Public Comment

Eric Angstadt--Will He Bring His Bad Habits from Oakland to Berkeley?

By Robert Brokl
Friday May 04, 2012 - 09:29:00 AM

We’ve fielded so many questions recently about “who is Eric Angstadt anyway?”, the person just appointed Berkeley’s Planning Director with a $175,000/year salary. He had a modest resume, just planning in Benecia, before working his way up the chain of command in Oakland’s Planning Dept. to Deputy Director of the Community Economic and Development Agency (CEDA), before the Berkeley switch. We can cite some examples of his planning policies in Oakland, but Angstadt, under the Oakland system of government, flew mostly under the radar. It is safe to describe him as a exemplary graduate of the Jerry Brown finishing school for bureaucrats, a product of the Oakland political milieu. 

Angstadt had the good fortune to deal with a compliant Planning Commission under Mayors Brown, Dellums, and Quan. In Oakland, even before Jerry Brown convinced voters to replace the City Manager form of government with a “strong mayor” system, the mayor makes choices for boards and commissions. That doesn’t mean that business interests, councilmembers, etc. don’t weigh in, but the Mayor appoints. 

Jerry Brown liked a rubber stamp planning commission. (See my article in the July 10, 2007 Berkeley Daily Planet “Oakland Planning Commissioners to Citizens: Eat Cake!”) A little research of ours revealed all of the commissioners, including Michael Lighty, an executive with the powerful California Nurses Association, and Doug Boxer lived in the Hills, or exclusive neighborhoods like Trestle Glen. These were the very people who preached about smart growth and lively, pedestrian-oriented streets, but they had the means to chose not to live the lives they advocated for the rest of us. 

Angstadt also didn’t have to consider very much the demands of neighborhood, community, and preservation groups that had flourished under Elihu Harris. Brown knee-capped these groups--Sanjiv Handa described him as a neutron bomb on Oakland, eliminating the citizenry while leaving the buildings standing. 

Unlike previous administrations, under Brown, department heads and senior staff didn’t have to attend commission meetings, listen to community testimony, give reports, or be visible. When Brown fired the very able Leslie Gould (who reappeared recently as a finalist for San Francisco planning director), he replaced her with Gould’s number two, Claudia Cappio, who came from Albany and Emeryville government. Angstadt’s rise began under Cappio. 

Kickback Scandal

Angstadt, now “strategic planning manager,” got a flurry of unflattering attention in an April 18, 2007 article by Matier and Ross in the San Francisco Chronicle for his dealings with developer Arkady Zlobinsky over gifts. While turning down an offering of $400 in travelers checks from Zlobinsky (apparently Angstadt, Councilperson Larry Reid and others worried it was a trap), Angstadt had accepted a bottle of Blue Label whiskey and a $250 gift certificate to the House of Prime Rib. Cappio came to Angstadt’s defense, saying “presents worth up to $250 are OK as long as officials report them on economic disclosure forms.” According to the article, the Zlobinsky episode was folded into an ongoing FBI probe of corruption in Oakland government. 

As Oakland’s financial woes increased, Angstadt’s tenure coincided with steep increases in fees for services and appeals, along with the receding ability of citizens to weigh in on projects. Many appeals and decisions were relegated to the “zoning administrator,” appealable only to the unsympathetic Planning Commission, with exorbitant fees. (Previously, Planning Commission decisions could be appealed to the City Council, an elected body presumably more attuned to the public.) Or projects got decided by staff, and appealable only to subset groups of the Planning Commission, with no other recourse other than suing. 

The following are are a few of our picks for classic Angstadt: 

Courthouse Athletic Club Debacle: 

Our most sustained encounter with Angstadt was over the Courthouse Athletic Club demolition. While Angstadt was Deputy Director of CEDA, the landmark former mortuary building on Telegraph Ave. was demolished to make way for Oakland’s specialty: a for-sale cleared lot/development site. 

A massive market-rate condo project was proposed for the Courthouse site by the Dallas-based giant Trammell Crow real estate and investment business (once the largest landlord in the United States). After it was clear to everyone involved that a market-rate condo project was never going to be built in the housing downturn and the condomania train had left the station, the City and Trammell Crow moved relentlessly ahead with environmental review and project approval anyway. A city employee in Planning and Building defended the process, leading inexorably to demolition and a (still) vacant lot, since “the $500,000 in developer fees paid the salaries of two city employees.” 

Trammell Crows’s fallback, undercover, strategy was to sell off the site and approved project, after demolition, to the Oakland Housing Authority, for low-income housing. Only a terse letter from the State Office of Historic Preservation suggesting that ruse would not fly prevented the hand over to OHA. Nevertheless, the Courthouse was demolished, as well as two redwoods--Trammell Crow wouldn’t even leave “protected trees.” (The Planet ran several of articles concerning the Courthouse, including “Will High-End Condo Project Doom the Courthouse?,” July 9, 2009 and “Courthouse Athletic Club Demolished, Oakland-style,” Oct. 15-21, 2009.) 

A front page New York Times article from June 19, 2011 details the special and apparently unethical relationship scion Harlan Crow maintains with Clarence Thomas, including presenting the justice with a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass and valued at $19,000, underwriting a museum in Georgia that was a pet cause of Thomas, and giving $500,000 to Virginia Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. Crow has donated $5 million to Republican campaigns and conservative groups, including $100,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Peace, the group that helped to sink John Kerry’s candidacy. 

No one is suggesting Oakland shouldn’t be open for business, even with scum bags, but when the proposed project went south, the city could have held the developer to his original plans, preventing another vacant lot in the struggling Uptown area where Brown pumped millions in redevelopment money. 

But Angstadt supported all of the speculative, oversized, market rate condo projects proposed for Temescal and elsewhere. Variances and conditional use permits to shoehorn them in were handed out like candy. Some more modest projects actually were built before the bottom fell out, but he did nothing to temper the overheated dreams of developers and their politicians--ghosts of the never-built condos at the Kingfish, Global Video and Pussycat Theater sites, 47th and Telegraph, 48th and Shattuck (the occasion for our STAND lawsuit), etc. all haunt the Temescal. 

Did you mention these missteps in your interviews, Eric? 

Nik-Nak Liquors

Another neighborhood contretemps flared over this underwhelming liquor store at 6400 Shattuck Ave., at the corner of Alcatraz and Shattuck, in 2009. The longtime owner had allowed his deemed approval status as a legal nonconforming use to lapse by closing the store for over 5 years (90 days is the limit), the store was within 1000 feet of an elementary school and within 1000 feet of another liquor store. Oakland’s regulations prohibit liquor licenses closer than 1,000 feet except in the Central Business District--a market across the street was already selling beer and wine. Staff was prepared to recommend against granting a variance and conditional use permit to allow the Nik-Nak owner to resume selling liquor. But after the Planning Commission buckled to pressure from the owner and his allies, staff did a 180 degree turn and supported the Nik-Nak application. The reason: “This store will provide for an otherwise unmet Alcoholic Beverage Sales need for a population in the immediate Oakland Community. While beer and wine can be purchased across Alcatraz Avenue, spirit liquors cannot be purchased anywhere within convenient walking distance unless restored at this location...This use at 6400 Shattuck Avenue has historically been part of the character, livability and appropriate development of the surrounding area..”. 

Luckily, wiser heads prevailed at the City Council, after the City Attorney cautioned about likely litigation. 


Oakland’s long-overdue rezoning process also occurred on Angstadt’s watch. A priority of Mayor Dellums, the lengthy, expensive rezoning process was another way to busy planning staff with too few projects to review. Angstadt was mostly invisible during the numerous meetings, except for brief appearances with his ever-present mirthless smirk and wary, watchful eyes. It was apparent to most of us who participated that, after the early meetings, all the significant business was occurring away from the public. We did spot Angstadt schmoozing the developer crowd at a commercial corridor meeting. 

(No surprise the pro-development lobby, the Oakland Builders Alliance, threw a farewell party for Angstadt on April 4. The Alliance is composed of such well-known developers as OBA chair Carlos Plazola, Terra Linda Development and former aide to Ignacio De La Fuente; Vice-chair Kathy Kuhner of Dogtown Development; the well-known (some might say infamous) Joe O’Donoghue of the San Francisco-based Residential Builders Association and Joe DeCredico, GDeS Architecture and Planning of Berkeley. [A well-connected City of Oakland employee attributes Angstadt's move to being actively "recruited" by DeCredico, who spoke at the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday in favor of rezoning West Berkeley for development , and whose Facebook page lists Loni Hancock and developers’ attorney Rina Rickles as “friends.”] 

Planning staff was quite reassuring how little zoning would change under the new classifications, not much upzoning and even some downzoning. Our North Oakland neighborhood was supposed to remain relatively low density, single, family/garden apartment. 

But before Angstadt’s departure, planning staff began courting developers by allowing “mini-lot subdivisions,” even on substandard lots. All the usual tricks from the past reappeared, including variances and conditional use permits, to allow individually owned and separate dwellings on lots that are, under the City’s guidelines, too small for such construction. 

The rezoning was supposed to elimate the need for variances, since they were supposed to be as “scarce as hens’ teeth,” according to Cappio. 

But developers are avid for such individually owned units, which sell for more than condos. Not yet again the 5 story, sky-blocking condominiums, just the small scale rot of allowing developers to supersede wishes of nearby neighbors. (Kuhner was recently allowed a “mini-lot subdivision” on 60th St. in North Oakland.) 

Interestingly, despite Planning staffs’ pride in the “fine-grained” lot by lot, block by block, rezoning, a few parcels slipped though the cracks. The controversial Dover St. “Park” in North Oakland, now with a privatized “community” garden, was overlooked. It retains it’s previous residential zoning from it’s days as part of Old Merritt Community College and was not changed to reflect it’s current status as “park/open space.” 

Also overlooked was Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall, which has a commercial zoning. This probably wouldn’t have mattered much, except when Mayor Quan decided to evict Occupy--parks have curfews and she would have had this excuse. 


Probably the major reason why Angstadt jumped ship was the huge role, now eliminated, of redevelopment funds. All the fun projects like assembling parcels for sports stadia (Jack London Square was one choice), clearing neighborhoods for big-box (the Broadway-Valdez scheme) required redevelopment funds and the threat of eminent domain to force unwilling sellers to vacate. (“Don’t Drink the Redevelopment Kool-Aid,” Berkeley Daily Planet, June 17, 2005.) 

In his tenure at Oakland, Angstadt simply had to please his superiors, the Mayor and councilmembers (although we were shared an angry exchange between him and the progressive on the council). He could ignore weak preservation and neighborhood groups in Oakland and rely upon rubber stamp commissions to go along with whatever the developer community wanted, under the cloak of smart growth or simply because, as Claudia Cappio said, “Oakland is not yet in any position to turn down projects.” 

Berkeley is a different story, with commissioners reflecting the positions of those appointing them, and community/neighborhood/preservation groups used to being at the table, listened to, and suing. Angstadt has so many bad habits from the Oakland experience--of government done to the citizens and not for or with them--that one doubts he’s capable of being retrained. His tenure may be a short one. 

Bob Brokl is an artist and an Oakland community activist who ives in the Temescal/North Oakland area.