment. 

Lately, in election mode, Quan has modified her sanctimonious smart growth rhetoric, suggesting “her constituents didn’t want concrete canyons on their streets necessarily, either.” One is left wondering just what she does believe. 

Rebecca Kaplan is another example of an Oakland politician who advances without any blowback from the awful state of the organization they’re vacating, In Kaplan’s case, AC Transit, which —despite infusions of taxpayer money for operating expenses from the VV bond measure —is nearly on life support, cutting service drastically, and clinging for life to the BRT dream and federal money.  

As a nearly 40 year resident of Oakland, I am familiar with the perennial need to see our politicians through rose-colored glasses, hoping for the best. I even wrote copy for a “Sheila Jordan for City Council” campaign piece, describing her as a “reformer!” But any illusions or hope I might have had for Jean Quan were buried under the Ward rubble.