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How much would you pay for this "garden"?

It looks like the hysterical anti-everything contingent has found a new crusade – a proposed residential tower on 19th St. near Lake Merritt. While the outrage seems to stem from the typical antipathy for all new buildings, the agitators have fixated on a garden currently located on the property.

In the Grand Lake Guardian, Naomi Schiff tells us about a beautiful garden currently occupying the site:

On 19th Street next to Snow Park, behind an iron gate marked “A.S.” you can peek into a 100-year-old garden which was originally part of the August Schilling estate. (Do you remember those small containers of spices?) With tall redwoods, and a very unusual arbor of concrete-sculpted tree trunks, the garden is the subject of a dreadful mistake by city staff, and now the target of a planned development. 

I headed over to the site on Thursday to check out the garden, peeked through the gates as instructed, and here’s what I found:

So why did the city staff reject the donation offer? To shed some light on the decision, all one needs to do is read the public works staff report. The major problem is that one of the owner’s conditions for the donation was that the area not be open to the public except for special events. The donation was basically an attempt to have the city pay for the maintenance of a private garden for the neighboring building’s residents.

And at what cost? Around $200,000 per year for maintenance, plus over three quarters of a million dollars for capital improvements just to make it useable. While I’m sure that many residents of Oakland would love to have the public works department take over maintenance of their own yards, it hardly seems appropriate to devote this amount of money so that the public would be able to continue to look at this:

Now many of the Grand Lake Guardian’s readers seem to have no issue with this. One problem is that they don’t seem to understand the nature of a donation. Although I have repeatedly pointed out to them the unacceptable conditions of the donation, they keep spewing nonsense like “If you think that demand was non-negotiable, you don’t know much about negotiating. Anything can be negotiated.” Ms. Schiff seems to think that we should have held public hearings about it. Perhaps they are unfamiliar with the concept of a gift, wherein the recipient is in a position of zero bargaining power. Even given the requirements, most seem to believe the city should have accepted the donation, and sacrificed public works money that could otherwise go to bike lands, parks that are actually accessible to the public, street cleaning, pothole repair, etc. in order to pay of this building’s private backyard. One commenter even suggested that it would be better to keep the garden closed to the public in order to prevent homeless people from entering it.

Ms. Schiff offers little in the way of specifics on the planned tower, saying simply “Now San Francisco developer David O’Keeffe[sic] wants to build a 40-story residential tower, twice the height of the Essex, wiping out the old garden, blocking views from two adjoining historic apartment buildings, and making a highly visible intrusion into the skyline from most of Lakeside Park.”

Friday’s San Francisco Business Times features an article offering more details about the project. The 420 foot tower would indeed be the tallest building in Oakland – rising a whopping 16 feet higher than the neighboring Ordway Building (404 feet). Some further details from the SF Business Times:

Architect Birdsall said the building would fit in with the location. Its narrow, 12,000-square-foot floor plates are designed to compress the building away from nearby Alice Street, preserving a view corridor to the lake. The slender design is also intended to keep the structure from overwhelming neighboring buildings.

Of course, none of this matters if you hate all tall buildings. One participant in the Grand Lake Guardian discussion laughably informed me that tall buildings belong downtown, not, um, downtown, like this one. Now that the property has been sold and the donation offer is no longer on the table, Ms. Schiff is leading a crusade to save the garden at an even greater cost to the citizens of Oakland. According to the SF Business Times:

Still, Schiff is hoping the developer can be persuaded to swap his land for something closer to Broadway, downtown’s spine. Since the city earlier passed on an opportunity to accept the site as a donation – a now contentious decision – she is also hoping the city can be persuaded to help finance such a swap.

What land? Swap where? At what cost? It doesn’t seem to matter. And forget the millions of dollars in property taxes that the city will recieve from the project – money that can go to libraries, violence prevention, youth programs, actual parks, and all the other cash-strapped programs that benefit Oaklanders. Save the garden.

Posted in california, citycouncil, housing, oakland.


10 Responses

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  1. Oakland Native says

    Great article! Thanks especially for the photos showing how trashed this “garden” really is. The rush to allocate scarce public works money to Naomi Schiff’s latest cause is insulting to groups that have been trying to arrange financing for truly public parks, such as the Cleveland Cascade and the Bordertown Skatepark. Both of these projects would be used daily by dozens of Oaklanders (the Cascade’s visitors could number in the thousands daily, and the Skatepark is in an under-parked area with few other sources of youth recreation). But since they don’t have Nancy Nadel’s ear, or dovetail nicely with anti-high-rise sentiment, they may get the shaft on Wednesday as scarce funds go elsewhere.

  2. V Smoothe says

    Native –

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Although the point of posting the photographs was less to show that the garden is trashed and more to show exactly what the public gets out of the garden’s presence. For all I know, somewhere in there next to the invitation-only building, it looks beautiful. But that doesn’t matter to anyone except the residents who live in the people.

    I find it utterly mind-boggling that anyone could suggest with a straight face that the city pay to maintain a fancy garden for a luxury apartment building when what you see above constitutes the entire public benefit.

  3. Sean B says

    Those pictures of the garden are quite a distortion of what the garden actually looks like. It is in fact quite pretty. If the city did obtain the garden, I’m sure it would be opened up to the public. Lastly, it should be noted that the owners of the garden have slackened off on the upkeep of the garden. Why? To make it look like the gardens aren’t worth saving.

    in addition, you do not address other problems such a building would create. A 40+ story building would require a massive need for parking. The amount of traffic would shoot up, and I’m not sure that part of downtown is presently equipped to deal with the amount of traffic it would see if such a building were created.

  4. V Smoothe says

    I took pictures of what the public is able to see of the garden currently. Inside, it is just a large lawn.

    Actually, at the public hearing on the garden, residents of the neighboring buildings who want the City to take the garden were adamant that the garden should not by opened to the general public, and actually booed a speaker who said that if the City were to acquire the garden, it should be available to all residents.

    Impacts of a proposed development are a separate issue from whether or not the City should waste precious resources buying the property, and should be addressed in the EIR process.

  5. Sean B says

    1. It is more than just a large lawn. How would you know since you apparently were not able to get a good look at it?

    2. Those residents need to become more politically astute :-). If that were indeed the case, then yes, it would be a complete waste of city money.

    3. While on paper they might be separate issues, they are not politically speaking. If the developer proposed a 10-story building, then it would look a lot more silly to use those resources to “protect” a garden. A compromise could be sought as well, since a smaller building would take up less space. Such a proposal would deflate opposition to the development. Do you honestly think THAT much opposition would have arisen if such a large building hadn’t been proposed?

  6. V Smoothe says

    Sean -

    I’ve personally seen the garden, although your comments indicate that you have not. For example, the current owners have not let the garden go to seed, as you suggest, but instead spent a considerable amount of money rehabilitating it. Anyone who has seen the site would know this.

    It is, in fact, a large lawn. Those who refer to it as a garden are being misleading. Aren’t you curious why those who want to save “Schilling Garden” won’t release photographs of this precious treasure?

    Honestly, you really don’t seem to know much at all about the issue. I suggest you do some research before commenting further. The fact that the garden is not at grade and is very difficult (and unsafe) to access makes acquisition a complicated matter for the City, and upgrades to provide safety and ADA access would cost a significant amount of money, on top of land costs. The Emerald Views project as proposed, has a very small footprint (far smaller than any 10 story building would be), which preserves more than 60% of the lot as publicly accessible open space. So with the addition of this building, the public would actually have access to more green space than they do now.

    And if you think that a smaller building wouldn’t create the same amount of opposition, you obviously don’t pay much attention to Oakland development issues. You have to fight tooth and nail to get a five story building done in this town.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Great Expectations » What land swap? linked to this post on July 31, 2007

    [...] As for this “historic garden” nonsense, I addressed that issue last year in a post on Future Oakland, as did [...]

  2. So what is CEQA, anyway? | A Better Oakland linked to this post on November 28, 2007

    [...] sessions. (The initial scoping session for the Emerald Views building on the site of the former Schilling Garden is tonight.) At a scoping session, the public is invited to offer their concerns about the [...]

  3. Nancy Nadel v. Sean Sullivan: LWV Voter Forum recap | A Better Oakland linked to this post on April 4, 2008

    [...] say $8 million. I’ve said before that I think giving land to a developer in exchange for this “garden” is a terrible waste of limited public resources. I also find it bizarre that Nancy Nadel tried to [...]

  4. Nancy Nadel v. Sean Sullivan: LWV Voter Forum recap : Our Dirty Dishes linked to this post on August 11, 2008

    [...] said before that I think giving an expensive piece of land to a developer in exchange for this “garden” is a terrible waste of limited public resources. I also find it bizarre that Nancy Nadel tried to [...]