Co-written by Steve KingBobby Stahl and Spike.

Judging by the development plans being discussed for seven acres of city-owned land at Oak Knoll, we would guess that no one involved in the deal has happened across the City’s own Playbook For a Resilient Oakland. The Playbook has been publicly available for a few short months, and we applaud the work that the City’s Chief Resilience Officer, Kiran Jain, and her team have done in laying out a series of approaches and goals for how a city such as Oakland should operate in the 21st century. But, even a quick look through the landing page for the Playbook, and one might be left to wonder if anyone else in the city has bothered to review this ambitious document.

“To help Oakland stay a strong and resilient city, we need to work together to make a City government that Oaklanders can trust. We also need to learn to use data and research to help us make decisions about how to help the community and support the City.”

The Playbook

The introduction to the Playbook, which includes the quote above, offers compelling wording that appeals to our sense of how government should operate, and certainly how development should occur in a city beset by an ongoing affordability crisis. Much of the anger and frustration felt by residents resisting displacement and rapid neighborhood change can be attributed to their disconnection from the political processes that enable that very same displacement and change. Reading further, the best way to help ”community,” as the Playbook mentions, may be to actually include that same community in every aspect of decision-making; this is especially salient in decisions concerning housing and the development of city-owned land.

The expected development of those publicly-owned seven acres at the Oak Knoll site provides an opportunity to scrutinize the City’s actions using their own words. Some added context: SunCal owns 167 acres of the former Oak Knoll Naval Hospital site and plans to build market-rate housing (something we do need), however the City has expressed their intent to sell the remaining seven acres of developable land to the same developer; City staff have requested from City Council that they be allowed to enter into an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) for the city-owned land with SunCal. Now, let’s dive deeper into what this plan means using the City’s own Playbook for a Resilient Oakland as the framework for analysis.

Data driven decisions

In Oakland, the current median rent price is $2,817, so high that barely any Oakland residents can afford market rates (median household income for Oaklanders is $4,456/month and “affordability” is assessed using a standard of 30% of gross income for housing costs).  We’re also not building any housing that middle class families can afford to buy either.  A data driven decision would prioritize deeply affordable housing for city-owned land.

Equitable & Measurable Community Engagement 

Virtually no one outside of this process knows very much about how the City plans to proceed with the proposed ENA. At a recent Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, some mention was made of the City working out more affordability provisions with the developer in the coming months. However, the “don’t worry, we’re gonna take care of this affordable housing problem and it will be terrific” approach is not only a tired one in Oakland, it strikes a particularly frightening tone that resembles the same political rhetoric we’ve come to expect from Washington, D.C. And, frankly, it defies the spirit of projects and programs to which the City has devoted considerable resources, e.g. The Housing Equity Roadmap, the newly established Office of Race and Equity.

Collaborative Government

It’s hard to know where to start on this goal; the process here is as devoid of collaboration as it could be, with no public ideas being considered and no serious response to the criticisms raised in traditional channels from housing advocates. The only affordability provisions for the site that the public has been made aware of concern a Mortgage Assistance Program, alongside development impact fees paid to the City, something already required of all housing developments. If indeed these represent the only expectations by the City for affordability on the city-owned land, then they are missing a major opportunity to leverage public land for maximum benefit and to offer housing affordability above 580 for a broader segment of Oakland’s residents. Further, entering an ENA with Suncal without a competitive process denies other developers the opportunity to propose an affordable housing plan for the seven acres. There is clearly a struggle against transparency in the City of Oakland, yet this further undermines public trust and moves power further from those most impacted by decisions such as this one.  

Oak Knoll site

Oak Knoll Naval Hospital coming down in 2011. Sourced from LocalWiki.org/Oakland

Learning From Our Mistakes

The E. 12th Street land deal is still fresh in our memory, and the City lost a great deal of community trust when it engaged in dubious tactics by selecting a developer for publicly-owned land who had little interest in meeting community need, nor in prioritising the affordable housing Oakland so desperately needs. It took an incredible amount of resident organizing and community-driven effort to force the City to act in manner more consistent with resident voices and their own stated goals (again, see the Housing Equity Roadmap). Now it looks like the City will make the same mistakes once again, falling short of its ethical mandate and helping to create unnecessarily contentious relationships with residents.

This critique is offered as a challenge to our City leaders to hold themselves to a higher standard, a standard that they themselves outlined. The development at Oak Knoll offers the chance for course correction. Transparency in the development process may not necessarily result in more meaningful engagement, but truly meaningful engagement simply cannot occur unless the City operates in more transparent and collaborative ways, consistently. We write this knowing culture change is always hard, but for a city to improve, there must be change, and this is where Oakland needs a lot of hard work.

What can you do to change this? Contact your Councilmember and tell them: “We want public lands used for the public good- we need more affordable housing for working families. Stop the sale of the seven acres on Oak Knoll and make sure it’s used for the highest purpose.”