Privatizing the Public City

Oakland’s Lopsided Boom

Aerial view of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay looking west over Lake Merritt, c. 1934. The Municipal Auditorium is visible at the south end of the lake; directly across Lake Merritt Channel is the Oakland Unified School District headquarters. [Wikimedia Commons]

In a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, Kevin Baker looks at a familiar story, the disconcerting transformation of a coastal American city into an enclave built by and for the wealthy. At issue is not simply “the astounding rise in housing prices, disruptive as that is. It is also the wholesale destruction of the public city.” 1 The public city, as he describes it, should be made up of more than residential mega-developments and office towers. It should encompass investment in parks and libraries, subway lines and recreation centers, amenities for all socioeconomic classes. Baker is writing about New York. But he could as easily be discussing the San Francisco Bay Area — certainly San Francisco and, more recently, Oakland, the city where I live and whose urban planning and development I have studied for many years.

Oakland is booming again. But public entities seem to have lost the ability to shape the city as a civic environment.

It’s not only my own experience that makes Oakland apt as a case study of the public city in jeopardy. In this era of what Baker calls “the urban crisis of affluence,” we need to acknowledge the particular importance of mid-sized cities in the orbit of larger ones, moving past the relentless focus on global megalopolises and attending to the second-tier municipalities where most working people live. Oakland has long been the poor relation across the bay from San Francisco, making it particularly vulnerable to overspill from gentrifying San Francisco, much as it was earlier neglected in the postwar suburban migration. It is, moreover, a fascinating place in its own right, the home of Jack London, Julia Morgan, Gertrude Stein, and Earl Warren, the Black Panthers and Ishmael Reed; where recent mayors have included Jerry Brown (1997-2007) — four-time governor of California. Spared the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, Oakland boasts the Bay Area’s greatest array of building types — from warehouses to office high rises to movie theaters to single-family homes — and vintages — including Victorian, Beaux Arts, Art Deco, and modernist exemplars. In a few years, its densely built, mixed-use downtown may be one of the most active and pleasant in the western United States.

Lake Merritt, c. 1900.
Photolithograph of Lake Merritt, c. 1890-1905. [Wikimedia Commons]

Atlas development, 2018.
Atlas development, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

In earlier boom cycles here, market-driven development was accompanied by public investment. Oakland in the 1910s saw the construction of civic buildings like City Hall (1914) and the Municipal Auditorium (1915), spearheaded by Mayor Frank Mott. In the Depression years, a local bond issue augmented by support from the federal Public Works Administration funded the rebuilding of the Alameda County Superior Courthouse (1936), complete with murals and sculpture by Works Progress Administration artists. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District brought together counties on both sides of the bay to plan and build the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, or BART. 2

For the past five years or more, the regional economy has been among the strongest in the country, and Oakland is booming again as it has boomed before. Nowadays, however, public entities seem to have lost the ability to shape the city as a civic environment. The downtown skyline is being reshaped by real-estate speculation, and this is both good and bad. The increased density and activity that will be generated by the new office and residential towers is wonderful. The neglect of other civic functions like transportation, public schools, and parks is troubling.

The profound changes in Oakland exemplify the national trend toward urban development geared to the rich.

I wanted to make sense of this profound change and its historical resonances, one building at a time. So I set out on a walk that began at 14th Street and Broadway downtown, and moved east toward Lake Merritt Channel. This zone — with its upscale new residences, deserted public buildings, and homeless people’s tents beside the lake — occupies a narrow oblong, extending less than a mile from the center of downtown to its eastern edge. It exemplifies the national trend toward urban development geared to the rich while neglecting other economic classes and the civic environment. 3

Evidence of imbalance piles up quickly as I walk east from Broadway toward the lake, and I pass one residential construction site after another. Just beyond my starting point, at 1314 Franklin Street, a chain-link fence wraps an entire block — once the two-story Merchant’s Parking Garage, now a web of concrete floor slabs with cranes pointing skyward. By the end of this year, the tower portion of the 633-unit Atlas apartment complex will top out at 40 stories and become Oakland’s tallest building. A few blocks further, I come upon another full-block development at 226 13th Street, where signage touts 261 more housing units. Like those at the Atlas, dwellings in the six-story building on 13th Street will be market rate — whether for rent or sale remains to be seen, since developers often don’t disclose until late in the process whether a building will contain condos or not. This particular development partnership has also agreed to fund 60 affordable units elsewhere in the neighborhood, which is something of a milestone. Impact fees subsidizing such units were approved by the city in 2016, and nearly doubled in 2018; many earlier projects had no affordable-housing component at all. 4 Some recent deals involving public land — for example, residential towers adjacent to BART stations — approach an affordable-housing quotient of 20%. But overall, just 7% of the units currently under construction in Oakland are deemed affordable. 5 That works out to 638 in a total 9,304 units. 6

Evidence of imbalance piles up quickly on a walk from the downtown core toward Lake Merritt.

Such trends in the emerging housing market are alarming enough. But the uncertain future will also have to confront a still-haunting past, and by the time I reach the lake itself, contemporary developer drama sinks back into longstanding desolation. Adjacent to Peralta Park beside Lake Merritt, the Municipal Auditorium that helped to bring Oakland into the 20th century still stands, a Beaux Arts hall graced by bas-reliefs celebrating agriculture, the arts, and industry. When it opened in 1915, it served as Oakland’s sports arena, ballroom, theater, and art gallery. A major renovation took place in 1984, after which the Auditorium was renamed the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. But since 2006 it has stood vacant, victim of perennial budget crises. For a time, the block-long building became the empty center of a homeless encampment, with tents huddled in each arched bay of its sculptured façade. Then the squatters were moved out and a fence erected; recently, the city installed twenty Tuff Sheds in the parking lot. At 120 square feet each, the pre-fab structures are the size of small garden sheds, and each houses two homeless persons. 7 Each time I come by, though, the improvised encampments are still there, outside the fence.

Oakland Convention Center with housing for homeless persons.
Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center with Tuff Sheds, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

Homeless people's tents under bridge.
Tents along Lake Merritt Channel under 12th Street Bridge, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

Oakland Unified School District headquarters
Oakland Unified School District headquarters, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

I cross the bridge over the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the bay and reach 1025 Second Avenue. More tents line the Channel, and more chain-link wraps another block. Rather than heralding yet another glistening tower, though, this fence too guards a derelict city institution: the forsaken headquarters of the Oakland Unified School District. In place of cranes and fresh concrete, courses of cracked and weathered aggregate are visible beneath crusted white paint. Across the stolid three-part block, windows are boarded up or painted over. Built in 1929 and badly damaged by a flood in 2013 (caused by a broken faucet in a janitor’s closet), the campus was supposed to receive a $49-million-dollar refurbishment. Announced in 2016, the plan has yet to make headway. The OUSD has bigger problems, including intransigent budget deficits, layoffs, school closures, and, last February, a seven-day teachers’ strike. 8

Thousands of new apartments, condos, hotels, and offices are in the works. I welcome them. But it’s critical to measure such expansion against what’s not happening

Since the Bay Area began its climb out of the Great Recession, downtown Oakland and its environs have witnessed the greatest intensification of development since the 1960s — significantly larger than the boomlet under Mayor Jerry Brown in the early 2000s. The projects I pass on my walk toward the lake are just some of the more than three dozen currently active construction sites in the center of town, which promise thousands of new apartments, condominiums, hotels and offices. Many are high-rises, and some will compare with the 40-story Atlas as among the tallest in the city. I welcome them. The mix of residential and commercial density portends an active, 24/7 milieu. After decades of disinvestment and slack housing production, juxtaposed with exponential regional job growth, it’s high time that downtown Oakland capitalizes on its excellent existing transportation links. It is critical, nevertheless, to measure such expansion against what’s not happening. Unlike the growth spurt in the 1960s, or the lengthier era of prosperity that lasted from 1906 to 1929, today’s lopsided boom incorporates few truly ambitious plans. Expanded rail and bus networks, education systems, parks, and civic buildings — active ingredients in earlier times of city-making — are largely absent. The myriad interrelated functions that maintain a public city are being neglected.

Across the last century, Oakland boomed several times, although the resulting development patterns could be highly uneven — in particular with respect to class and race. When the Municipal Auditorium opened in the midst of World War I, it epitomized the vision of Mayor Mott, who sought to endow his constituency with monuments worthy of the nationwide City Beautiful Movement. Another of Mott’s pet projects, City Hall, was for a time the tallest city hall in the United States, an efficient 320-foot office high-rise framed by a colonnaded entrance and crowned by a cupola. Mott — who was hailed as “The Builder of Modern Oakland” — also acquired 45 acres for a park ringing Lake Merritt, soon graced with fountains, pergolas, and a bandshell. During the long, laissez-faire tenure of John Davie, who followed Mott as mayor, such beneficent gestures became less frequent. Yet Oakland was up and coming. Population prior to the earthquake of 1906 had been approximately 75,000; by 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, school enrollment alone stood at 55,000, and construction began on the OUSD headquarters. 9

Municipal Auditorium, Oakland, c. 1930-1945
Municipal Auditorium, c. 1930-1945. [Wikimedia Commons]

Influenza ward in Municipal Auditorium, Oakland, 1918.
Municipal Auditorium in use as an emergency ward during the influenza epidemic, 1918. [Wikimedia Commons]

The earthquake and fire had fueled the expansion. Refugees escaped across the bay, doubling Oakland’s population within the year, and setting the stage for spectacular growth in the coming decades. Electric-traction streetcars and interurbans transported Oaklanders to the undeveloped far reaches of what had been farmsteads or wild land, and skimmed them across the water via rail-linked ferries to a rebuilding San Francisco. Eastern industries found a promising location for branch plants: General Electric, General Motors, Carnation, Shredded Wheat. Federal contracts for naval vessels during the First World War turned the estuary into a chain of humming shipyards. Downtown, office buildings, movie theaters, department stores, hotels, and dance halls electrified the street and raised the skyline. Housing stock expanded exponentially; through the 1920s, the city added apartments, residential hotels, and bungalow subdivisions, along with fancier homes in the lower hills. Production was addressed to a broad spectrum of upper-, middle- and working-class populations, and enhanced by the interrelated growth of other urban functions: transportation infrastructure spawning subdivisions; manufacturing plants and offices providing employment; civic beautifications like Mott’s adding elements of a fuller urban life.

The earthquake had fueled the expansion, setting the stage for spectacular growth in the coming decades.

The 1960s boom was similarly nurtured by linked expansions that encouraged urban density and supported public spaces. Indeed, the public sector was now far more involved in city-making. Federal and state funding helped to build four freeways, tying Oakland to the region and to the interstate system. A new inter-county agency, AC Transit, began to run public East Bay buses. BART, completed in 1974, included eight Oakland stations. Under the aegis of the Port of Oakland, the seaport and airport were upgraded, with a new jetport and pioneering container port constructed on bay fill. The East Bay Regional Parks District, founded in the 1930s, continued to acquire vast tracts for parklands in the upper hills and began to expand its holdings along the shoreline as it deindustrialized. Private power brokers — notably the Knowlands of the Oakland Tribune; the Bechtels with their global engineering outfit; and the Kaiser family, whose Kaiser Industries comprise interests in steel, concrete, aluminum, healthcare, and more — acted on behalf of civic projects, and it was with their help that three small and inadequate museums merged to form the Oakland Museum of California, which soon commissioned a modern building-as-landscape between the Municipal Auditorium and City Hall beside the lake. Oakland was suddenly on the national sports pages, fielding professional teams in baseball, football, basketball, and, for a shorter period, hockey; in 1966, the city built both the 53,000-seat Coliseum and 15,000-seat Arena. 10 Middle- and upper-middle class apartments sprang up around the lake and in the lower hills. In the upper hills, single-family homes and planned unit developments proliferated, while in the flatlands, the construction of public housing accelerated. Public-private urban renewal programs led to thousands of new units at Clinton Park east of the lake and in the Acorn and Oak Center neighborhoods in West Oakland.

The 1960s surge took place amid startling demographic change, and consequences were mixed, especially with regard to race relations and economic equity.

The consequences of this mid-century growth were ambivalent, especially with regard to race relations and economic equity. Compared to the turn-of-the-century upturn in an era when Oakland’s population was well over 90% white, the 1960s surge took place amid startling demographic change. Blacks had begun to migrate in large numbers to work in war industries; less than 3% of the population in 1940, their numbers rose to over 47% by 1980. In the interim, white flight to the suburbs and upper hills opened existing housing across the flatlands to black settlement — a process known as “filtering.” (In America’s privatized housing industry, such filtering of older housing, due to price advantages in comparison with freshly built and hence more expensive housing, has been the predominant mechanism for providing lower-cost rents and purchase prices across the country). At the same time, urban renewal in poor black neighborhoods led to far more housing displacements than replacements. Downtown urban renewal plans had aimed to build a phalanx of office high-rises alongside a suburban-style shopping mall. Large parts of the plan went unrealized, but the long-established if ailing retail corridor along Washington Street was nevertheless destroyed. West Oakland’s 7th Street commercial district, which had served the surrounding black community for decades, met a similar fate. Freeway and BART construction caused more demolitions and relocations, as thousands of low-rent apartments and single-room-occupancy hotels were bulldozed out of existence.

Oakland Master Plan map, 1956
Proposed Amendment to the Civic Center and Lake Merritt Improvement Section of the Oakland Master Plan, October, 1956. [via Eric Fischer]

This postwar epoch of sanctioned racism, combined with big but unpopular public projects, eventually provoked political upheaval. The planning oligarchy of white business owners was coming to an end. In its place came advocacy for community-based planning, as Black Power protests morphed into electoral politics. Explaining that “you can’t drop out of the system,” former Black Panther Bobby Seale ran for mayor in 1973, and nearly won. 11 Four years later, Lionel Wilson — the first African-American judge appointed to the bench in California — became the city’s first black mayor.

Related reactions against big business planning were occurring across the country, including in San Francisco, where through the 1960s and ’70s citizens instigated a freeway revolt and later an insurgency against urban renewal and office-skyscraper development — or, as the latter was popularly known, Manhattanization. This proclivity to protest hardened over the ensuing decades in San Francisco, Berkeley, and other well-to-do parts of the Bay Area, as neighborhood groups tended to micro-manage any new project that might, in their view, change the city’s character, worsen traffic, block views, or reduce the number of streetside parking spaces. The NIMBY era had arrived, and it would become one of the prime causes of today’s housing crisis.

San Pablo Avenue, Oakland, 2018
San Pablo Avenue, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

Such lifestyle reactions from predominantly white and affluent constituents were quite different from the preoccupations paramount in Oakland. While San Francisco’s downtown prospered with scores of new office buildings, Oakland’s grew at a far slower pace. As Berkeley celebrated the rise of a neighborhood known as the Gourmet Ghetto (home to a new food culture made famous by enterprises like Peets Coffee and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse), Oakland experienced an almost total retail collapse, becoming one of the largest underserved retail-trade areas in the country. 12 San Francisco transitioned from a multi-class, multi-occupational city to an economy dominated by tourism and professionalized employment. Berkeley shed much of its industry, yet prospered as a college town. All the while, Oakland remained mired in urban ills stemming from racist practices, as if it were part of another region altogether: financial disinvestment; building deterioration and abandonment; defunct (if recently completed) shopping centers; failing schools; high rates of unemployment and crime. Granted, Oakland had become the Bay Area’s principal seaport. But that economic success was far outweighed by the closure or exodus of much of the city’s manufacturing sector; by the 1980s, General Motors, General Electric, Carnation, and Shredded Wheat had all shut down their local operations. So too had the city’s three military bases, a source of jobs for African Americans since the war years.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, Oakland hemorrhaged industries, jobs, and taxpayers.

Private investment during the 1960s improved only parts of Oakland. Indeed, it exacerbated the divide between the wealthy white hills and the poorer flatlands: the former received ample investment while, in the latter, redlining and disinvestment were the norm. Nor had public ventures like urban renewal improved the flats or downtown, for these programs too focused primarily on turning Oakland into a white-collar city like San Francisco. That aim failed miserably. From the 1960s through the 1990s, Oakland hemorrhaged industries, jobs, and taxpayers.

For decades, one Oakland mayor after another, one developer after another, one newspaper scoop after another, announced that fortunes were turning in the city that calls itself the Town. Yet what came next was always as bleak as what came before. In 1995, Ishmael Reed introduced an Oakland-centric anthology of essays by telling readers that “Oakland is at the crossroads” — then a few pages later concluded that, given the lack of positive signs, “the much-touted downtown renaissance hasn’t materialized.” 13 By 1998, city councilman John Russo was advising cautiously, “I think small is the way to go,” adding, “in the past, Oakland always said a project is going to come along that will fix everything. But I think we’ve matured to the point that we realize there is no one project that will do that.” 14

Novelist Ishmael Reed wrote in 1995, ‘Oakland is at the crossroads’ — then concluded that ‘the much-touted downtown renaissance hasn’t materialized.’

Jerry Brown was elected mayor in the same year that Russo made this pronouncement, and he did push modest residential projects to revitalize the suffering downtown. Brown acknowledged the cruel reality of urban development in an era when government monies had dried up and private-sector capital was prioritizing narrow, fiscal objectives. Ironically, as California’s governor, Brown would contribute to this trend in 2011 by killing the urban redevelopment program. The program’s achievements had been mixed. But with it died the last vestige of substantial government involvement in the support and expansion of the public city.

In each successive Oakland boom — in the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 2010s — the market for new units had constricted with respect to class, to the point where contemporary residential developers target just the wealthiest 10 or 20%. Causes for this current crunch reach back to the passage of California Proposition 13 in 1978, which synergized with the election of Ronald Reagan as President to inaugurate decades of tax cuts. A shortage of level, buildable sites in the inner Bay Area has escalated land costs, which intersect with spiraling costs in labor and materials; regulations intended to curb the excesses of earlier large-scale planning have produced an onerous permit-and-approvals that is further complicated by lengthy legal challenges and ongoing NIMBY resistance to density and multiple-unit buildings. Breakneck growth in the tech sector has worsened the longstanding housing shortage.

Oakland City Hall; Fox Theater.
Oakland City Hall, 1917 [Wikimedia Commons]; Fox Theater, 2018. [Wikimedia Commons]

As mayor, Brown adapted to this privatized culture by announcing a plan to assist developers in the construction of small and mid-sized residential buildings around Oakland’s core. His initiative sought to accommodate 10,000 new residents — the 10K plan. (Brown famously said that he wanted people to move downtown, and he was a man of his word: A few years before being elected mayor, he had sold his house in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacific Heights district and moved to a rebuilt warehouse in Jack London Square.) The 10K plan mostly worked. By the end of Brown’s second term in 2006, housing developments were rising by Lake Merritt, in Uptown, Old Oakland, Chinatown, and in the mayor’s new neighborhood along the waterfront. New residents brought energy and capital to a grid of tired, often empty storefronts. The ornate Fox Theater was restored as a concert venue and began to attract national acts. Restaurants, bars, and shopping opened up. Buoyed by private monies, parts of downtown Oakland were at last on the upswing again.

It was in the midst of this minor renaissance that the Convention Center shut down, and the Great Recession turned the investment spigot off. But by the mid 2010s, cash began to flow again. Silicon Valley was enveloping San Francisco, and scores of priced-out businesses relocated to Oakland. Non-profits and creative professionals came too, occupying older office buildings with smaller floor-plates and lower rents. The Sierra Club arrived in 2016, having fled a rent increase of $1.5 million per year at their San Francisco address. 15 Sunset Magazine, long headquartered in Menlo Park, relocated to Jack London Square. Architects, engineers, and lawyers followed. The good deals couldn’t last; by spring 2018, Oakland had the tightest office market in the country, with a vacancy rate even lower than San Francisco’s. Average A-class rents were $54 a square foot. 16

Buoyed by private monies, downtown was at last on the upswing. By spring 2018, Oakland had the tightest office market in the country.

Limited supply and vigorous demand at least made high-rise office construction viable. In 2017, Shorenstein Properties commenced construction of a 24-story skyscraper at 601 City Center, which would finally complete the City Center urban-renewal plan devised in the 1960s. A year later, Ellis Partners broke ground for The Key at 12th, an 18-story structure on Broadway. These private enterprises were the first new office buildings built downtown in more than a decade. At the end of this year, when renovations are complete on the old H.C. Capwell department store, it will be occupied by the digital-payment company Square — the largest tech company to set up shop in Oakland so far.

Oakland Sears store being converted to offices, 2018.
The former H.C. Capwell department store, later a Sears, now being converted to tech-company offices, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

San Franciscans in search of housing had also been moving in. In 2002, after looking in vain to buy a single-family house that was not next door to a firehouse, or afflicted with bedrooms that couldn’t fit a queen-sized bed and still allow the door to open, my wife and I began looking in Oakland. We soon realized that we could buy the same kind of property for a little more than half what we would have paid across the Bay in what has come to be called the City. Meeting new neighbors in the Grand Lake neighborhood, we discovered that they too had recently moved from the very same part of San Francisco — Noe Valley.

1640 Broadway, Oakland, 2018.
1640 Broadway, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

1700 Webster and City Center, Oakland, 2018.
1700 Webster and 601 City Center, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

So a trickle turned into a current and then a torrent. In 2010, Oakland’s rental vacancy rate was 6.6% and the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,050. By the summer of 2018, the vacancy rate had dropped beneath 2.5% with rent at $2,125 a month, while the median sales price for a home skyrocketed from about $250,000 in 2012 to over $700,000 in 2018. Housing production was simply not keeping pace with job growth. Over the past decade, 190,000 technology jobs have been created in the region; in 2018 alone, 18.2 million square feet of office space came on line — tops in the nation. Nevertheless, over this period, just one housing unit has been created for every six new jobs. 17 Private monies are creating employment, but they aren’t building enough housing, especially not for those who don’t earn tech-sector salaries.

In the past decade, just one housing unit has been created for every six new jobs. No wonder the Town resembles the City more every year.

No wonder the Town resembles the City more every year — both in its glamour and its grunge. Before 2015, the homeless population in Oakland was apparent, but not conspicuous. Since then, its growth has become a pressing issue. Several thousand people now live on sidewalks and in other public spaces. Tent and tarp encampments like those along Lake Merritt Channel have sprung up beneath freeway overpasses, alongside railroad right-of-ways, and across parklands. Panhandlers jostle for choice spots at traffic intersections and on sidewalks. Public space is suffused with poverty and its ailments.

Homeless encampment, Oakland, 2018
Encampment beside Lake Merritt Channel, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

The current Oakland mayor, Libby Schaaf, has sought to address the crisis by following the precedent of Brown’s 10K plan. Schaaf promotes a 17K/17K plan: 17,000 new housing units and 17,000 existing units protected against excessive rent increases and evictions. As of late 2018, over 9,000 units were under construction and 7,900 more are in the pipeline. 18 Catalyzed by the city’s Broadway Valdez District Specific Plan, an entirely new residential district of close to 3,000 units in 20 buildings is rising north of downtown, replacing former auto dealerships and garages. In the downtown core itself, several residential high-rises have recently been completed, while many more are soon to break ground. Four new hotels will soon provide businesspeople and tourists a wider range of places to stay.

Such residential projects make sense, especially along the city’s key corridor. Close to the 12th and 19th Street BART stations, a high-density if affluent residential core will add life to downtown and thereby benefit the whole municipality; as demonstrated by Brown’s 10K plan, daytime office workers are not enough to stimulate business and cultural creation. Residents are needed, too, to generate an atmosphere of safety and excitement on the streets. The emerging combination of from-the-ground-up projects and renovated older buildings is also promising. To date, the development wave has spread up Broadway and Telegraph Avenues toward the expensive neighborhoods of Rockridge and Temescal. A high-density transit village of almost 1,000 units is rising atop the MacArthur BART parking structure in Temescal; the resulting 26-story tower will become the tallest building in the city outside downtown.

Development has been noticeably slower on other major arteries, however. Describing a contemporary BART ride to East Oakland in the flatlands, the novelist Tommy Orange laments:

The train emerges, rises out of the underground tube in the Fruitvale district, over by that Burger King and the terrible Pho place, where East Twelfth and International almost merge, where the graffitied apartment walls and abandoned houses, warehouses, and auto body shops appear, loom in the train window, stubbornly resist like deadweight all of Oakland’s new development. 19

Capital is flowing into areas that private real-estate sees as good investments. With few exceptions, though, market forces continue to bypass the poor and working-class areas of Oakland that have long suffered disinvestment, and public investment has flatlined.

Overall, Oakland’s parks are in sorry state. Deferred maintenance afflicts most of them.

One rare counter-example is Measure DD — a $198-million city bond in support of clean water and safe parks, passed in 2002. The bulk of the money was spent on improvements to parks surrounding Lake Merritt and the lake’s connections to the estuary and bay. A six-lane roadway and four acres of parkland replaced a 12-lane freeway maze; new bridges replaced culverts, improving water flow. But even this success has had downsides, including the clusters of unhoused Oaklanders living along the channel and under the new bridges. A multi-acre lot, created when the roadways were narrowed, could have been incorporated into the larger lakeside park. But in 2005 the city put the lot up for sale. Plans emerged for a tower with 298 market-rate rental units starting at roughly $3,000 a month. Grassroots opposition stopped the deal, and in 2016 the city approved a 361-unit tower with 108 apartments classified as affordable. It’s still not underway. Weeds and more scattered tents occupy the field. With so few parks in the densely populated flatlands, wouldn’t it have made more sense to use that land for a soccer field or basketball courts?

Estuary Park, Oakland, 2014
Estuary Park, 2014. [Wikimedia Commons]

Overall, Oakland’s parks are in sorry state. Deferred maintenance afflicts most of them. At the mouth of the channel, the crumbling trellises and benches of Estuary Park, built in the 1970s, await a long-promised restoration. Along the channel by Laney College, a sculpture trail commissioned in the late 1970s by the Oakland Museum — including works by Mark di Suvero and Michael Heizer — has deteriorated into ruin. Further up the estuary across from Coast Guard Island, the Mexican landscape architect Mario Schjetnan collaborated with artist Ned Kahn in 2006 to design the nine-acre Union Point Park on remediated landfill. 20 Starved of funds, even this new amenity has already degraded.

Mass-transportation projects have been in a worrisome holding pattern. The inner East Bay has not added one mile of rail transit, and no plans are in the works.

New mass-transportation projects have been in a similarly worrisome holding pattern. Over the past quarter century, one California city after the other has launched light-rail lines: Long Beach; Los Angeles; Sacramento; San Diego; San Francisco; San Jose. Yet the inner East Bay has not added one mile of rail transit, and no plans are in the works. A bus rapid transit line is currently under construction on International Boulevard in East Oakland. But local residents and businesses, fearing the loss of parking spaces and reduction of capacity for cars, stopped its continuation along Telegraph Avenue into North Oakland. In 2017, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission issued the Bay Area Core Capacity Transit Study, acknowledging that a regional population increase of approximately two million persons by 2040 could in no way be met by present-day transportation infrastructure — especially inasmuch as freeways, bridges, and the transbay BART tube are already at over-capacity. The report envisions a second transbay tube, plus a couple of new stops each in San Francisco and Oakland. Yet even these modest plans have no timeline or funding. We could still be waiting for the new transbay tube in 2040.

Artist's conception of BART station, 1963
Artist’s conception of a Bay Area Rapid Transit District station, 1963 [via Eric Fischer]

Map of 2nd BART Transbay Tube.
Study area for second BART Transbay Tube. [San Francisco County Transportation Authority]

As parks and transportation projects stall, private forces are advancing even into spaces that were previously public. Another ballot initiative, Measure N, failed in 2006 — the $143-million bond would have moved the main branch of the Oakland Public Library to the vacant Convention Center. Instead, the building sat empty for almost another decade. Finally, in 2015, the city chose Orton Development to renovate it, with plans to restore the Calvin Simmons Theater as a slightly smaller venue, and to revamp the former 5,492-seat arena as private offices. Some of these workspaces are to be made available to arts and cultural organizations. Still, when construction at last commences later this year, a formerly public gathering place will be privatized — a sad loss for Oakland’s civic environment in the very edifice where civic enrichment was heralded over a century ago.

Oakland is suffering further significant institutional losses. Prosperous arrivals from San Francisco are not making up for the demise of the old philanthropic elite or once active governmental forces. Several longstanding organizations will soon leave town: the Raiders football franchise decamps for Las Vegas after the 2019 season; this October, the NBA champion Golden State Warriors will relocate to the new Chase Center in San Francisco; plans for new Oakland stadium to house the Town’s remaining national franchise, the Oakland A’s, face obstacles. The California College of the Arts, based in the Rockridge neighborhood since the 1920s, will soon shutter its Oakland campus and consolidate at an expanded site in San Francisco.

These disappearances do more than impoverish options for entertainment or education; they epitomize the decline in civic discourse. Journalists are not reporting on Oakland in the ways that they once did. Many building projects are simply not covered. Nor are pressing urban issues debated. In 2016, the Bay Area News Group, owners of the Oakland Tribune, merged the paper with the Contra Costa Times to establish the East Bay Times, with operations based in the wealthy suburb of Walnut Creek. Coverage of Oakland — already impaired due to newsroom cuts affecting the entire industry — declined precipitously. In January of this year, the weekly East Bay Express laid off most of its editorial staff, decimating another important forum for Oakland news. Nor does Oakland possess a vibrant online news-and-culture site like Berkeleyside. Absent a robust civic discourse — in print or online — it is hard to generate the awareness, passion, and pressure needed for renewed public investment.

Saddest of all, the severity of the housing crisis has caused change itself — the normative condition in cities — to seem like a harbinger of ill tidings.

And so I find myself standing once again where I left off on my downtown tour, outside the boarded-up OUSD headquarters. The sight speaks volumes about the waning of area public schools. Oakland’s student population had held for years at around 50,000. By 2017, however, it fell below 35,000. One of every four students leaves the system after elementary school, with families opting instead for charter and private schools, or public schools in another city. 21 A decline that began amid white flight in the 1960s has become a chronic problem compounded of poorly maintained facilities, shrinking programs, school closures, and teacher discontent. At least, a few years ago, educators could find homes in the communities they serve. “No one was getting rich being a teacher, but you could afford to live in Oakland,” notes Carmelita Reyes, principal of International High School. Maybe a public-school employee couldn’t buy a house, but now “teachers can’t afford an apartment.” 22 In 2018, workers in Alameda County needed to earn approximately $50 an hour to meet the median rent of $2,500 a month. 23

Saddest of all, the severity of the housing crisis has caused change itself — the normative condition in cities — to seem like a harbinger of ill tidings. Many Oaklanders have learned to view construction fencing, or a creek day-lighted and cleared of trash, or new bicycle lanes, or a bus rapid transit line, as unwelcome signs of gentrification and displacement. Real estate ads pump up property values by touting low crime rates, access to good schools, and high neighborhood walking scores (i.e., a short jaunt to restaurants, grocery stores, and mass transit). But, lately, improvements in such quality-of-life measures signal that a neighborhood will become desirable, and exclusive — and hence, for some on the brink of housing insolvency, an improved public city is no improvement at all. Indeed, such disgruntled persons have taken to committing arson at construction sites. Since 2016, arson-related fires have decimated at least six residential construction sites in Oakland and nearby Emeryville. Construction for over 500 units has had to start over, likely raising insurance rates and eventual price points.

Development billboard, Oakland, 2018
Billboard for Ice House Residence II development, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

Oakland development after fire, 2018
Ice House Residence II construction site after fire, November 2018. [Mitchell Schwarzer]

One of these destroyed sites, the 124-unit Ice House Residence II in West Oakland, had been marked by a billboard announcing units with purchase prices “from the mid $600,000s.” At other buildings recently completed nearby, monthly rents range as high as $5,200. It’s true that such projects relieve pressure on older units and contribute to the filtering process that has long been, for better or worse, the supplier of housing to working- and middle-class Americans. But it is increasingly common to hear longtime residents voice nostalgia for the days when Oakland was bypassed by global capital flows, when downtown was a dead zone in the dark hours, and cranes were seen only at the Port — when the all-too-gritty reality of the Town kept investors away.

What, finally, is to be done? First and foremost, a monumental program for developing affordable housing must rank at the top of the agenda. Otherwise, what should be an economic success story, a city and region attracting hordes of educated workers and high-wage industries, will continue to produce a housing crisis whose costs are an exploding homeless population; a talent drain to other regions as artists, firefighters, nurses, and teachers are forced out; and an ever-increasing number of low- and mid-wage workers faced with grueling hours on jammed freeways and overcrowded BART trains as they commute to cheaper housing far inland. Second, public improvements such as transportation infrastructure must be prioritized. The Bay Area needs to consolidate its fragmented public sector: no other region in the nation has housing agencies, transportation agencies, and governmental bodies so divided and focused on their individual — not regional — needs. Third, the Bay Area’s largely educated and politically progressive population needs to enlighten itself about the realities of living in a world-class public city in the 21st century. Most folks oppose suburban sprawl into wild lands and farms. Most enjoy vital urban centers, and understand the need for affordable housing. Most celebrate class and ethnic diversity. Yet the NIMBY attitude spawned in the era of overreaching public projects remains powerful. It is simply not possible to have it both ways, attaining cosmopolitan complexity while enjoying what amounts to a suburban-style life.

Black Panther Party, Oakland, 2006
Reunion of the Black Panther Party, Alameda County Courthouse, 2006. [Wikimedia Commons]

Solving the housing crisis, then, is a matter of Realpolitik; of facing the worsening situation with a data-driven analysis that will detail projected growth in population and jobs, and allow us all to see the need for higher urban densities as compared to unsustainable exurban sprawl and spiraling costs. We need a renewed commitment to the shared urban environment, and not an apathetic or selfish acceptance of corporatized and privatized existence. We can live in denser circumstances. We can act more communally. We can afford large-scale public investments in housing and transportation. We can distribute the great wealth of the region more fairly. After all, the Bay Area economy has been growing at double the national rate. The region currently attracts 45% of all venture capital in the United States. The number of local billionaires is now the third highest in the world, just after New York and Hong Kong. Oakland is faced with a crisis unlike any in its history, a crisis that threatens to turn the Bay Area — long an aspirational home for immigrants and American migrants alike, for folks of every class — into a homogenized workstation-slash-playground for the rich. The time to act is now.

  1. Kevin Baker, “The Death of a Once Great City: The Fall of New York and the Urban Crisis of Affluence,” Harper’s Magazine no. 337 (July 2018): 27.
  2. The District was formed in 1957; the five counties are Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo. See, “A History of BART.”
  3. On the greater impact of the technology boom on the Bay Area, see Richard Walker, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (Oakland: PM Press, 2018); and Cary McClelland, Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).
  4. See City of Oakland, “Impact Fees.” Further rises are contemplated in the next few years.
  5. Impact fees have traditionally helped to pay for services required in the development process, such as staff at planning and building departments, and to offset the public costs of new infrastructure. Fees can also help to provide for a public good such as art or affordable housing. In Oakland, fees are highest in economically vibrant areas like downtown. See Terner Center for Housing Innovation, “It all Adds Up: The Cost of Housing Development Fees in Seven California Cities” (Berkeley, March 2018), 6, 16.
  6. Marisa Kendall, “Oakland Isn’t Even Close to Meeting its Lofty Affordable Housing Goal,” East Bay Times (March 12, 2019), and Robert Gammon, “Where’s the Affordable Housing,” East Bay Express (December 19, 2018).
  7. On the ongoing program, see Darwin Bond/Graham and Daniel Lempres, “Oakland’s Tuff Shed Program, by the Numbers,” East Bay Express (October 16, 2018).
  8. See Alexia Fernandez Campbell, “Oakland teachers return to class after 7-day strike.  Here’s what they won — and lost,” Vox (March 2, 2019).
  9. The building’s four stories of reinforced-concrete construction were “unique in that the partitions between the rooms and corridors are paneled with wood and glass built in sections and are movable, thus furnishing the building with ample light throughout,” “Teachers Will Play Host at New Building,” San Francisco Chronicle (October 5, 1929).
  10. The new stadiums were built in partnership with Alameda County. Seating at both was expanded in the 1990s.
  11. “Oakland Mayoral Candidate Bobby Seale: ‘You Can’t Drop Out of the System,’”Ann Arbor Sun, April 23, 1973.
  12. “Bridging the Retail Gap,” Redeveloping Oakland 3.1 (Fall 2008).
  13. Ishmael Reed, “Introduction and Commentary” in Richard Nagler, Oakland Rhapsody: The Secret Soul of an American Downtown (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995), 1, 5.
  14. Quoted in Carol Emert, “There is a There There,” San Francisco Chronicle (March 14, 1998).
  15. Bruce Hamilton,” We’re Moving to Oakland, California” Sierra Magazine (April 6, 2016).
  16. Oakland’s vacancy rate was 5.3% compared to San Francisco’s 5.7%. Blanca Torres, “Downtown Oakland’s Office Market is Now the Tightest in the Nation,” San Francisco Business Times (May 9, 2018).
  17. Louis Hansen, “Study: Bay Area Created Six Times as Many Jobs as Homes,” East Bay Times (October 22, 2018).
  18. Emily Hoeven, “Oakland’s Tallest New Residential Tower Nears Finish Line,” San Francisco Business Times (Nov. 16, 2018).
  19. Tommy Orange, There There (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 222.
  20. On Schjetnan’s works in Oakland and elsewhere, see James Grayson Truelove, ed., Ten Landscapes: Mario Schjetnan (Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2002),119-123.
  21. Tammerlin Drummond, “As Oakland Public Students Flee, Enticing new Middle School Aims to Reduce Exodus,” East Bay Times (Sept. 21, 2017).
  22. Katy Murphy, “Why the Bay Area is the Epicenter of California’s Housing Crisis,” The Mercury News (May 3, 2018).
  23. Rebecca Worby, “The Bay Area’s Affordable Housing Crisis is Only Getting Worse,” Pacific Standard (May 3, 2018).
Mitchell Schwarzer, “Privatizing the Public City,” Places Journal, May 2019. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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