What Do You Want for Downtown Oakland?

By Peter Snarr---Oakland is looking to continue its development progress by going forward with its sixth specific development plan, the first to focus on ways to improve the downtown area.

The plan will be a guide for the development of Downtown Oakland for the next 25 years and will coincide with improvements being made to Lake Merritt and the Broadway-Valdez areas.

While details are still being discussed for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, Florida-based development company Dover Kohl envisions transforming the area into a busy thoroughfare with wide, tree-shaded boulevards, parks, and bike lanes with more shopping, restaurants and nightlife.

Interest in the plan continued on Tuesday, Feb. 7 when the City Council unanimously approved expanding the plan’s public outreach budget for developers, and also decided to hire an equity analysis team to address gentrification issues. Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, who represents District 3, the district where the Oakland Downtown is located, expressed her support for the plan and solutions that will help residents.

“It’s really important to me, as the District 3 representative,” McElhaney said. “Downtown is a driving neighborhood of residents, many of whom are low income, and has some of the last parts of our protected low income housing stock. There are needs in the downtown with the integration of housing that far exceed just the commercial corridors.”

The strategic plan, which was introduced in 2015, was met with initial skepticism by residents at a town hall meeting that same year. Many thought that it would exasperate the gentrification issues that Oakland has faced in the past few years.

In an East Bay Express article from October 2015, James Vann of the Oakland Tenants Union said, “To do a plan, it’s got to have commentary on social and economic policy to preserve Oakland for the people who are already here.”

Since the plan was introduced, the City of Oakland has been provided with several strategies to mitigate the impact of the plan on residents. One strategy is to adopt an affordable housing impact fee, which would charge new market-rate housing developments to fund low-income housing; while another is to adopt policies from the 2015 Housing Equity Roadmap meant to reduce the cost of housing in the area.

The roadmap outlines solutions to improve habitability conditions, which include amending the existing condo conversion ordinance to stem the loss of private rental housing stock and passing a new seismic retrofit requirement for 14,000 units.

The roadmap also includes the purchasing of 1,000 distressed mortgage notes to prevent foreclosures, creating a regional home preservation fund for low-income seniors and disabled residents, and incentivizing property owners to contribute to voluntary housing strategies. While the roadmap is a plan for Oakland as a whole, it is unclear at this time which strategies will be adopted in the Downtown Specific Plan and to what scale they will be implemented.

While the details are getting ironed out, Zachary Wald, chief of staff to Councilmember McElhaney, is looking forward to choosing a course of action to improve their district.

“I think it’s great that the area is getting attention,” Wald said. “[Specific plans] are a great tool to clarify the direction you want to go [with development].”