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Three meetings, not one vision

There were three important public meetings this week. On Thursday, Ron Dellums held a town hall meeting with Councilmember Desley Brooks. Also on Thursday, the Inclusionary Housing Blue Ribbon Commission met in Fruitvale. Today (Saturday), was meeting number two to address concerns about high-rises around Lake Merritt. The two meetings I attended (BRC and the Lake Merritt meeting) showed that the vast majority of residents continue to support growth and development. However, all three meetings revealed the different directions in which the city is being tugged, in the absence of strong leadership.

Blue Ribbon Commission

As has become par for the course, the Blue Ribbon Commission was met with strong opposition to inclusionary zoning and increased low-income housing development in the flats. Twelve speakers addressed the commission in the open forum, and only one spoke in favor of IZ. On the IZ topic itself, all eight speakers were against it.

A recurring theme in these discussions is the fact that struggling, densely-populated flatlands neighborhoods are becoming “dumping grounds” for affordable housing development. From West Oakland to East Oakland, residents clearly want market-rate development to lessen the concentration of poverty and to provide more economic opportunities, and grocery stores. It is important to note that the Councilmembers who sponsored the last Inclusionary Zoning ordinance (District 1’s Jane Brunner and District 4’s Jean Quan) represent the wealthiest parts of the city. Several commissioners and speakers suggested that Inclusionary Zoning apply only to areas that are not redevelopment zones, in order to reflect the different needs of different parts of the city (and because redevelopment areas already guarantee 15% affordability). That would be a very good compromise that would satisfy the opponents of IZ, who are becoming increasingly vocal.

The commission, at the urging of staffer Jeff Levine, brought an economist named David Rosen to give a presentation. He found, in the 25 jurisdictions he studied, that tax law and employment were the strongest correlations with housing development, and that inclusionary zoning would not decrease development activity. He explained his incredibly counter-intuitive claim by asserting that land values will fall to reflect the $170,000 per-unit cost of IZ (his figure, not mine). He said he developed the presentation for Los Angeles, whose council rejected IZ.

A skeptical commission pressed Rosen for further details, and his answers were off-putting and arrogant. He also revealed some ignorance about SF’s inclusionary zoning projects, right in front of their project manager (Commissioner Blair Miller). Several speakers took issue with his presenation as well. Dr. Rosen left immediately afterward, and so did not hear the criticisms. It was very apparent that the 25 jurisidictions he studied are wildly dissimilar to Oakland. They are primarily wealthy suburbs with ample land for large-scale single-family home develoment. Carlos Plazola, former staffer to Ignacio de la Fuente and now a development consultant, pointed out that a piece of land he is developing, in order to pay for the cost of IZ, would drop to $5/sf. At that low level, either the owner would not sell, or low-value uses like container storage or surface parking would be more profitable. Commissioner and economist Benjamin Powell, who was unfortunately absent, did a study of Bay Area jurisdictions and found that IZ does indeed decrease building activity and increase housing costs. It doesn’t take a PhD to know that huge development fees are a deterrent to development, but it does take a PhD to invent reasons why that wouldn’t be true.

Lake Merritt High-Rises

This latest meeting was not well-publicized, and had about half the attendance of the last meeting (75 people versus 150). Nevertheless, anti-development activists were a small but strident minority. The city’s presentation (PDF!) noted that there are a variety of regulatory tools at the city’s disposal, but showed (although this was not mentioned) that the General Plan calls for upzoning, not downzoning, the Lake Merritt area.

Only a quarter of the audience applauded calls for development moratoria, and those calls seemed to come primarily from Gold Coast residents upset by construction noise. As a North Hills resident in the mid-90s, I can sympathize. But development moratoria are not what this process is about, and rezoning will of course not have the effect of stopping construction.

Repeated themes from the break-out groups were the importance of the County Courthouse and Kaiser Convention Center to views. Most groups supported maintaining skyscrapers on the Northwest (financial district) end of the lake. Many residents complained about the lack of retail and bus service (which is shockingly poor around the Lake). Those are, of course, pro-development arguments.

Most groups did not endorse uniform height limits. The only group that did called for the four-story limit pushed by anti-growth zealots, which is so uneconomical (and ahistorical) as to constitute a de-facto moratorium. Many activists seemed confused about the height of lakeside historic buildings, several of which exceed ten stories. Most groups were vague about what constitutes a lakeside development, with many eager to add the Schilling Gardens to any restrictions, even though it is more than a block from the lake (farther than, say, the 40-story Ordway). The list of buildings currently proposed around the lake (only one of which is actually a high-rise) includes buildings on Jackson, five blocks from the Lake.

It is clear that there is not going to be a community consensus about heights on the Lake. It is also clear that the General Plan, as well as the forthcoming ABAG housing allocations, require the city to permit high-intensity development around the lake. The anti-growth activists want residential high-rise development on Broadway, which is simply not going to happen (the surface parking lot at 17th and Broadway, which is already entitled for high-rise residential, has been for sale for years). We’ll have to wait and see how the staff interprets the conflicting requests coming from these meetings. Eric Angstadt, a senior planning staffer, said that any Lake Merritt rezoning would take a year and require an EIR.

Dellums Townhall

This is already been covered extensively by the local press, but I want to add something. Ron Dellums ran on a platform of leveraging institutional and federal government funds to help Oakland. So far, he’s gotten a contribution from the OUSD for Chabot Space and Science Center, and some monies for AIDS services (which are provided by Alameda County, which is the welfare agency). By publicly asking for $20m+ from Schwarzenegger without telling him first, Mayor Dellums is guaranteeing that the funds will not arrive. Furthermore, it is simply cruel to tell less-informed residents that they can expect a windfall when none is forthcoming. If you think residents are disappointed with Dellums now, just wait until the budget process!

Posted in dellums, housing, iz.

3 Responses

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  1. John E. Klein says

    I came away from this meeting with a slightly different take than that of the author. I believe there was a broad consensus that there should be definite limits on building heights for buildings directly abutting the lake. The only “confusion” about this was whether it should be uniform, i.e., all buildings one height, or stepped heights.

    But let me cut to the chase regarding those who want definite height limits (5 stories maximum) within 500 feet of the waters edge, the so-called “anti growth zealots.” There was not a single person at the meeting who was anti-development. The opposition to development focused exclusively on properties immediately abutting the lake or within 500 feet of it. As a matter of fact, there was one proposal to enact a single zone 500 feet wide around the entire perimeter of the lake, a special zoning designation such as “the Lake District Zone” or something to that effect.

    The simple point I want to make is that there is no evidence that restricting high-rise development at the lake drives development away from Oakland. In fact, the contrary is true, that is, not only can we save park land at the lake, in doing so, projects will migrate to more appropriate sites. Let me give you three excellent examples: the Fire Alarm site at 14th Street, the cathedral at 12th Street, and Trader Joes at Splash Pad Park. As may be recalled, the “anti-development zealots” came out of the woodwork in droves to oppose these City-proposed projects; all of which were ultimately defeated, and wisely so.

    Having been thusly rejected, was this the end of the story for these projects? Did these developers pack their bags and leave town, whipped and chastened by the zealots? No, they did not, not by a long shot. Where did they go? Trader Joes moved away from our park land to across the street to occupy an abandoned grocery store and Splash Pad Park was vastly improved. The cathedral moved away for our park land to Grand Ave. & Lakeside Drive and Measure DD will reclaim park land at 12th Street and reconnect it to the lake. Finally, condos are popping up all over downtown, just not on our park land at the lake!

    The question I now have for City staff and those favoring high rise development at the lake is: what part of “don’t sell and develop our park land at Lake Merritt” don’t you understand? It should be abundantly clear that the public wants to preserve its park land at the lake, period. It is also abundantly clear that there are innumerable opportunities and areas to build in Oakland which do not encroach upon the lake’s nature environs.

    Yes, it will be interesting to see how City staff interprets these so-called “conflicting requests” coming from the community.

  2. dto510 says

    I am suprised that you did not hear the multiple calls for development moratoria at the Lake Merritt meeting. Twice during presentations it was mentioned, and was met with applause from about a third of the audience. My group was sharply divided 4 – 3 in favor of further development, with one person (citing discredited ACS numbers) claiming that Oakland has an apartment surplus and doesn’t need housing. Your arbitrary 500-foot rule, which was not part of any consensus (as there was none), is ahistorical and has nothing to do with parkland. Nobody is proposing building on parkland.

    And what’s so great about preserving the Fire Alarm building anyway? I don’t see anyone picnicking there. I seriously doubt that the Trader Joe’s was going to be over five stories, so that has nothing to do with height limits that somehow “intrude” on parkland. If this is all about shadows, somebody should do a poll and see how much people care, and whether most people enjoy shaded parks or direct sunlight. According to our zoning code, buildings get density bonuses for being near parks, so you’re asking for the city to turn conventional planning on its head.

    By including references to mid-rise buildings scattered throughout downtown, the Lake Merritt planning process is encouraging anti-development zealots to show up and conflate design review with planning policy. The General Plan is very clear that current zoning is too restrictive around the lake, and calls for upzoning the area, as its a major transit corridor (or should be – the 12 and 13 don’t run late enough). The General Plan, which reflects not only the huge 1998 process but also allows us to meet increasing ABAG mandates, is our consensus. Don’t build on a park – sure. But what’s wrong with skyscrapers across the street from one?

Continuing the Discussion

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