Forget the F-word. For most of those standing-room-only crowd in the North Oakland Senior Center Monday, the real verbal bombshell was the R-word.
R. . .as in Redevelopment.
The term was invoked by two Oakland officials and a consultant as the formula to bring an economic boon to the 800 acres of North Oakland immediately south of Berkeley.
As planned, the target area would be incorporated into the existing 600-acre Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo Redevelopment Project—a district that includes two geographically isolated parcels that now would be spanned by the addition of the area in question.
Singing the proposal’s praises were two officials from the Redevelopment Division of the Oakland Community & Economic Development Agency (CEDA)—Kathy Kleinbaum, project manager for the existing district and Patrick Lane, redevelopment manager for West Oakland—and Jim Burns, a consultant hired by the agency.
But by the time the meeting ended, Zach Wald, a representative of Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner whose City Council district encompasses the project area, had told the largely hostile audience that if they didn’t want it, Brunner would act accordingly.
One of the central issues troubling many at Monday night’s meeting was the lack of any specific notions about just what redevelopment would entail. Parks, streetscape improvements and gussied-up businesses were mentioned, along with the mandatory low-income housing, but it was too vague for several speakers.
Instead, they were presented with a proposal to create a redevelopment district, with the “whats” to follow later.
The proposed district itself is moving along on a fast track. With the Oakland City Council’s blessings, CEDA issued requests for proposals on the project on March 27, due by April 27, followed by interviews with interested consulting firms beginning five days later.
Visions of Big Bucks
Burns, the city’s consultant, estimated that without the project, the area would generate $233 million in property taxes over 30 years, compared to an estimated $429 million with the improvements created by the redevelopment project. Of that total, $272 million would go to fund redevelopment projects.
Redevelopment projects chosen for the district will be bankrolled by “tax increment funding,” which is established by freezing basic tax allocations at the amounts when the 30-year project commences, with the additional tax revenues raised as assessments rise directed to redevelopment projects within the area.
The one exception is that a quarter of the increased dollars earmarked for subsidized low-income housing must go to projects in other areas of the city. Because schools will lose out on their share of increased taxes, the state government is obligated to make up the difference, a sum project officials estimate will reach $120 million over the term of the project.
Skeptics and Blight
Preliminary explanations of the plan were unveiled Monday to an audience which demonstrated a good deal of skepticism and seemed eager to examine the dentistry of the gift horse on offer.
Given redevelopment’s highly checkered history, filled with racism, graft, political corruption and unintended consequences, skeptics peppered the redevelopment professionals with questions from the outset, and periodically derailed the inevitable Power Point presentation.
To be eligible for redevelopment status, the Oakland City Council—sitting as the redevelopment agency—must find the project area to be afflicted with physical and economic blight, a notion that roused considerable suspicion Monday night.
Because blight is broadly defined—physical blight can consist of lead paint buried beneath layers of latex—home and business owners said they were worried how the term might be used adversely against their own property.
“Who is it that’s pushing this project?” demanded one audience member. “And where have blighted areas been identified?”
Lane, West Oakland’s redevelopment manager, said the existing Project Area Committee (PAC)—the citizen panel which helps shape plans during a project’s first three years—had been asking for improvements outside their area. Though the panel had passed the three-year mark, the City Council had extended its term for the purposes of the new project, he said.
“I came with a lot of optimism, but now I have real concerns,” said Kira Stoll, who owns property on Market Street within the proposed expanded project area. “If redevelopment brings improvements in lighting and similar improvements, I could support it. But I am concerned that if it’s pushed through, redevelopment could be used to target any property.”
“One of the blight criteria for business is lack of parking,” said another man. “But a lot of the businesses I consider to be blighted are those with the most parking.” He went on to compare redevelopment with Godzilla, the city-destroying, nuclear-generated monster lizard that devastated Tokyo in countless Japanese sci-fi flicks.
Current and Proposed Boundaries
As the Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo Redevelopment Project now stands, the southeastern parcel of the current district is roughly bounded by 28th and 41st streets between Broadway on the east and the I-580 Connector on the west.
The northwestern parcel runs from 53rd Street to the Berkeley border at 67th Street between the eastern side of Vallejo Street and the properties immediately to the properties flanking the east side of San Pablo Avenue.
The proposed addition would border the southern parcel at 40th Street and extend northeast from the eastern side of Telegraph Avenue to the Berkeley border at Woolsey Street, mostly along the Berkeley border to connect with 67th Street.
Lane said some parts of the larger project area wouldn’t be included in the final boundaries because they don’t qualify as blighted.
“We just outlined the larger area for the blight study,” he said. “It’s a preliminary study area, and the final project area will come later.”
Many at Monday’s forum questioned the application of the “blight” label for a district that seems to be caught in the throes of “gentrification,” with home prices soaring as the once-dominant African-American population dwindles.
Between 1990 and 2000, census tract data show the black population dropping from 68 percent to 53 percent, with the white share rising only one percent to 27 percent. The biggest gains were made by Hispanics, who rose from 2 percent to 11 percent, those of mixed racial heritage (from less than 0.5 percent to 7 percent), Asian/Pacific Islanders (from 4 percent to 9 percent) and Other (from 1 percent to 4 percent). Native Americans remained constant at 1 percent.
As evidence of the lack of economic blight, critics of the project handed out a sheet showing sales prices for homes in the district over the last year, with prices ranging from $399,999 to $735,000.
“The idea that the area is blighted is incomprehensible,” said Valerie Winemiller. “What’s holding back development in Oakland is the schools and crime.”
“Redevelopment is a scam,” said Fruitvale resident Jane Powell. “It’s an invisible government that has no oversight.”
She said Oakland would be better off invoking the Mills Act, state legislation that gives tax breaks for restoring historic homes. She also faulted the city for hiring a consultant with money she said could be better used for planting street trees and installing benches.
Redevelopment “appears to us to be a juggernaut,” said project-area resident Jackie Wilson. “The agenda has been set, the timetable has been set, but the plan remains a pig in a poke. The timetable you have set is too frighteningly fast.”
According to the current project timetable unveiled Monday, the city would adopt the project survey in June and approve a preliminary plan a month later at the same time preliminary steps would be taken for creating an expanded PAC, adding nine seats to the 20 for the existing smaller project.
Elections for the PAC would be held in August, with the full panel seated in October.
A preliminary report on area blight would be issued next January, with a draft project environmental impact report to follow a month later.
The redevelopment plan would go the Oakland Planning Commission in March, followed by the PAC’s recommendation to adopt the plan a month later. The final report on the plan along with the environmental impact report would go to the City Council in June, with a public hearing on adoption in July.
While the new district would span the gap between the existing halves of the present district and more than double the acreage from 600 to 1,400, the expanded PAC charged with oversight of the resultant district would be dominated by members from the older committee, a point that bothered many of the speakers.
Members are drawn from project-area homeowners, renters, business owners and community organizations.
The meeting wasn’t all gloom and doom. When one Market Street resident demanded, “Are we really going to have a say, or are we going to be overruled by political cronies?” Walter Miles rose to answer.
A member of the PAC for the existing district and president of the Citizens Committee for MacArthur Transit Village (a mixed-use housing and commercial project now being built by the district), Miles smiled and declared, “I am not anyone’s crony except my wife’s. I am my own person.”
Longtime North Oakland resident Bob Williams told his fellow audience members that while they might not enjoy the full benefits of what the district could help create, their children would. “It seem to me that it would be better if they changed the name (redevelopment) to ‘conservation project.’”
Noting that the redevelopment agency consist of the elected City Council, he declared, “You can force them to get something for yourselves.”
What struck many in the audience as particularly ominous was the threat of eminent domain as a weapon deployed against designated blighted properties. The power to force the sale of “blighted” private property, albeit at market rates, worried both home and business owners, but officials said their initial intent is only to apply the process to blighted business property, not residences.
“Eminent domain was misused 30 and 40 years ago,” Burns acknowledged.
“Our intent is that eminent domain will be used along the commercial corridors,” said Kleinbaum. “We have no interest in taking people’s homes in this area.”
“Our office wouldn’t consider this project if it included residential eminent domain,” said Brunner aide Zach Wald"