Christopher Waters: Oakland’s growing pains: preservation and progress

2 Feb

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?

Common ground:

  • 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.

36 Responses to “Christopher Waters: Oakland’s growing pains: preservation and progress”

  1. Naomi Schiff February 2, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    Dear Christopher,

    Thank you for reading the OHA letter. OHA will endeavor to correct some misperceptions about how historic buildings are green and can be reused, but won’t go into that at length here. We can provide you with some authoritative information that I think we may be able to all agree upon, actually. We are excited about the prospect of Oakland’s new green building standards, and we understand your concerns, but some of your information is incorrect.

    As to our thoughts about a green transit and business area on Broadway, we definitely did not propose it to replace all other uses such as retail. You might notice that we specifically mentioned it should occupy a limited site. Everyone understands the need for additional retail in Oakland, since we all buy socks and suits and gifts and refrigerators. We proposed our suggestion while thinking about how to connect this area, halfway between two BART stations, with what surrounds it, and as a potentially marketable partial, modest re-use of part of a desolated former auto row.

    We agree that the Whole Foods building is not a perfect example of historic preservation. It was a long process, and complex, and with great frustration we participated in it for 15 or 20 years. We’d be happy to share our impressions with you.

    The uncivil tone of your letter is a little disturbing, but perhaps was unintentional. We strive to remain in the realm of lively discourse among earnest people who share a hope for a better city. And we’d be happy to have more places to shop. We want to avoid unnecessary demolitions resulting in empty lots left for surface parking for 25 years, as has frequently occurred and continues today.

    Best, and looking forward to a continued friendly dialogue,

    Naomi Schiff
    speaking for myself only

  2. Naomi Schiff February 2, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Becks, I would be happy to reply to some of the specific points in Chris’s letter, but don’t want to hijack your blog with lengthy repostes. His letter betrays some ignorance about California Historic Building Code, extant incentives for historic preservation, and the green aspects of retaining rather than landfilling extant structures. If you want more info, please let us know.
    I thank you for providing a venue for planning discussions. Let’s remember to keep it civil, Chris.

  3. ralph February 2, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I am no fan of the OHA as they sometimes sound like a bunch of old folk hellbent on preserving everything. They may very well be selective but they never come across that way. That being said, I am no fan of advocates who want all current as there are benefits to preserving some old structures. I need a good mix. I hope that we are able to preserve some older structures, keep facades from others and build new as necessary.

    The following are just some observations:

    I am looking out the window of the Union Square Border’s and I do not see any shuttles moving people from Bart to shopping. I am also wondering how much parking is truly needed for shopping district to excel. I see scores of BART riders carting shopping bags from the city to Oakland; they clearly aren’t in cars, so why do we need to make allowances for cars for intraOakland shopping. Seems to me that we a playing into a racial fear.

    The green retail is both amusing and inspired. But that is a discussion for another day.

    • Becks February 2, 2010 at 11:57 am #

      Wow Ralph, I actually agree with almost everything you just wrote. Bizarre.

      • ralph February 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

        I’m often misunderstood. i’m like Shaft, John Shaft.

  4. Naomi Schiff February 2, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Ralph, if you allude to John Shaft, you can’t be calling me old folk!

  5. Matt February 2, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    Ugh, Chris was a wee bit over the top.

    Ralph, there have been reports that “green buildings” are no more energy efficient than traditional buildings. Construction is my industry and this does not surprise me at all. There is a lot of hocus pocus out there.

    The argument that old buildings are not green and new ones are is far from black and white. 19th century structures have fewer mold issues, they stay cooler without A/C and can go about a century before requiring serious rehab. Even better, many of these structures in the Bay Area were constructed of locally harvested timber. Unfortunately some are also laden with lead paint and asbestos. Well, new buildings experience sick building syndrome, contain un-vetted materials and require serious rehab in 30 years or less. The un-vetted materials will likely be the lead and asbestos of the future.

    I’m for preservation because neighborhoods of well maintained vintage properties fetch higher prices than new cookie-cutter properties. Also, in a new building I don’t get to think about the 1885 landscape architect who built my house who once slept in my room as horse drawn carriages clomped by in the warm glow of gas light. That link to the past makes me feel more responsible to Oakland’s future.

    Anyway, does anyone object to a ~0% waste ordinance when demolishing existing buildings?

  6. Max Allstadt February 3, 2010 at 12:11 am #


    Their are approximately two buildings in that area that are historic. It’s mostly old garages.

    There are some opportunities or Facadectomies, as Chris mentions, but by and large, the reason this area is being targetted is because its not historic, underused, blighted and conveniently central.

  7. Robert February 3, 2010 at 8:48 am #

    Maybe we could get some old cars and put them in the vacant dealers, restore Biff’s to its glory and then market the area to tourists as a homage to the car culture of the 50’s. And while we’re at it, why don’t we talk the kids from the ‘hood into giving up their side shows and cruise slowly up and down B’way in those restored cars.

  8. Brad February 3, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    I agree with many of the criticisms of Chris’ post. That said, while I’m not well versed in the history of OHA, the frustration with historical preservationists that is evident in Chris’ post many times springs from the fact that they slow down development so dramatically that its hard to get anything done in a timely, cost effective manner.

    Again, I’m no expert on OHA or the Whole Foods reno, but notice how Naomi casually mentions that it took 15-20 years of tussle with the preservationists for the reno to come to fruition. Undoubtedly, the end result is better than it would have been without their participation. But after hearing that it took two decades, it seems it’s kind of a miracle it happened at all.

    Rehabbing historical buildings is often extremely expensive. I’m very familiar with the details of only one historical rehab, a former six-story brick factory from 1890 that was rehabbed into condos. It was the developer’s first and last historical rehab. The well established developer, who had a reputation for quality, thoroughness, honesty, and honoring business deals, lost over a million dollars. The firm honored the contract, but vowed never to do another historical rehab.

    Development costs money, especially when it is complicated by the necessity of preserving historical buildings, or cleaning up pollution, or something else. The money has to come from somewhere, or else the developer walks away, as I’m sure SunCal will in Alameda. (Did anyone notice that the anti-B activist featured in the paper today argued that “light industry, parks, offices and a smattering of single-family homes would be a far better plan for the point”? I wasn’t a huge fan of SunCal’s proposal, but I have to acknowledge that single family homes and offices won’t pay for the massive cleanup required.)

    Oakland desperately needs retail development. Oakland desperately needs people to move here, live here, work here, play here. If every development is going to take a decade or two to come to fruition, it’s hardly a wonder that retail developers will bypass Oakland altogether. I support many of the goals of OHA, but they will need to accede to some compromise if timely, cost-effective development is going to be a reality for Oakland.

  9. Naomi Schiff February 3, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Max, “old garages” can be historically interesting, too. Take a look at the Deco Firestone showroom (architect Charles McCall) on Broadway around 30th ! One reason artists and galleries are interested in the area between Broadway and Telegraph in the 20s is precisely the availability of terrific spaces in old auto repair garages. Interior spaces are often truss-supported, with high skylit ceilings in some. Eminently reusable. There is a great deal of empty surface parking lot space that can and should be developed before we pursue demolition of historic buildings. We can do good, green infill while still preserving a sense of place and architectural interest. Car sales in the early 20th cent. used to be an upscale business, and a number of fine architects worked on some of these buildings, which could be restored to their former elegance. And, we should work to preserve the hardy businesses that do remain in the area, rather than discouraging and then ejecting them over a period of decades, as happened in the Uptown.

  10. Matt February 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Max, recently I lived at 28th and Summit for about a year and know the neighborhood well. I’m speaking to the craftsman and neoclassic homes that still dot the Hill.

    House moving is an exact science today and the one home Alta Bates wants to demo is a perfect candidate. If moving is not possible then the property could be used for people needing a place to stay in close proximity to their family/friend being treated at Alta Bates. Many homes near the UCSF Parnassus complex have been converted to this type use. I know first hand kids love staying in these old houses instead of modern hotels.

    I’m not for saving an old building at any cost or just any old building without cause. These have a history, are in good condition and can easily be adapted to new use. They’re scraps of the past for future residents to enjoy.

  11. Robert February 3, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    I like old houses (I live in one) and old commercial buildings. But if you seriously believe that all these old buildings can be economically re-purposed and saved, then you are free to do it, as I have done. Get OHA to raise the money, buy the building, rehab it and then either rent it or resell it. Instead you want to force the developer to do all of that for you, because you know very well it is not a viable proposition.

    There are certainly structures of sufficient historical merit to make it worthwhile, but the home Alta Bates is interested in removing is a rather ordinary example of a typical period house that has been remodeled for use as offices. It is not ideally suited for office use, and lost much of any historical significance when it was converted into offices. I am sure that Alta Bates would be more than happy to give you the house if you were willing to move it to a new lot.

  12. Chris February 3, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    I think that OHA plays a very important role in the development battles that take place in our city. We’d probably be in a worse spot today were they to have never existed.

    That being said, the letter that they released for the Auto Row Specific Plan worries me. What gave me pause in reading it was that it sounded, well, *just like every other OHA letter* when commenting on development or zoning or policy issues facing other neighborhoods in Oakland or the city of Oakland in general. This unwavering approach worries me because it suggests that OHA positions are driven more by ideology rather than the actual situation on the ground for each specific project being commented on. I’d like to believe that this isn’t the case, but presenting such a front risks a loss of credibility and being perceived, as Ralph so eloquently put it “a bunch of old folk hellbent on preserving everything”. OHA is too useful and necessary to allow this to happen.

  13. len raphael February 3, 2010 at 11:28 pm #

    Naomi’s letter raises what i consider a valid question: what if the assumption is incorrect that if we zone for high density large scale retail, thath “they” will come? Yes one can point to all the Oakland resident retail purchases made in Emeryville, SF, and WC and conclude it’s a slam dunk to assume that if we made it easy for large retailers to locate on Auto Row, that they would and that the residents would flock there.

    while i agree that it’s unrealistic that smart card dealers and bike repair shops will ever compensate for the loss of sales and business tax revenue from the car dealers, i think we have to accept that Oakland retail in that area will take years to grow to what even Emeryville is now. Coffi Aman (who lead Emeryville RDA effort) beat us to the punch on that.

    Oakland has way too many problems that make it’s own residents prefer shopping elsewhere, that has nothing to do with the absense of retailers. that’s why so many downtown department stores failed.

    in the meantime, we’d at least have an area attractive to new residents and hospital workers if we encouraged conversion of the auto dealerers physical space to that more suitable for small businesses. in another 10 to 15 years of small business growth, there could enough people used to going to that area to support larger retail and office based businesses.

    -len raphael

    • Becks February 4, 2010 at 9:59 am #

      There might be a misunderstanding of the plan here. Nobody thinks that this area will change overnight.

      The plan is to create this overall plan and then to slowly phase in specifics of it. As explained at last week’s meeting, it’s a market based plan so it will be driven by developers. The city does not intend to come in with a wrecking ball and then just pray that developers and retailers will come. Instead, they will redevelop particular spaces as agreements are made with developers.

      This will take many years to be implemented, and it will likely last for a long time to come, which is why it’s so important to get the overall plan right.

  14. ralph February 4, 2010 at 12:44 am #

    Sometimes, you need to take a leap of faith. I think people who have spent a majority of their lives here get caught up in past failures. Gloomy Gusses need not apply.

    Oakland may be unique but what has happened to its inner city is not unique. Cities from coast to coast lost inner city retail. The loss can be attributed to a number of reasons – white flight and the consolidation of retail (i.e. big publicly traded companies buying smaller regional department stores). Cities recovered, but it was not overnight. It took nearly 20 years for Baltimore’s inner harbor to undergo the transformation Mayor Don envisioned in 1979.

    If one believes that Oakland has such unique issues, then ask residents why they go to these far away places and you also ask them what they value in an Oakland shopping experience. Frankly, for me, it was more convenient to shop multiple stores in one central location. But if Oakland could do the same I would gladly shop here to support Oakland. I would love to shop in a place that creates a sense of community and belonging. I and other shoppers may still shop outside of Oakland, to expect we will not is naive. I know people who live a few miles from a mall but will still drive 45 to go to a mall that has essentially same stores. You can not let the fact that people may still shop o/s the area, stop you from bldg something that is desperately needed.

    You are simply not going to get the growth from small business that is necessary to grow the area and Oakland. You realize that there are 3 wig stores on Telegraph b/w 20th & 27th. If you let small business just occupy the space you will probably end up with a situation that does attract anymore feet to the area.

    Increase the population density and add the space for retail and the stores will come. Anything that relieves the 580W/80E weekend nightmare will be greatly appreciated.

    Finally, two points about this mall near my parents. First, it was 20+ years in the making. The Baltimore Beltway was built w/o an exit 19, reserved for future use. Eventually, a mall was built 7m west of the beltway and exit 19 and the associated road was built. The mall was built on what was essentially farmland, there was nothing near it, no housing, no nothing but people drove there and eventually housing was built around it. Oh was it built.

    Leap of faith.

  15. len raphael February 4, 2010 at 8:14 am #

    timing is everything in development and we very possibly missed the boat. focus the city support on capitalizing on the growth that’s already happening in dto, and don’t dilute those meager efforts by spreading out the underutilized urban core.

    but lets say we could achieve a mini downtown walnut creek retail center along upper bway. the tax revenue from that would be significant (no it won’t capture more than a significant fraction of the “lost” sales tax revenue, much of which is internet or SF based) but the employment effects will be dismal low paying, dead end jobs, often part time w/o benefits.

    we’d have a safer more viable city if we accept that the highest and best use for much of that area is to encourage but regulate the expansion of health facilities, around art related small enterprises. the big growth industry of the next two decades is not retail but caring for old and sick people. no sales or biz tax revenue, but hecka better wages and benefits for even the least skilled workers.


  16. ralph February 4, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    Prenote: the south end is the retail hub, the north end not so much.

    My final point, I don’t think you dilute the efforts by adding complementary businesses. You dilute the efforts by adding one off stores that don’t bring feet to the street. A good example include the former jeans store on Grand by Coach Sushi. One clothing store next to a bunch of eateries. Not a good fit. (And just how are meager efforts diluted?)

    I am not sure what you are expecting in terms of retail wages, but in a city that has limited retail employment opportunities, I would think some would be preferred to none. These are jobs that are often 1st steps for high school students.

    I do not disagree that the north end should have a strong medical component. But that will only work if you add density. You need to make it so that it is attractive for both healthcare providers to locate there and users to travel there.

    Those art enterprises that people love – close when people don’t come. I think there is now just 1 on Grand. At least one enterprise across from RPSC closed.

  17. Jim T February 4, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    I think this post makes a LOT of good sense. I’m a little concerned that it’s not making sense to our OHA folks. Historical preservation needs to be for the public good. And preserving poorly used spaces, which nearly all of the auto row buildings represent, is not in the interest of Oakland today or Oakland tomorrow.

  18. Matt February 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Robert, I’m not speaking to my likes or dislikes or yours. I claimed that it’s in the best interest of the community and patients of Alta Bates to maintain heritage properties on Pill Hill and the area north.

    Not everything in this world has an easily assessed monetary value. The work of a stay at home mom is not calculated in GDP, but the job is incredibly important to our community. Not everything that makes sense in the “free market” makes sense for the community. A woman should still consider mothering a child even though the free market assesses $0.00 in value to the job. I believe preserving heritage properties is another one of these instances.

    Yes, a person has the right to property, but the community also has a right to an environment that is an enjoyable and stimulating place to be.

  19. Brad February 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm #


    Yes, I agree with you that “he community also has a right to an environment that is an enjoyable and stimulating place to be.” But right now we don’t have that. And we won’t ever get there if the historical preservationists hold out for their absolute best preferred ideal. They will need to compromise, or else the only thing that will happen is gridlock. Of course, not everything has an easily assessed monetary value, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore questions about money. Money drives development, so discussions about money are right to be front and center.

  20. len raphael February 5, 2010 at 1:34 am #

    remind me again, why a city that is unable to care for its basic needs now, is intrinsically going to be a better place if we succeed in encouraging more people to move here and to live closer together? is the underlying reasoning based on a global calculus that dense cities are more efficient energy users and therefore even if they might still be socially and economically dysfunctional, at least we’ve reduced total carbon output on a worldwide basis?

    does this city’s budget become sustainable if we can increase the population of middle and upper middle class but keep the proportion of poor residents unchanged? someone show me the math that higher density inexorably leads to a viable city, which we currently are not.

    -len raphael

    • Daniel Schulman February 5, 2010 at 8:44 am #


      While we certainly need to fix the problems going forward, we’ve also build up huge debts – both accounts and infrastructure. The least painful ways to deal with past debt is to spread them among more people or absorb them into a larger economy.

      If we don’t fix the problems we just build the debt higher, but denser cities do help with some of the issues. When people live closer together, average impact on the infrastructure goes down, it is easier to provide fire and police services, etc.

  21. len raphael February 5, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    Daniel, i can follow your logic on the existing debt burden, but i’d like to see the assumptions underlying the model that proves that adding more residents contributes more net tax revenue to the city govt’s bottom line. i’ve asked oakland city planners if they have such a model they run when evaluating project’s impact. their response was sorta “silly boy, that’s not our problem”.

    if the model really assumes you have to add disproportionately more wealthy residents, i’d still like to see at what proportions that works.



  22. Naomi Schiff February 6, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I wonder, after the current census, what kinds of growth analysis ABAG will come up with, and what kinds and levels of housing production they will hope for from their constituent cities. To me the big gap is family housing. We may be overbuilt for now on relatively costly 1-2 bedroom units intended for young adults with excellent jobs.

  23. jaded February 6, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    I live near the Rose Garden/Piedmont Ave. And of course I go to Bay Street/Walnut Creek/Albany and SF to go shopping. With a planned Target in the former Expo space, I’ll stop going to the Albany Target unless I am already on that side of the bay. If there was a retail destination on the Broadway/Telegraph corridor, I would likely a. walk or take transit from my current place and b. move (buy) there if the price/quality ratio was right. Especially if the tenant mix and amenities were right: grocery, services, retail, dining, gym, etc. It would be enough for me to retire my car and move to car-sharing.

    I hope we err on the side of mixed-use neighborhoods and *high quality* mixed housing (condos, townhouses, a few single family homes). The current crop of Oakland condos is either: over priced, in neighborhoods with no amenities, under-speced or un-retrofitted or have horrid layouts. Hopefully developers won’t make the same mistakes his time around.

    Walking around that neighborhood is like visiting a ghost town. I am all for preserving historic character, but the amount of existing character to preserve in the neighborhood is limited. We’d be better served with a larger development area.

  24. ralph February 6, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    i would like to a transit shuttle exception. if you can use a shuttle to move people among Broadway/Valdez, Grand/Lake, and Piedmont Ave that would be a nice addition.

  25. len raphael February 7, 2010 at 12:25 am #

    Naomi, despite the work of some heroic hardworking public school employees and activists, most (but not all) of the elementary and middle schools outside of the hills and middle hills, are god awful. yes many of them have improved, but they started out so low… too many kids with serious family problems and disadvantages. wb a waste to be build much middle class family housing here because they couldn’t afford private schools.

  26. ralph February 7, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    I wish to stay out but there are times that I wonder if there are locals who can only see the negative and are heckbent on holding the city back.

    Naomi, can you please explain in no uncertain terms why we have overbuilt 1 and 2 bdrm housing units (i assume you mean condos given your disdain for them) and how they are just for your young adults with excellent jobs. And while you are at can you please explain what an excellent job is?

    I have observed a fair number of children and a relatively residents aged 22 – 80.

    Len, are your serious?

  27. len raphael February 7, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    ralph, i am very serious. so much of what goes on as city planning is based on theory that doesn’t even have quantitative models to rationalize them. only so called, self evident truths.

    Where the infrastructure to support high density is underutilized, such as DTO, much less data driven analysis is needed, but even there it should be done.

    Further from DTO, more skeptical I am that we’re avoiding fixing DTO .

    me, without analysis, I’d encourage Pill Hill and old people warehouses to expand onto Auto Row, with some preservation of the worthwhile old (I always liked Biffs, even when it was open and served terrible food, and specialized in serving the pimp trade). best paying jobs we’ll ever see here for the least amount of education. purchases of those supplies does generate hecka sales tax. not as subject to economic cycles or going to india.

    my favorite is the one that denser cities will have lower crime rates because there will be “more eyes on the street”.

    as far as the middle class family housing need, despite the suburb empty nester movement (which i suspect was concocted by journalists looking for something new to write about after the various booms and busts of last decade from which they made their writing living), it looks like the dominant pattern is for most young people to live in denser cities and then move out to the burbs if they’re having kids. “Vibrant” and “exciting” and even “diverse” often become a lot important when you’re 35 with kids then safe streets and safe schools that don’t carry the burdens of the city.

    -len raphael

  28. len raphael February 7, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Sure some bigger developers do plenty of numerical analysis before making decisions, making a bunch of assumptions (leaps of faith) along the way that might be wrong, but at least the assumptions are clear.

    Is there a single person in Oakland’s planning dept with a quantitative econ background?

    Oakland planners either rely on the developers number crunchers or the outside consultants we hire. Did the Connely report for upper broadway (i read it a long while ago) have much in the way of quantitatative analysis of good data to backup it’s policy recommendations?

    Oakland bloggers have done much more numerical analysis of crime stats and overall city budget issues than they have of the economic effects of alternative zoning paths on city’s financial health and performance. In large part that’s because we don’t have the data to analyse, but in part because we all have our preconcieved ideas of what’s needed for Oakland.

  29. Naomi Schiff February 8, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Ralph, I don’t mind condos. Some of my best friends and immediate neighbors live in condos. But you will notice that many of the newly constructed condos have had to lease the units. They are a fairly expensive sort of apt. living. Explicitly, many developers created their floor plans with single working people in mind, and little in the way of amenities for families with children. Mayor Jerry repeatedly encouraged the building of units for these young working people coming to get these fabulous jobs. I agree that those jobs might not be here in great numbers, so far, but it is what he claimed to be doing, and I don’t think it was entirely wrong.

    However I agree with you that children inevitably occur! In fact, I frequently spoke, at almost every one of the 10K project hearings, to request that some (not all) units be designed with families in mind. The shortage of elementary schools near many of the new units is another indication. For example, the Oak to Ninth plan (2100 condo units) did not include any provision for schools, and if it is built kids will have to traverse several busy rail tracks to get to the nearest ones–which although they have excellent programs, are over-filled. There is no elementary school near Uptown, and no provision for opening one.

  30. len raphael February 8, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    Naomi, if enough elementary school kids crop up in Uptown or south of bway, couldn’t parents open a charter school?

  31. Naomi Schiff February 8, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    Availability of inexpensive school-appropriate space is difficult in new construction areas, no matter what type of school, because new buildings generally imply costly space.

    That’s why we may want appropriate planning, impact fees and public schools. Better arrangement for funding in perpetuity. Not every charter school can count on Jerry Brown beating the bushes for money.

  32. ralph February 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Leasing units was just an unfortunate result of when the units came to market. There are renters in the leased bldgs who want to buy their units. The problem is finding a clearing price. Further, The Ellington is selling, granted the new owner can offer at lower prices than initially planned, still they are selling.

    Some of the buildings do have TH which are good for families. There is a park near the Market Square & Jade complexes. Further, a number of units are also within spitting distance of LM. And from my own observation there are no shortage of children using the playground at LM. What would be nice is if they added more complementary business – such as The Plant. In the Marina, it is amazing just how many parents and strollers stop in for lunch during the weekday. Stuff like that would go a long way to add to the community feel.

    There are a number of issues with these so called family units: 1) because blgs will have fewer of them they will be more costly, 2) they don’t add the desired density to the DTO, 3) people are having children later but are also earning a good wage and don’t necessarily want to rent and want to be near the nitelife and transit, & 4) additional amenities will add to the HOA, which will already be high due to fewer units. Honestly, when you think of all the needs to keep units affordable, the development profitable, the needs of a buying segment, I think the developers did a good job and those who advocated on behalf of family type units should recognize those efforts. .

    People need to have a starter place or a second place. And as one set of buyers move out, there will be replacement buyers.

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