For those of us who are not city planning wonks, the West Oakland Specific Plan drifted into our consciousness once the Emeryville-esque renderings began circulating the interwebs or maybe when we heard tell of the police detainments on the activists that crashed the final Planning Commission meeting a few weeks back. Or maybe we heard about the bricks the protesters threw through the window of a West Oakland coffee shop the next day. None of this peripheral imagery left us understanding what the WOSP is.
So, by way of background: Most neighborhoods have a “Plan” as a component of the city’s General Plan (Lake Merritt, Broadway/Valdez and Coliseum city are all drafting new neighborhood plans right now). These documents are, theoretically, used to reconcile the interests of all public stakeholders into one coherent vision. The Plan empowers politicians to point to a mandate, to say these were the priorities we agreed on. Components of the Plan are also used as qualifying documentation for certain federal and state grants.
It is meant to be the very tool by which the public and civil society utilize their government to harness capital run amok. When we in the activist community gripe about the city neglecting neighborhoods like West Oakland, this kind of planning attention is the investment we’re asking for. “Without the WOSP,” as Brian Beveridge of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project put it, “it’s the Wild, Wild West out here.”
The WOSP is not a spontaneous conspiracy between capitalists and politicians to impose their interests on an otherwise autonomous, organic community. It is standard bureaucratic procedure. But the process can be hijacked.
If there’s one refrain I heard more than anything else from volunteers on committees and city staffers, it was, we wish the public had come out more and earlier. We could have used their input.
That said, there were some crucial city staffers and members of the community that did show up– people who do not use wealth as a metric of neighborhood vitality but as a means to achieving certain health and security outcomes, people that want to see West Oakland nurtured, not replaced. So how did they fare in the several years-long process? Let’s look only at housing and jobs because if we get started on transportation, “green” planning, environmental health, historic preservation, public spaces and all the rest we will lose our minds.
Because West Oakland is positioned in the dead center of one of the most expensive regions for real estate in the country, it’s not hard to imagine how badly condo developers want to rezone the area to allow for more residential use á la Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In this light, it’s encouraging that the primary focus of the Plan is to preserve and promote industry.
As we’ve reported in the past, the architectural bones left over from outsourced heavy manufacturing make Oakland well prepared to thrive in the emerging industries of high-tech, “green,” low-impact manufacturing, which could translate to an abundance of living wage jobs that do not require advanced degrees. These jobs are critical for a neighborhood with higher unemployment and lower educational attainment than the citywide average.
As for retail, West Oakland has a retail leakage that amounts to approximately $470 million. Meaning residents leave their neighborhood to do most of their shopping. The argument the WOSP makes for attracting more retail is not just that the neighborhood stands to benefit from local employment opportunities as well as the sales tax revenue that gets reinvested in streetscape upkeep, but also that there is a sense of shared identity that comes when neighbors provide and take care of their basic needs together.
The most drastic measure the WOSP takes to promote industry and retail is that it has completed an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the entire neighborhood, thereby eliminating the usual hurdle of requiring developers to pay for an EIR of their own before starting something.
Some, specifically members of Advance the Struggle as published here on OL, are characterizing this as “the state facilitating the accumulation of capital” by “saving money for financial capitalists” who will raise property values– to the detriment of historic residents.
However, it’s important to point out that the EIR, which was funded by a TIGER grant, not local tax money, makes it easier for all kinds of ventures to locate in Oakland: affordable housing developments and other tenants (nonprofits, arts) that end up saddled with high development costs.
The EIR aside, members of the West Oakland Commerce Association (WOCA) are concened that other regulations in the WOSP, like a new Design Review Requirement, will hamper the ability of small businesses to compete.
According to Lauren Westreich, a WOCA board member, over-regulation tends to favor the established big guys “with the expertise, manpower and capital necessary to deal with the additional hurdles,” instead of the scrappy, enterprising new guy.
There are a few things to say about this: Big box stores like Walmarts (known as Large-Scale Combined Retail and Grocery Sales) will still be very difficult to open in the Plan area. They are only conditionally permitted at the northern end of Mandela Parkway near the border of Emeryville; Conditional Use permits require, among other things, public hearings and approval from the Planning Commission.
When it comes to big corporations with smaller sites (your Chipotle, your Lululemon) zoning is too blunt a tool to control the type of development that occurs. Though, there is always an approval process that is transparent.
There are, however, incentives and disincentives the city can set up. Naomi Schiff, who has been on the technical committee of the WOSP since the beginning, says that in the last moments before City Council approval, she’s concentrating her advocacy on the adoption of provisions to ensure that small, local businesses fill in the “Seventh Street Historic District” and the street-level parcels of the “Transit Village” project across the street. “Especially with these newly-constructed buildings, independent businesses can’t afford to occupy those spaces unless the city does something to help them,” says Schiff.
The “Historic District” is envisioned by the WOSP as a revitalized arts, retail and entertainment strip featuring a “Blues Walk of Fame.” While recognizing the penance this represents for past planning decisions that demolished the Seventh Street hub of Black culture and community, there is concern about whether a planning document can cultivate an authentic scene rather than a phony tribute. Hence, Naomi Schiff’s focus on incentivizing locally-grown enterprises specifically on that corridor. “We don’t want to Disneyland-ify it,” she says.
Unfortunately, the city cannot give or enforce discounted leases (like some are advocating) unless they own the property, which is not the case with any of the areas in the WOSP. The city can however give very, very cheap loans with Federal and boomerang funds to help local businesses start up.
Brian Beveridge of WOEIP, is advocating for the city to charge a fee to developers to recoup the cost of the EIR that was fronted on their behalf. “That fee could go towards an affordable housing fund or some kind of local business incubation program,” Beveridge suggested.
Darin Ranelletti, one of the principal planners behind the WOSP, says the city is working to devise a citywide policy for extracting this kind of fee on a discriminating basis so as to handicap only big businesses. “It just makes more sense to do that at the city level rather than targeting West Oakland alone,” he says.
This is an explanation I heard quite a bit regarding ideas not adopted.
One of the most controversial components of the WOSP is the Transit Village Development project.
The plan proposes new high-density office and residential units above retail, civic or light industrial street-level occupants. This kind of Transit-Oriented-Development is in line with “smart growth” principles meant to discourage sprawl. TOD is an important way for cities to conserve resources and reduce pollution. Living near transportation has also proven to be highly associated with class mobility and economic opportunity. For these reasons, regional planners are encouraging areas along transit corridors like West Oakland to absorb a lot of the population grown forecasted for the next twenty years. As a principle, most planners claim the only way to relieve the market pressure that results in displacement is to build more housing.
However, Beveridge of WOEIP warns that this development could become a “bedroom community insulated from the rest of the neighborhood [whose residents will] patronize the chains below them and then get on BART and leave.”
The fact is that BART hasn’t yet selected a private developer so no project proposals have been made. There are ideas for fabrication labs and green engineering spaces below smaller office spaces mixed with live/work studios, there are ideas for a big grocery store and there are city staffers and community organizations trying to figure out a way to pay for affordable housing.
The zoning in the WOSP does not preclude any of these ideas. However, it also does not preclude luxury condos.
“It’s hard to make moderately priced units pencil out for tall towers,” says Naomi Schiff. After five storeys the building must be steel or concrete framed, putting the cost of construction into a different league, which translates into expensive rental or sale prices. The height limits in the WOSP allow for towers.
“Of course we need more housing, especially family units because no one’s building for families,” says Schiff, “but there’s plenty of space for infill without towers.” To her mind, the virtues of high-density infill do not compensate for the detriment caused by an influx of expensive units.
In general, many in the housing advocacy community have charged the WOSP with doing nothing to address the threat of displacement. Gloria Bruce of East Bay Housing Organizations credits city staffers with including crucial language around affordable housing and tenants rights, but says “the WOSP does little more than list the existing services and policies that do this work already.” She says “what’s lacking is not so much language in the plan, but the funding tools and broader political will to make sure existing programs are working and to put new, robust policies in place.”
“Oakland is an outlier with respect to the fact that we have never gotten the money we spend on affordable housing from developers through inclusionary ordinances or impact fees,” says Jeffrey Levin also of EBHO. The argument that we’ll scare developers away if we ask anything of them—meanwhile real estate prices are rising at warp speed—“is losing credibility,” he says.
However, he and his colleagues at EBHO agree that adopting inclusionary ordinances and impact fee policies should be done at the citywide level and that they are stalled up on the completion of something called a Nexus study. Until the city completes this Nexus study—which it is pledging to do this year—a document like the WOSP couldn’t enforce a lot of the progressive housing policies being advocated for. What it can do is zone for residential infill, and it has.
All in all, the fate of West Oakland is largely unsealed. If you were hoping the WOSP would solve the gentrification problem, you’ll be disappointed. But if you think its adoption means the gentrifiers have won West Oakland, you’re wrong. The battle lines are just being drawn.