In one of the most contentious City Council meetings in recent memory, which included Council President Larry Reid personally attacking the credibility of three of his colleagues and repeatedly threatening to expel several members of the audience for disruption, councilmembers approved the Oak Knoll project by a vote of 5 to 3.
Public comment took up a large part of the meeting.
Andreas Cluver, Secretary-Treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, said that, in his 20 years in the construction business, “Every major project that this city has undergone, including Brooklyn Basin, the MacArthur Bart Station, and the Oakland Army Base, have always had a community benefits agreement with a project labor agreement. And as I said, this is the first time a project like this does not have that.”
Project labor agreements set labor rules between developers and unions. They can be negotiated with master developers, like Oak Knoll developer SunCal, even if the master developers plan to sell off pieces of land to other contractors, which SunCal plans to do with Oak Knoll. SunCal has said that local building trades unions should negotiate with the contractors it plans to sell plots to, but the unions don't believe many of the contractors will see a reason to include unions. The unions want a project labor agreement to ensure work on the project's construction phase.
Cluver said that the city should come up with policies and procedures in place for preventing more developers like SunCal, which has a very negative track record of working with labor and communities, from working in Oakland.
Jeff Dixon of East Bay Residents for Responsible Development and Sprinklerfitters Local 483, told councilmembers that, “Because the project does not have labor agreements, there will be limited apprenticeship opportunities for young workers and those re-entering the workforce.” He asked councilmembers, “Is this the direction you want for Oakland?”
Community activists also challenged the City Council for failing to require any affordable housing on the Oak Knoll site. Their public comments were backed up by research from the East Bay Housing Organizations, which found that over the past few years, nearly 95 percent of all building permits have been for “higher-priced market-rate housing.”
But the evening got really tense when it was time for councilmembers to express their opinions on the project.
Council President Pro Tem Abel Guillén said that the project’s Environmental Impact Report had raised a lot of questions for him about it, particularly about its infrastructure needs. He was not convinced that the existing fire stations near the project could provide sufficient coverage of the area, “so it’s difficult for me to support this, based on what I know,” Guillén said.
Guillén wanted to delay the vote, but since that wasn’t going to happen, he suggested an amendment that would require SunCal to install and construct a new fire station on or near the site. This frustrated Reid, who said he would not accept Guillén’s amendments because, “what you’re talking about now is not the conversation that we had earlier, Mr. President Pro Tem. So I will never take you for your word again as long as I sit on this body. Because the conversation we had, I respected you for being honest and upfront, so now you’re being dishonest and not genuine.”
But Guillén wasn’t the only councilmember who expressed concern. Councilmember Noel Gallo was frustrated by the lack of affordable housing on the project. He says that while everyone talks about affordable housing and equity in the city, “when the dollar stands in front of you, we all run in a different direction.”
Gallo also wanted to delay the vote so the city, community groups, and the developer could negotiate more community benefits. He then said he’d vote against the project.
Reid said that, though he respected Gallo, just as Guillen, “was being disingenuous, you’re being disingenuous. You stopped me in the hallway to tell me you were going to support this, so from now on I know to no longer take you for your word.” Gallo said that a lot more information had come to light after his conversation with Reid, so he couldn’t support it.
Councilmember Dan Kalb thanked Reid for his “sincere and genuine” efforts on the project, but said he didn’t feel the project had enough community benefits or affordable housing, especially for teachers and other moderate-income people. He also said that the idea that other trades unions could negotiate project labor agreements with the contractors Suncal sells Oak Knoll parcels to, “I have to say, is disingenuous,” because after the Council approves the project, the unions will not have any leverage with the contractors.
Kalb said that while everyone wants more housing, “This package is not ready for prime-time.”
Reid attacked Kalb much the same way as he did Guillén and Gallo. He accused Kalb of being “disingenuous” because he was running for the California Assembly.
The motion to approve the project ultimately came from Councilmember Lynnette Gibson McElhaney and Reid seconded it. Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington, Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan joined their two colleagues in supporting it. Councilmembers Noel Gallo, Abel Guillén and Dan Kalb stuck to their principles and voted against the project.