Sunday, May 25, 2008

City seeks to bail out fat-cat developer

The City of Oakland is negotiating with a fat-cat developer, who defaulted on an $800,000 city loan, to pay the developer up to $740,000 more to acquire a parcel valued at $950,000.

The City is willing to pay a premium to preserve the land for affordable housing. Neighborhood residents are not all thrilled with the idea. The root problem is that City rules concerning subsidies of affordable housing render viable only projects that are massive, cheaply constructed and high-density. Not many parcels are large enough and cheap enough to support housing under these restrictions; not many neighborhoods welcome such projects.

Rather than bail out developers who have City Hall contacts, isn’t a better solution to fix the funding restrictions so they support small-scale, well-designed affordable housing in a variety of neighborhoods?

Here’s the story: 3801-3807 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, corner of West MacArthur, used to house “Terry’s Sound House,” a TV repair shop, with apartments above and an old house nearby. Some years back the store closed – a long-time resident states it was because Terry allegedly murdered his wife – and the property lay vacant for awhile.

Along came the Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo redevelopment area (“BMSP”), created in 2000. In the eyes of housing staff, the site was perfect for affordable housing: the land was relatively cheap, it was on the very edge of the redevelopment area, and in a neglected neighborhood of empty lots, drug dealers and run-down properties. Several iterations of housing proposals targeted the site, in combination with two adjacent empty parcels, one of which was City-owned and the other owned by Larry Taylor’s Community Development Corporation of Oakland ("CDCO").

In 2003, 53 units of senior housing were proposed, but were rejected for funding under the annual Notice of Funding Availability (“NOFA”). Enter Oakland Community Housing Inc. (“OCHI”), a non-profit that the City had previously funded $4,860,000 to for management of the California Hotel (residents of which sued OCHI in 2005 about rats and bedbugs). CDCO and OCHI proposed 33 units of senior housing on the two adjacent empty lots; 3801 MLK was left out of the proposal, which depended upon funding by HUD. The BMSP project area committee (“PAC”) approved the proposal.

The MLK Senior Homes project was denied funding in the 2004 NOFA, despite a letter of support from the PAC. In 2005, City NOFA funding was awarded but HUD would not fund the project.

In September 2006, OCHI and CDCO joined forces with mammoth regional developer AF Evans to form Grove Park LLC. In the red-hot housing market that prevailed at that time, this development team proposed building 60 units of affordable, for-sale housing on the three parcels. The City subsequently loaned the developers $800,000 under the “VHARP” program, to purchase the 3801 MLK site. At that time, the parcel owner was asking over $1,000,000 for the property, but the City did not have enough VHARP funds to cover the entire asking price. In January 2007, the MBSP PAC approved a project of 58 for-sale affordable units. Grove Park LLC borrowed an additional $740,000 from private sources to cover remaining acquisition and predevelopment costs. The City agreed that the private lender would have the first lien on the property and the City would have only a second lien.

By this time, the housing market was in a downward spiral. In March 2007 City staff did not recommend the project for NOFA funding, stating that it did not meet NOFA criteria. On March 20th, 2007, the City Council Rules Committee sweetened the pot by recommending that CDCO get $141,000 as a “forgivable loan” and that the City’s subsidy of the affordable units be increased from 40% to 50%. However, in May it was announced that the City Council did not approve the project for NOFA funding.

Subsequently, Grove Park LLC did not reapply for NOFA funding, and defaulted on the $800,000 City loan they had been given only months earlier. CDCO, meanwhile, stopped making timely payments, according to Housing staff, on a $52,000 site acquisition loan they had been given earlier to purchase the adjacent parcel. OCHI went bankrupt. CDCO is attempting to raise cash by selling a nearby parcel at 3881 MLK.

In January of 2008, the MBSP PAC voted to authorize staff to offer Grove Park LLC up to $740,000 more taxpayer funds to pay off the bank loan and, therefore, allow the City, as second lien holder, to take possession of the 3801-07 MLK parcel. In effect, therefore, taxpayers would be paying as much as $1,540,000 (the $800,000 original loan plus $740,000 more in cash) for a parcel whose market value had fallen to $950,000. The development team would walk with no loss whatsoever from the failed venture. Staff justified this proposal by stating that it was necessary to keep the three parcels assembled in order for future affordable housing at the site to be viable. The individual parcels were “too small to develop as a project on their own but would allow for a feasible project if combined with 3801-3807 MLK.” Staff separately opined that “small-scale affordable housing projects with less than 40 units are not very feasible to finance.”

Even Terry’s TV repair could tell us that there’s something wrong with this picture. Massive, cheaply-built low-income developments have been proven to be a disaster: witness the social problems associated with Acorn, Campbell Village and Cypress Gardens. City policy should be geared toward making small-scale, high-quality, affordable and inclusionary housing a success. Affordable projects should be architecturally noteworthy and built to last, gracing, rather than blemishing, their surrounding communities.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

MacArthur BART Transit Village: Boon or Bane?

The final environmental impact report (“EIR”) for the MacArthur BART Transit Village has just been released. For those recently paroled or emerging from comas, the transit village is expected to be built on the BART parking lot between Telegraph, Highway 24, 40th Street and West MacArthur, in the Temescal neighborhood. It will create some 675 dwelling units as well as commercial space. What the project will not include is any open space or parkland.

Two basic questions emerge: Is increased density beneficial and, if so, whom does it benefit? And, for whom is a transit village a benefit at that location?

The responses to the EIR comprise much of the document. Respondents fall into four categories: public agencies, people directly affected by the project, people from the area not directly affected, and others with an axe to grind. The people directly affected express concern over loss of light, trees, parking. Residents a bit further away, not directly affected, offer support for the project. Several of the responses perpetuate myths that obfuscate honest answers to the two questions posed above.

Is increased density beneficial? Frequently, proponents of inner-city urban density decry the loss of farmland and “greenbelt” open space as urban areas sprawl ever farther from their core. Freeway congestion and resulting pollution, we are told, will be alleviated by developing high-density projects at transit hubs. And the stress on wildlife and natural resources would be lessened if we all just stayed inside the anthill.

I do not know where such proponents live, so I have no justification for my suspicion that they reside in comfortable homes on quiet, low-density side-streets in communities like Berkeley, Piedmont or Palo Alto. But wouldn’t it seem that the main beneficiaries of preventing further development at the edges of suburbia would be the current residents of those suburbs? It is their views that would be paved over, their tranquility that would get ruffled by new construction. If sprawl should be limited, isn’t the obvious place to increase density the least dense urban areas, not the most dense? Shouldn’t the suburbs be re-engineered to carry their weight of the burden of increased population in the Bay Area?

Those attempting to sell the transit village to local residents tell us that the development will “bring the neighborhood up.” The increased density will benefit us, they claim, by changing the economic base of the neighborhood. The new residents will, by their critical mass, attract neighborhood-serving businesses, somehow drive out drug dealers and criminals, and result in a more upscale community.

As is frequently the case in such assertions, there is some truth there, but it is overstated. Transit village residents are unlikely to mix into the surrounding community to a high degree. Many of their needs will be met onsite. A transit village, by its nature, draws singles, not families who would mix at PTA functions. We currently have thousands of honest, hard-working people living in the community, and their presence has not driven away the criminal element. People from new developments in Emeryville walk constantly up and down 40th Street now, unlike years ago, but no drug dealers have fled as a result. Telegraph Avenue already has many businesses; there are not many empty storefronts. The new development will simply mean more people in our neighborhood.

The new units are not being built to house local families. They will house singles and couples from other communities, who have a need, and the resources, to travel to and from San Francisco on a daily basis. The beneficiaries of the project will be the developers, yuppies who can’t quite afford to live in San Francisco condos, and the owners of commercial properties close to the project site.

Project proponents also embrace a fantasy that transit village occupants will have little need for cars; some even suggest that parking spaces be eliminated, or be sold separately, to force residents to abandon the motor vehicle. Again, there is some truth here, but not enough. If one wants to commute to San Francisco, or go to the airport, BART is an efficient, convenient and cost-effective method. The Emery-go-round will take you to the movies in Emeryville and back, for free. But what if you need to buy groceries? BART does not service any large grocery stores. What if you need to pick up one child from school, take another to baseball practice, get the dog to the vet, see your doctor or just plain want to go to a park? What if you need to bring home plywood from Home Depot, or a dresser from IKEA?

The nearest grocery to a BART station is the Trader Joe’s in Rockridge. To my knowledge, there is no other grocery store near a BART station in Oakland. A typical local resident might be a single mother with two children. Okay, let's assume the mother takes her two kids from MacArthur to Rockridge and back (can’t leave them alone at home), and somehow they manage to lug a week’s worth of groceries on BART, in those tiny plastic bags that always tear, or in paper bags that get soaked in the rain. (Have you EVER seen anyone carrying groceries on BART? I have ridden BART frequently for 24 years. I never see anyone with groceries on BART). How much did it cost our hypothetical family to ride BART? $9.00 round trip. Just to go to Rockridge and back. Not too many will plunk down nine bucks for the opportunity to visit a Trader Joe's.

At one time JAMMI was farmland. Then, it became a “garden apartment” community of modest bungalows with beautiful back yards. More recently, the back yards have dwindled as speculators built additional “in-fill” units. The newest paradigm is to pile people on top of each other in condos with no open space at all.

If one listens to recordings of old Italian residents telling what the community was like 80 or 100 years ago, one finds there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew each other. Children played in Temescal Creek. People sat on front porches in the evening. Neighbors would play accordions, drink homemade wine, and dance in the street until dark. The tiny bungalows were bearable to large families because people lived outside. The street, the yard, the sidewalk were part of the living space.

Today’s society is different. People hunch in front of computers instead of sitting on porches. To socialize, people go to online communities like FaceBook or MySpace. We may not know who lives next door. Temescal Creek has been buried underground. The neighborhood has been scarred by a huge, concrete freeway. Open space has dwindled.

But things always change. Tomorrow’s generation may value parks and open space even more than we do. What will they do? Once open space is gone, how do you get it back? Wouldn’t it be great if the MacArthur BART parking lot became a huge, beautiful park? We have plenty of housing in this neighborhood already. Is more housing for displaced San Franciscans the “highest and best use” of one of the few large parcels left here? We have as much density as we can bear. What don’t we have?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What blight ordinance?

Why does the City of Oakland allow developers and government agencies to buy land, then leave it vacant, crumbling, blighted, litter-strewn for months, even years?

Take 989 41st Street, for example. From the 1850’s until 1888, this was likely part of the Lusk farm. Then, according to the Sanborn map of 1903, it became a large greenhouse. More recently, it was the California Linen Supply, founded circa 1920, which employed 112 people. California Linen was run by Don Miller until the boom in neighboring Emeryville made the property too valuable. In June 2006 Charles Miller, trustee, planned to build 48 town homes on the site. The real estate market crashed and, two project proposals later, the building lies vacant, with the windows smashed out; the jobs are gone. The California Linen website, like a ghost, is still up and running ( but the phone number is disconnected.

This developer has cost the community over a hundred jobs and left us with an eyesore. Why should this be tolerated?

How about 1025 West MacArthur. It housed a martial arts studio until, again, the Emeryville boom made developers see green. On January 16, 2008, owners Mark Migdal and Marsha Levinson went before the Oakland Planning Commission with a proposal to turn this and an adjoining parcel in Emeryville into 94 units of housing, of which 29 would be on the Oakland side. Now, the building is covered with graffiti, a dumping ground for trash, and weed-strewn. On a recent weekend I saw six workers cleaning the Emeryville side, which now looks tidy. What about the Oakland side? The developers stand to make millions, eventually. Why is this blight tolerated?

Private parties are not the only ones contributing to neighborhood decline. Let’s look at 3924 Martin Luther King, and the adjacent parcel at 645 40th Street. In the 1980’s, an independent service station stood on the corner, with a duplex behind it. BART bought the property, which is next to the MacArthur BART station, demolished the service station, and dug up the tank. The duplex stood vacant for several years, gathering trash, until squatters took it over and eventually set it on fire. Then it too was torn down. The lot has sat vacant and weed-strewn for a decade now, occupying a corner lot next to a major transit center. BART is supposedly saving it to use as a staging area for the proposed transit village. Is this the highest and best use of the property?

Blighted property defined (excerpt from the blight ordinance):
3. Buildings or structures with broken or missing windows or doors which constitute a hazardous condition or a potential attraction to trespassers. For purposes of this chapter “window” shall include any glazed opening, including glazed doors, which upon a yard, court, or vent shaft open unobstructed to the sky,4. Buildings or structures including, but not limited to, walls, windows, fences, signs, retaining walls, driveways, or walkways which are obsolete, broken, deteriorated, or substantially defaced to the extent that the disrepair visually impacts on neighboring property or presents a risk to public safety. For purposes of this chapter “defaced” includes, but is not limited to, writings, inscriptions, figures, scratches, or other markings commonly referred to as “graffiti” and peeling, flaking, blistering, or otherwise deteriorated paint.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A JAMMI resident reflects on the history of his house

JAMMI resident Kevin Dwyer asked to have posted here his discoveries about the history and condition of the home he purchased in JAMMI. Read his reflections at

Rockridge envy? Kevin elaborates further at

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Our Local Treasures -- and how they were squandered

JAMMI is easily defined on three sides by man-made boundaries: the Emeryville city line, highway 580 and highway 24. The northern boundary, Temescal Creek, is not as obvious. Many people don’t even realize it is there, but they can be forgiven, because our predecessors decided to bury the creek in a culvert 30 feet below the surface.

Once a beautiful seasonal stream, lined by huge trees and fed by run-off from the East Bay hills, Temescal Creek was a defining local landmark where the Ohlone Indians built a sweat lodge, so they could bathe in the cool creek after taking their sauna. Vicente Peralta, son of the original Spanish land grantee, built his adobe near its banks. The creek was an important local water source for early settlers, and was dammed in 1868 by Anthony Chabot to form Oakland’s first municipal water supply (Lake Temescal). Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead urged Oaklanders in 1863 to preserve the creek banks as public parklands; his suggestions were ignored.

But the creek also acted as the sewer for early settlers. The roaring waters of the rainy season dry to a trickle in the dry season, and there was quite a stench in the later 1800’s from the raw sewage of private dwellings and from the waste dumped by major industry (Lusk Cannery). The creek became an embarrassing eyesore because, like many of Oakland’s parks today, it was not properly maintained.

A flood in 1962 sealed the fate of the creek. A deep trench was dug and the creek was entombed in a concrete culvert far below ground level, where it runs today. The stretch of the creek through JAMMI was the last to be covered, in the 1980’s. But you can still glimpse its waters 30 feet down through a metal grating in the Temescal Creek Park off of 47th Street west of Adeline, on the Oakland/Emeryville border. I occasionally go there to reflect. To me, it’s like visiting a shrine, where someone prominent in the area now lies buried. I always feel sad when I see the ugly asphalt and concrete, and even buildings, covering what was once a sparkling jewel of fresh water and green trees.

A second treasure that was lost is open space. The Sanborn map of 1903 suggests that much of the former Lusk farm, south of 44th, was not yet subdivided by that date. We could have had a beautiful park, had anyone in office cared to act. But the 1906 earthquake brought an influx of residents and now all we have is Marcus Garvey Park, under the roar of the freeway, Linden Park, the Temescal Community Garden on 47th, and the Temescal Creek Park, which appears to be maintained by Emeryville.

The lesson to be learned is that, once land is subdivided and residences built, it is lost forever to any common use. Eminent domain has been too often misused, is too expensive, and is politically on the outs. And small parcels are too hard to assemble, even if anyone had the money to try.

Not only has public open space been lost, but private open space is rapidly shrinking. In the 1940’s and ‘50s, the Metropolitan Oakland Area Plan advertised Oakland nationwide as an “industrial garden,” whose idealistic vision was one where contented workers lived in modest bungalows with backyard gardens, conveniently close to jobs provided by small and medium sized industry. JAMMI would have been a poster child for working class bungalows with back yards and beautiful weather. Over the years, however, owners have build second units in the back yards, converted garages to in-law apartments, and owner-occupied properties with gardens are now the exception, not the norm.

Density, density, density. We have heard the mantra that “we need affordable housing” so much, we forget to question it anymore. But, as Bob B. recently put it, “isn’t 400,000 enough?” How many people can crowd into Motel Oakland before we turn on the “No Vacancy” sign? How many dry winters must we have before we realize there isn’t enough water for a limitless population? As we crowd closer and closer together, our quality of life erodes.

The third local treasure that is soon to be lost is adequate parking. We have come to assume that, if we drive to the store and back, we will find street parking near our residence. But, with each illegal in-law apartment that is built without an additional parking space, our pool of available parking gets tapped. Now, the MacArthur BART transit village is going to replace a 600-car parking lot with a 300-car garage. The community is expected to absorb the additional parking demand. The reality will be that BART patrons will grab spots in the neighborhood around the station and local residents will have to park farther away, lugging their groceries home through the rain.

Can we agree that our small single-family bungalows and low-rise ambiance is a treasure that we should not trade for cheaply built low-income rental high-rises and (Jane Brunner’s latest suggestion) more triplexes?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Pros and cons of using Measure Y funding for programs involving hyphy culture

Oakland’s schools are feeling the pinch of the state budget deficit. Music and arts programs are being curtailed. However, tax money seems to be available to fund similar programs outside of the school structure, when directed toward “at-risk” youth: truants, drop-outs and the formerly incarcerated.

In order to attract such youth, such programs focus on aspects of “hyphy” culture, particularly dance and music. Instructors demonstrate “turf dancing” skills, while state-of-the-art equipment is provided for youth to work on their “beats” and rap music. The justification for directing tax money to these programs is the claim that they reduce crime by giving frustrated youth a positive outlet for negative energy. Supposedly, youth attracted to these activities somehow learn saleable skills, discover constructive links to society, and enrich our culture in a way that assimilates them into the community. Detractors claim that the programs glorify “thug life” and create an excitement around illegal and dangerous activities like sideshows, drug use and sales, prostitution etc.

Our society glorifies “thug life,” with video games that encourage the player to steal virtual cars, rob stores and shoot anyone who gets in the way. On “reality” TV contests, young women vie to be the one selected by a mock “pimp.” Popular music objectifies women, is permeated with racially and sexually derogatory language, promotes illegal drug use, and exalts “bling.” Oakland’s schools, in contrast, frequently promote dress codes, lean toward traditional symphony experiences in music programs, do not tolerate foul language or drug use, disallow wearing of flashy jewelry, and attempt to steer students away from “thug life.”

Several questions then emerge: Is scarce tax funding better directed toward the schools, where all children can benefit, or instead toward those youth who were unable to succeed in the academic environment? Do arts programs closely linked with hyphy culture reduce crime by giving criminals an avenue to express themselves and succeed in socially acceptable ways, or do they instead draw at-risk youth into a culture of illegal and dangerous behavior?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I do know that the existing programs fail to address many aspects of “thug culture” where truants, drop-outs and the formerly incarcerated really need support. Some examples follow.

Drivers education: Seldom available in public schools nowadays, driving instruction provides a skill essential in our society. And for the at-risk youth, it is not that easy to cut a donut successfully. News articles routinely highlight this problem with sideshow drivers losing control and plowing into houses, businesses and/or pedestrians. Why isn’t there a city-funded program that teaches youth how to turn a perfect circle, leave an even, dark streak of rubber, and emit a high decibel squeal guaranteed to knock nearby residents out of their beds?

Gun safety: With bullets flying more and more frequently in many Oakland neighborhoods, accuracy is ever more crucial. Recently, a young boy was paralyzed by a stray gunshot while practicing piano in a music studio. The shooter was trying to hit a gas station attendant. Obviously, the shooter lacked skills. That child would be walking today if a program existed that instructed youth in marksmanship and gun maintenance.

Fashion design: Some people can wear something as simple as jeans and a T-shirt and look like a total thug. Couldn’t you just scratch their eyes out? Most youth have to struggle to pull off the hyphy look. Fashion awareness is a widespread need among at-risk youth. Proper “sagging” requires a total look – it’s not just wearing your pants at half-mast. Youth could be assisted with all aspects of appearance from the grill and baseball cap to the stunna shades to the hoodie to the neck chain to the white T to the striped shorts to the hi-tops. It’s all about improving self-image, folks.

Workforce management: Many of our thugs and wannabes have no idea how to properly manage a large staff, recruit employees, or handle volumes of cash. And the women who work for them don’t always understand the importance of getting to work on time, satisfying the customer, and wearing clothing appropriate to the job. Fortunately some programs are teaching business skills through marketing of rap music, but there is tremendous need for improvement.

Despite these challenges, we can be sure of one thing: the City Council will decide the best use of your tax dollars for crime reduction.

Streetscape improvements - fighting the machine

For over two years, the West Oakland Project Area Committee has been striving to improve Martin Luther King Blvd in JAMMI with hardscape, bulb-outs, medians, and/or other street designs. A planner was assigned by the City to assist, but left town in early 2006 and was never replaced. Whenever the WOPAC has pushed staff to move on this project, we are met with a wall of resistance: not enough resources, insufficient staffing, other priorities, RFP needed, no-one to write it, not enough funding, yada yada yada.

An item suddenly appeared on the April 9, 2008 WOPAC agenda: Request for $271,250 for local match for MTC Grant Funds for 7th St. Streetscape Project. At the meeting, WOPAC was asked by City staff (Kerry Jo Ricketts-Ferris) to fund landscaping on 7th Street. The request was urgent as the first phase of the project must be completed by year-end 2009 in order to meet requirements of a funding source.

When the City staff wants to implement a project, there is no lack of resources, no problem with RFPs, sufficient staff is available, everything can and must be done as quickly as possible. When the community supports a similar project, but staff did not initiate it--forget it.