Wish List: What the New Planning and Building Director Should Focus On

By Sam Felsing---William Gilchrist, the city’s new Director of Planning and Building, is set to start his new job on Monday, Sept. 11.  

As Gilchrist gets ready to lead a department with a $34.2 million budget in fiscal year 2017-18, and a $35.5 million budget in 2018-19, he has his work cut out for him. The city and various community groups have a number of items on their wish lists for him to accomplish.

“Mr. Gilchrist’s first hundred days will be addressing the backlog in the Planning and Building Department,” wrote Karen Boyd, Oakland’s Communications Director, in an email. “That means getting the plans out for construction, continuing to enhance the coordination between Fire Prevention and Planning & Building inspectors as we launch the new module in Accela, important strategic planning efforts like the Downtown Plan, and coordination with all departments that touch the permit process, including Public Works, Fire and Transportation.”

According to his job description, Gilchrest will also focus on instituting a city-wide universal community benefits agreement for large developers and specific plan projects; and modernizing and increasing the effectiveness of the department’s code enforcement efforts, among other pressing tasks. 

Besides the tangible projects Gilchrist must work on, “[He or she should work on] development that benefits low-income residents and people of color most vulnerable to being priced out,” Jahmese Myres, an Oakland planning commissioner, said in an email just before Gilchrist was hired.

But that’s just what the city wants. 

East Bay Residents for Responsible Development (EBRRD), a coalition of four construction trade unions, wants Gilchrist to encourage a broad set of community benefits be tied to the intensification of development that often happens after the city creates specific plans for certain areas in Oakland, like the Downtown.

Specific plans dictate how construction projects in certain areas are to be built. They often help spawn more development in the areas where they’re implemented because developers know exactly what is expected of them, making it easier for them to get through certain city application and review processes. 

“William Gilchrist could do more to encourage certain community benefits be assured in specific plans. He could help make sure that developers create environmentally friendly designs, tie their projects to good public transit options, pay their workers area standard wages, and provide opportunities for apprenticeship workers to earn skills for their futures,” said Dale Cambre, a Journeyman for Sheetmetal Workers Local 104, one of the construction trade groups a part of EBRRD.

Prior to the Gilchrist’s hiring, members of the Community Coalition for Equitable Development (CCED), which includes the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Association and the Black Arts Movement and Business District, among others, sent a letter to Mayor Libby Schaaf, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth and Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio, with a laundry list of priorities for a new planning and building director.

Among the issues that CCED wants the new director to tackle are “using public land for affordable housing and community benefits,” and implementing “innovative models such as Planning Leader Institutes, Neighborhood Planning Liaisons, Registered Community Organizations, and an Equitable Development Scorecard to assess how projects will meet the city’s equity goals.” 

CCED also wants the new director to commit the department to using “planning tools such as specific plans, zoning changes, density bonuses, and incentives to leverage developer contributions for community benefits to include affordable housing, community retail space, local hire, and public open space." 

CCED member Lailan Huen confirmed that the group still hopes Gilchrist will focus on these issues.

Members of the Oakland History group on Facebook also have some requests for Gilchrist. Member Naomi Schiff believes Gilchrist should help “preserve old housing stock in West Oakland, and think about proposing an ordinance to combat demolition by neglect, a big problem with our older buildings.” Member Eric Hughes wants Gilchrist’s department to “require multi-unit and non-owner-occupied buildings to post the name and contact information for building management companies.”

Among other priorities, members of the history group want Gilchrist to focus on making new buildings more visually pleasing, and remodeling the Kaiser Convention Center to be “the jewel it once was.” Group member Andrew Alden also believes the department head’s “top priorities must include major earthquakes. Nothing threatens historic Oakland more.”

Gilchrist will join the Planning and Building Department at a critical time in Oakland’s history, when 6,849 residential units are planned for construction in the city, when just 6 percent of housing units being built in the city are deemed affordable, and when the current job value of all the projects under construction in the city hovers at $631 million.

If readers have any additional thoughts on what Gilchrist’s priorities should be in this new role, send them to oaklandconduit@gmail.com