Eager readers of the blogoaksphere certainly noticed many bloggers’ cause du jour – preventing the city from installing a surface parking lot in the middle of downtown’s up-and-coming Uptown neighborhood. The issue touched on a lot of the causes dear to bloggers’ hearts: pedestrian and transit-oriented planning, civic engagement, and enjoying nightlife. While advocates were clearly outlobbied at the City Council yesterday, and I find the Community and Economic Development Committee’s pro-parking decision as frustrating as everyone else, I see how the city came to this decision. It’s not just that the CED Committeemembers decided, for whatever reason, that they love parking and don’t understand its pedestrian impact, but also contributing to this result are the structural flaws that beset Oakland’s government in general. It’s the poor performance of the Redevelopment Agency, the deeply flawed labor contract, and the city’s lack of transportation planning that lead the city to push for parking lots instead of better solutions.
An ineffectual agency
It was the Redevelopment Agency that made the decision to ask the Council and Forest City for a surface parking lot. I have been told that the decision was reached after much internal debate, since Redevelopment had the option to ask Forest City for pretty much anything as a condition of extending their lease on the 19th and Telegraph parcel. Parking won out because the Agency has planned to build a parking structure on 18th and San Pablo for almost ten years, but can’t get it together to move forward. In fact, last year they ignored an unsolicited offer to build a structure with a bowling alley on top, and have no timeline for issuing an RFP. Yet Redevelopment told the Council that temporary parking is needed because it will take some time to build new parking, which is entirely the Agency’s fault, as the planed parking structure could have been built at any time in the last decade. In effect, pedestrians are being punished for Redevelopment’s inefficiency. And long-promised Uptown sidewalk improvements are still going nowhere, adding insult to pedestrian injury.
The city employees’ contract, which expired last summer but is still basically in effect, imposes stringent work rules that limit the City Council’s ability to pursue programs or efficiently manage the workforce. Several of the rules governing employees limit the options available to Councilmembers concerned about adequate parking in Uptown. Pedestrian advocates and local businesses suggested that, to increase the supply of street-side car storage, parking meter hours be extended until 2am, and street sweeping hours be pushed back until 2 or 3am. The City Council ignored those cost-effective ideas, because city work rules prevent meter maids from working after 6pm and street-sweeping crews from working past 3am. Since the city workers’ contract prevents the Council from adjusting parking enforcement to meet the needs of a late-night district, adding additional parking becomes an easier prospect than increasing the use of existing parking. It’s not just the enormous expense of the city workers’ contract that’s holding Oakland back, but its work rules as well.
Lack of transportation planning
Oakland’s transportation connections are the engine of its economy and the linchpin of residential demand. However, overlapping jurisdictions severely complicate the picture: AC Transit and BART provide most public transportation (though not all: Emeryville’s Emery-Go-Round, Contra Costa County’s WestCat, and the Water Emergency Transit Authority’s ferries also serve Oakland), CalTrans controls the freeways and some major roads, the Public Utilities Commission oversees railroads, and the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency and Transportation Improvement Authority direct most local transportation funds. When the City of Oakland is provided representation on these commissions, it is spread among the elected officials: Rebecca Kaplan is Oakland’s ACTIA rep, Larry Reid is Oakland’s CMA rep, and Jane Brunner sits on the joint ABAG/MTC policy-making board. The officials are free to pursue whatever policies they think are best on each commission without talking to one another, and the citizens of Oakland have no opportunity to influence transportation planning at public hearings.
Making matters worse, Oakland’s bureaucratic and official structure does not unify transportation decision-making. The Redevelopment Agency (the only part of Oakland city government with any money) is responsible for many if not most transportation improvements, and they do not necessarily work with CEDA’s bike/ped program or the planning department. Building Services also has jurisdiction over many transportation issues, especially as related to large-scale development projects. When Pat Kernighan asked the head of Redevelopment at the parking lot hearing if he was working with BART on signage and wayfinding, he said no. However, the bike/ped program is in fact working with BART on signage, but probably don’t realize that there are redevelopment goals that the signage can further. Transportation policy decisions are made by several different Council committees: most parking issues are handled by Finance and Management, planning for parking or transit-oriented development goes to Economic Development, most street improvements are heard by the Public Works Committee, and taxi regulation is governed by the Public Safety Committee. With most policy decisions made at the Committee level, Oakland’s City Council is structurally unable to coordinate transportation policy.
How does this lead to a bad parking lot? Besides the fact that a parking lot is obviously bad planning, if the Council committeemembers were up to speed on its transportation planning they may not have approved it. There is a transportation plan for Uptown, and it involves moving major vehicle traffic off of Telegraph and to Broadway at 20th St, a goal that clearly conflicts with a parking lot on 19th St. Sidewalk and bicycle improvements and a plaza are planned for lower Telegraph, AC Transit has already built their transit center on 20th and moved bus stops off of lower Telegraph, and Oakland’s taxi regulator is exploring adding a taxi stand to Uptown. Had the CED Committee been able to evaluate the parking lot in the context of these plans, they may have realized that it just doesn’t work. But not only is the Council unaware of existing transportation plans, it appears that city staff is as well. In such an environment, it is impossible to implement a transportation plan. It’s because of these factors, which also impact other aspects of Oakland’s poor governance, that Uptown pedestrians may be stuck with a parking lot.