Recently I had a chance to revisit Chicago and marvel at her waterfront: Lincoln Park, Grant Park, Burnham Park—miles of waterfront parks accessible to all Chicagoans. Then I learned on an architectural boat trip on the Chicago River that the waterfront park system was due mainly to the vision and courage of one man, Montgomery Ward.
In 1835-36 the city fathers deeded the lakefront land as “Public Ground—Commons to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction Whatever.” As the city grew there was a great demand both by the government and developers to develop the lakefront, but Montgomery Ward filed four lawsuits between 1890-1911 and succeeded in keeping the lakefront as a Public Commons. Now Chicago benefits from his courage and vision and perseverance. The lakefront parks add immeasurably to the quality of life for Chicagoans. In 2004, Chicago went one better by converting an unsightly old railroad yard into a world-class destination, Millennium Park.
Oakland is also blessed with a world-class waterfront: 64 acres of public land part of which is Tideland Trust land on the estuary. Citizens of Oakland formulated the Estuary Policy Plan to make this into a Public Commons that could be shared and enjoyed by all. In 2003 Oakland voters passed measure DD, a park bond, by an 80 percent margin. One of its purposes was to begin implementation of the Estuary Policy Plan.
But these citizens’ efforts were co-opted by Senate Pro-tem Don Perata who steered legislation SB1622 to strip the Tidelands Trust land designation from the 64-acre parcel. Then the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance to sell the 64 acres to a developer for a mere 18 million dollars.
The project not only sets aside the carefully drafted Estuary Policy Plan that was approved unanimously in 1999 by the then sitting City Council, it is a public rip-off of historic proportions. Which is why, in a burst of community fervor, a group of citizens mobilized to petition for a referendum. Twenty-five thousand and eighty-six signatures were collected which would have permitted citizens to vote on the matter.
However, the city attorney thwarted the citizens’ efforts. He first disqualified the petition claiming that the ordinance that the petitioners used was invalid, even though it was taken from the official city site. Then the city attorney claimed that the petition was invalid because non-residents gathered some of the signatures, although statutes requiring that the circulator of a city referendum be resident and eligible to vote in the city were subsequently found unconstitutional by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in a similar case in San Clemente.
The citizens of Oakland had a vision for the Oak to Ninth. They voted for Measure DD by an overwhelming margin, and 25,086 citizens signed the referendum petition; however, they have been thwarted by their own elected officials.
Oakland desperately needs leadership, such as shown by Montgomery Ward, which has the vision and courage to bring the Estuary Policy Plan to fruition.
If we allow the current Oak-to-Ninth development proposal to go forward, with 3,100 condominium units on the last of Oakland’s waterfront, our city will indeed become a place about which has been famously said, “There is no there there.”
Akio Tanaka is a Berkeley resident.