Planning for Oakland's Downtown

By Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps

With a sweeping budget of $2,353,440, Oakland’s still-developing Downtown Specific Plan is the sixth specific plan developed by the city for one of its districts in the past six years. However, it is the first ever to be developed for downtown Oakland. Plans have already been developed for West Oakland, the Broadway-Valdez District, the Lake Merritt Station Area and the Oakland Coliseum Area. The process of developing the Plan started in 2015 and will be reassessed and added to over time, adapting to community needs and new developments.

The purpose of any Specific Plan is to dictate how construction projects in certain areas are to be built. Private development and the government don’t necessarily think along the same lines and a Specific Plan gives development instructions so that the projects built best reflect the wishes of the community. As Oakland continues to transform and grow, Specific Plans are being drafted so that the city can better reflect its changing economy and population.

Funds for the Plan have been provided from various segments of government and civil societies—a federal grant through BART of $600,000 to support transit-oriented development, a $750,000 grant from the Priority Development Area program, $100,000 from the Jack London Square Redevelopment Project, and $150,000 from the Planning and Building Department. There are also $255,000 and $453,000 grants for community engagement and a $45,000 grant for project contingency from the Oakland City Council.

Half of the Plan's development process has occurred already—a project kickoff in September 2015, a charrette (a meeting in which stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions) in October 2015, drafts of alternative plans in March 2016, and working groups to coalesce the differing perspectives of those who would be impacted by the Plan in Summer 2017.

A “Plan Concepts Memo,” which defines the goals for the Plan and is further detailed in the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan FAQ, will be the basis of a draft Specific Plan. A mix of online and public outreach, stakeholder meetings, advisory groups and community meetings will form the basis of the public input used in the drafting of the Plan.

Jeffrey Abplanalp, a professional printer who lived in downtown Oakland from 2012 to 2016, directly in the area which the Specific Plan would cover, is critical of the plan so far and the prospect of downtown Oakland looking different than it does now. “I do think that downtown Oakland is way too much of a commercial park, basically a field of office towers deserted at night and the city looks like it’s going to continue in that direction, just adding luxury apartments. This plan does mention protecting SRO units as they are, which sadly will not match demand as more people get squeezed out by Bay Area landlords.”

Holger Romero-Peragallo, a professional editor who also currently lives in the downtown area, has specific and detailed hopes for what he believes would make downtown Oakland a stronger area. “I believe that infrastructure should be of utmost importance. The city needs to have better digital and mobile connections, repair its roads and upgrade its city planning in order to improve traffic flow for motorized vehicles and bicycles, upgrade its sewage system, replace aging sewer laterals so wastewater doesn’t flow into the Bay, and take down I-980, a physical barrier between downtown and West Oakland. Downtown Oakland will greatly benefit from having a hub for its transit system.”

The Specific Plan will challenge the Bay Area’s notoriously high rents through an “affordable housing impact fee,” detailed as a means to address the need for affordable housing in the Specific Plan FAQ, developed in 2016; the impact fee has already been charged to new market-rate housing in order to raise funding for affordable housing projects.

Ben Rivera is a business representative for Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, which has been active in the city’s planning commission meetings and hopes to build in the Downtown area. He also belongs to East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, which has been actively working to add workplace standards to the Plan that would ensure middle-class jobs and workforce training for construction workers. He is optimistic at the prospect of expanding and developing Oakland and has hopes that the development is all encompassing for the city’s entire population. “It's great that we're developing Oakland,” he said.

“There is nothing that I think is negative necessarily in that overall concept of wanting to raise awareness about Oakland, show that it's a premier city beyond the people that actually live there. I think there are a lot of opportunities [with the Plan}. It's just raising the awareness. It's trying to maintain that somehow Oakland can do it differently. I think that if they [the people working on the Plan] can kind of maintain some of that, not just the aesthetic value of Oakland rises up, or developers get what they need out of it, but Oakland in its entirety gets raised up,” Rivera said.

An inclusion was made at the earliest juncture of the Plan for a “Social Equity Strategy,” detailed within the Specific Plan FAQ, that is designed to “meet the perception that Plan outcomes will negatively affect historically marginalized communities of color,” with a stated intention to “include all voices” through open meetings and dialogues before the final Plan is given to developers in 2019.

A draft of the Specific Plan is expected to be released in Winter 2018, with an Environmental Impact Report in 2018/19 and a final version to be agreed upon and adopted by the Oakland City Council in 2019.

Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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  • Sam Felsing
    published this page in Archive News 2018-01-12 10:01:53 -0800