By José Fermoso ---The City of Oakland will announce who will be its next Director of Planning and Building in the next 7 to 10 days, according to Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio. While Cappio would not say who the city had selected, she did confirm who had not been offered the position.
It’s been six months since the city first advertised for the position, and four after it stopped accepting applications. After an initial flood of applications, the city narrowed its list down to 15-20 names, and after that brought it down to 6-8 finalists that city officials interviewed in person in Oakland. Cappio said candidates came from all over the country, including from the Bay Area and outside California.
According to Clark Manus, the current CEO of Heller Manus Architects in San Francisco and a member of the Oakland Planning Commission, the city has decided upon a name but hasn't revealed who it is.
“There is a candidate they are talking to [after narrowing it down],” said Manus. “But they did look for a person through the traditional civil service appointment process of looking for qualified candidates.”
With Oakland facing the biggest building boom in its history and the many challenges that come along, it's not surprising the city has taken so long to choose its new director. After all, City Hall observers see the position, which will have a hand in hot-button issues like affordable housing and transportation, as a political lightning rod that will either bring people from different factions together or further split them apart.
The job description of the director focused on the city's “burgeoning” role as a tech hub, the continuing redevelopment of city's former military bases, and the downtown district's rising business prospects. It also mentioned the importance of maintaining “access to safe, healthy, and affordable housing,” creating plans to help people access basic services in neighborhoods, and collaborating with local organizations to “preserve and support the legacy” of the city's arts culture and diversity. The job description described the current department’s budget at $27 million spread out over 140 staff members.
The True Connection to the Community
The role will be an important one for the city in a time of great economic upheaval. The affordable housing situation, for one, is already critical. As the East Bay Housing Organizations group revealed a month ago, fewer than two percent out of the thousands of building permits Oakland approved in 2016 were given for affordable housing provisions. In 2015, that number came out to just 16 percent out of 771 permits. And in terms of transportation, projects like the redevelopment of the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in East Oakland may bring about new traffic and pedestrian problems, as we've reported.
At a time where mass displacement and “skyrocketing rents” are so important, Jahmese Myres, a member of the Planning Commission and the Campaign Director for East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), says the city should choose a director who will focus on equity.
“[He or she should work on] development that benefits low-income residents and people of color most vulnerable to being priced out,” she told the Conduit over email. Myres says that she nor anyone else in the Planning Commission has been explicitly involved in the search process.
Earlier this year, several community groups communicated the importance of having a director with a strong understanding of equitable development. A petition was sent out by one, Communities for Equitable Development in Oakland, demanding Mayor Libby Schaaf and the City Council choose a leader that paid special attention to this issue. The petition said, in part, that “residents of Oakland are fed up with seeing our loved ones pushed out of Oakland and facing homelessness due to rising rents. We demand progressive and visionary leadership now for the Planning Commission and the new Planning Director being hired soon!”
That petition also mentioned the fact the Planning Commission has been dominated in recent years by people who may “financially benefit” from development. The commission has had, the group noted, “two developers, one attorney for developers, one real estate broker, and one architect.” Only one community organizer was part of that commission and that was EBASE's Myres.
Who It Won't Be
The Oakland Planning Commission's Jonathan Fearn told the Conduit there has been some discussion inside City Hall about keeping on current interim director Darin Ranelletti, but Cappio confirmed that Ranelletti will not be offered the position.
Ranelletti would have been an interesting choice. He has worked in the city planning office for nearly 15 years and is considered even-keeled and fair-minded.
Nehanda Imara, from East Oakland Building Healthy Communities and a leading advocate for a progressive director, wishes the Ranelletti rumor came true, giving him good marks on his community collaborations thus far. In particular, she said in an interview, she liked how Ranelletti worked to develop the city's Healthy Community Guidelines booklet. The booklet was made as a tool by the planning department for developers to use when considering economic developments, including retail and jobs, leading to more improved health in the community.
“Planning and Building is connected to community health in important ways that need to be considered [by the next director],” according to Imara. “Looking at my neighborhood in East Oakland, for example, there are no grocery stores there we can use. There are only liquor stores with rotten food. We need someone in the planning department that brings a community sensibility [and understanding] to the job. That's our criteria.”
Imara explained that low-income East Oakland residents are particularly aware of how poor planning can affect their area. She mentioned the planning office's poor handling in the past has left the area prone to pollution runoff from old manufacturing plants. She said that a lack of a “racial justice lens” also led to the creation of an industrial-size crematorium that experts described as a serious environmental problem.
Earlier, this year, Ranelletti presided over one of the city's most heated public meetings of the year, over short-term rental platforms like Airbnb. In the meeting, which pitted residents looking to keep the platform as an option to make money versus those looking to create more opportunities for affordable housing, Ranelletti was seen by observers as keeping a fair account of the issues.
The Importance of the Director
So how exactly will a director affect the most important city issues like affordable housing and transportation? Prof. Asha Weinstein Agrawal, professor of urban and regional planning at San Jose State, says the planning director will be a very important cog in a department that can help set planning policy direction.
In terms of transportation, she says a director could help push City Hall to accept plans from developers that depend less on cars and more on realistic walking and biking options. That means building more dense and mixed-use communities, a process done through tool regulations like the zoning code. And these decisions can also connect to housing.
For example, anyone who wants to own a commercial property in Oakland has to adhere to height limits and parking requirements the planning department decides on. But, Agrawal says, “if I wanted to build apartments, I'd be required to provide parking. But that raises the cost of housing and also means you can make fewer units in your properties and raises the cost of each unit. To encourage people to have fewer cars and make housing more affordable, it's helpful if the planning department works to remove the required minimums.” In essence, the planning department can use its power over new building to impact housing affordability.
The director and the department can also have the same power over the future of the transportation system. Agrawal says that to make transit more effective in a sprawling city like Oakland, there need to be a lot of people that are living in and traveling to dense areas every day using buses.
“You have a lot of people living working and shopping and going to the doctor within a quarter mile of a transit stop,” said Argawal. “Having mixed-use development where you mix housing [creates proper density for better transportation.] You don't want single-family homes of one story in huge slots where it's not possible to have transit convenience. You want development of 3-5 stories of mixed-used development along key transit corridors, like on Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard. The city director is key to help set the regulations for that.”
Agrawal also says promoting new laws like building in-law one-bedroom units is also an efficient way to build affordable housing by “sprinkling it in” established neighborhoods.
Oakland has been looking for a new director since last October. The previous leader, Rachel Flynn, moved to the private planning company FivePoint as Vice President of Planning. She left to oversee the redevelopment of the old Concord Naval Weapons Station for Lennar, a project that will eventually lead to more than 4,392 homes in the East Bay city. The developer has promised to reach a 25 percent threshold for affordable housing for that project.