This guest post was written by Christopher Waters, a North Oakland resident and founder of the Nomad Café. He serves on numerous boards, commissions and community groups in Oakland, including the Broadway/Valdez Area Specific Plan stakeholder group.
As a member of Oakland’s Broadway/Valdez Area Specific Plan stakeholder group, I was on the list of recipients, on January 27, 2010, of an email from Naomi Schiff, representing the Oakland Heritage Alliance’s Preservation Committee, in which a letter from OHA was attached that rejected all three of the current proposed plan alternatives for the Broadway/Valdez Area. Her email, and the letter, are reproduced below, followed by my response, which was also sent to the entire stakeholder group. As the Broadway/Valdez Specific Plan is a public process with publicly-noticed meetings, this email exchange sent to the entire stakeholder group is now a matter of public record.
From: Naomi Schiff
Sent: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 4:40 PM
To: Broadway/Valdez Area Specific Plan Stakeholders Group
Subject: Re: Oakland Heritage Alliance: Broadway Valdez area specific plan
Dear Staff members, consultants, policymakers, stakeholders, and community members,
Oakland Heritage Alliance held a meeting of its Preservation Committee to discuss the most recent Broadway Valdez materials, and the discussion of potential development alternatives.
Attached is a letter reflecting our responses. Some of our members will also attend the public meeting on the 28th.
We look forward to further productive and creative discussion, and hope that our views will be given consideration as we move ahead.
Thank you so much,
Naomi Schiff representing OHA Preservation Committee
My response follows below. Note that many of the supporting ideas and comments contained herein are those of my more learned colleague, Temescal resident and ULTRA founder John Gatewood.
First, we reject the canard that Existing Building = Green Building. A building that sits empty for decades because it is ill-suited for any purpose other than its original one is not green. It is a waste of resources and a waste of valuable land at an in-fill site. Furthermore, many existing buildings are tremendously energy inefficient, with retrofits (if even possible) sometimes virtually no more cost-effective than new construction, and often even more bureaucratically cumbersome. We strongly support adaptive re-use for individual in-fill projects, but the very nature and extent of the densification proposed for this multiple-parcel project severely inhibits realistic re-use opportunities.
As for the bureaucratic cost: does OHA support modifying our building codes to make it easier to re-use old structures without having to bring them up to modern code (safety code is a given, but what about electrical, plumbing and seismic)? What are the incentives OHA envisions that will encourage re-use of these buildings while still achieving the primary goal of massively enhancing Oakland’s retail tax base? Saying it could be done is just talk. We would like to see a detailed action plan from OHA that will actually facilitate this.
Preservationist groups have a frustrating tendency to fail to state where the money is going to come from for their ideas. Everyone has ideas; the real question is: how are you going to pay for them — and how are you going to implement them? Unfortunately the usual answer is: “Let’s make someone else pay!” — the City, the State, the Feds, the developers, the big businesses (the usual suspects). And yes, those entities should pay: the city and state via redevelopment funds or grants, developers through mitigation fees, big businesses through taxes, etc. But before we can take such ideas seriously, we need to have it spelled out who pays and how they pay. Otherwise it’s just talk, and nothing more.
OHA’s proposed businesses sound very cute for a college town but will not generate anywhere near the retail tax base our city needs. We actually chuckled when we read that part of the OHA letter. We love bicycles, and we love bicycle repair shops, but the tax revenue from it ain’t gonna pay for 1 more beat cop. OHA’s list of suggested possible businesses for this project is striking in its disconnection from economic reality. The tax revenue generated by the enterprises they propose will be very, very small. Yes, there must be a mix of businesses, large and small, but strictly small start-ups like those OHA proposes will not generate very much revenue. Take the example of Fourth Street in Berkeley: those are small businesses or small outposts of large chain retail, but they are medium to high end (frou-frou, in official parlance) businesses. That’s why it works as destination retail and as a revenue source for Berkeley. IF OHA had discussed that model we could take it seriously – but they do not. What they propose sounds like something from the 1970’s.
Wearing her OHA hat, Naomi, at our last public meeting, held up the Oakland Whole Foods/Cox Cadillac remodel as a “victory” for historic preservation. However, it’s important to understand that this project was a “facadectomy,” in which a historic façade is preserved and a whole new building is essentially built behind it. The Whole Foods (which, along with the Downtown Oakland YMCA, I frequent) is a welcome and important defining point for what will be the edge of this retail-dense area (especially in Valdez Alternative #3, my favored — and the highest-density — alternative, which uses 24th Street as the primary retail spine), but it is certainly not a “historic preservation” so much as a “historic reference.” There will be many, many opportunities for such historic references within this development area — and we support such historic references (by the way, the design team does, too). We certainly find the juxtaposition of truly new and truly historic bolder and more visually engaging than the more frequently-seen preservationist alternative: the juxtaposition of old and faux-old. Thanks to the squeaky wheel of preservationists, developers often take the path of least resistance and what we get is another faux Tuscan Villa! How exciting — not.
By the way: the design team has pointed out that there are many, many historic attributes that could not be preserved with a simple “façadectomy” — many of these are foyers, arches, and other unique design components that reside on the interiors of buildings with humdrum or otherwise historically insignificant exteriors. The public would never notice the loss of most of these “internal” historic resources, if removed. But again, with a large-scale redevelopment effort like this one, the best way to save those “internal” resources is for groups like OHA to work with the developers (if we ever reach the development stage) to identify creative ways to retain certain historic interior design elements and enhance their redevelopment goals at the same time.
The list of “failed” redevelopment projects in the appendix to the OHA letter completely ignores the major demographic changes Oakland has gone thru since the post-WWII era. We cannot have a discussion about development — both past and future — without first looking at these changes. Oakland is a Rust Belt city; the loss of Oakland’s industrial base and the well-paying blue collar jobs that base generated did and continues to do enormous damage to our city.
We need more people living and working in Oakland. If we are ever to recover from being a Rust Belt city we need more residents, which, we hope, will generate more jobs. So we support the highest density proposals: Valdez Alternative #3, and North End Alternative 1 or 2 or some variation thereon. But if the City of Oakland succeeds in identifying a master developer for one or both areas, we would encourage the use of different architects for different parts of each portion of the project, in order to mix it up a little. The Bay Area is far too conservative architecturally and we need to get bold.
There is no reason dense development has to conflict with pedestrian/bike/transit orientation, design appeal, or a sense of comfort or safety. But one thing is for certain: if we can’t attract large enough and dense enough retail in the first place, these later important tweaks and enhancements will be moot and therefore impossible.
I don’t have comment on specific historic structures at this point, with the exception of the long-defunct space-age diner (originally Biff’s and later JJ’s) at 26th and Broadway. I don’t see Biff’s (which is a contributing structure, not a designated historic resource) as an important historic resource, and I see it as harking back to the golden age of the automobile. The whole point is to transform “auto row” into a higher, better use. Biff’s is a rather mediocre example of its style , and we feel there are other structures in the Bay Area that are much better examples of Googie architecture. And again, it is an example of the type of auto-centric structure we are trying to get away from (low-rise building in back and big parking lot in front).
If you balk at the removal of any potentially historic stock, or if you have a vision of the Broadway/Valdez redevelopment as a “historic streetcar suburb” like Berkeley, then of course you will be dissatisfied with all of the proposed alternatives. You first have to decide whether you support the broad concept of what is being proposed here: dense comparison retail designed to stimulate Oakland’s desperately flagging retail tax base. The market analysis shows that Oakland exports roughly $1 billion in potential retail sales to neighboring cities due to our lack of destination retail infrastructure. This $1 billion may be unquantifiable, but suffice it to say it is massively lacking, and we have already established that OHA’s proposed list of businesses won’t come anywhere close to filling the void. If you accept the basic premise that a large-scale shopping destination (with major retail anchors and an abundance of minor and other retail) is sorely needed, there are certain realities that come with that:
- Broadway is the logical (and the only real viable) location (ref: the “Upper Broadway Strategy” Conley report), due to good freeway access; availability of transit service; proximity to a rejuvenated downtown/uptown; the availability of so many contiguous parcels of land due to the decline in automotive sales and repair uses; adjacency to Kaiser and Summit/Alta Bates campuses; and Broadway’s significance as Oakland’s “main street.”
- Parking. I am no parking advocate, but no major retail store will come to a place that doesn’t come close to meeting its parking demands. These project proposals are already at the very lowest end of what major retail demands, but at this stage it is only a placeholder and, again, demand will have to be determined by a master developer in conjunction with the realities on the ground as they emerge over time. The public will no doubt (rightly so) influence this process, just as we will need to influence the decision-making around availability of, and/or improvements to, transit infrastructure. But if there is no tax base coming into Oakland, how will major transit infrastructure improvements be paid for (or how will bond measures, etc. be justified)?
Lastly: the OHA letter encourages light-industrial use of the “historic” auto row structures along Broadway. We believe a vision for light industry along Broadway patently contradicts the intention of this plan. Surely OHA doesn’t seriously believe that the adjacent neighborhoods in this retail area, once it is redeveloped, will want to see light industry right next door?
- we share the notion that TDRs (Transferable Development Rights) could be a good way to achieve some of the preservationists’ goals while still achieving a higher-density neighborhood. Using the Biff’s site (which I don’t advocate preserving) as a simple example: it could arguably be zoned for 45 feet and 1 housing unit/450 square feet of lot area on the entire site; BUT, in exchange for preserving the Biff’s building, the height and density would be transferred from it to the parking lot in front, allowing development of a higher and denser project in front of it.
- we agree that North End Alternative #3 offers a single-level, single-use big-box format retail that is inconsistent with a smart growth vision for Oakland.
- we support establishing workforce housing options as part of the new stock.
- we support connecting the retail district to 19th Street BART via shuttles, tram or dedicated bus service, until or unless the infrastructure exists for a new district-specific BART/light-rail stop.
- we suggest exploring, with the individual developers, all the parking mitigation options like un-bundling parking from residential units, creation of bike parking infrastructure, etc.
I encourage citizens and stakeholders to take these contrasting points into consideration when reviewing the positions of the Oakland Heritage Alliance.