City Trip to Oakland: SPUR Explores the Sunny Side of the Bay
By Tomiquia Moss, Community Planning Policy Director
November 16, 2012

Tassafaronga Village, a low-income housing development in East Oakland designed by David Baker + Partners Architects for the Oakland Housing Authority. Photo by Noah Christman for SPUR

Last month, SPUR organized a two-day study trip to Oakland for our board and staff members to get a glimpse of what's happening in this great city. While recent media reports have focused on corporate protests and vandalism, Mayor Jean Quan describes Oakland as a “city on the rise” — and from what we saw, we strongly agree. We met with city and community leaders to better understand Oakland’s opportunities and challenges and how SPUR might get involved in the Bay Area’s third-largest city.

Why Study Oakland?

With 56 square miles and a population of 400,000, Oakland has far fewer people per square mile than San Francisco, with 47 square miles and a population of roughly 800,000. It’s slightly denser than San Jose, which has 177 square miles and 950,000 people. These three central cities of the Bay Area are projected to absorb more than a third of the population growth expected for the region over the next 30 years. As SPUR works to direct this growth to existing urban areas, we know that San Francisco cannot absorb it all, and we see a real opportunity in other major cities that have good transit and the room to house more people and jobs. As part of our central-city strategy, we opened an office in San Jose last year, and we are now exploring how we might help to support existing efforts in Oakland.


What We Learned

The New York Timesnamed Oakland the No. 5 place to visit on its list of “45 Places to Go in 2012.” Walkscore has touted it as the 10th most walkable city in the nation. Its transit infrastructure and cultural and ethnic diversity are the envy of many American cities. But Oakland still grapples with the kinds of major challenges that face many cities today, namely public safety and budgetary constraints. In 2011, Mayor Quan brought on City Administrator Deanna Santana, former deputy city manager of San Jose,to tackle Oakland’s budgetary issues. After the dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies, Oakland had to restrict all spending to an operating budget of $1.2 billion, which includes operating the Port of Oakland. Under Santana’s leadership, the City Administrator’s Office has worked hard to address Oakland’s budget challenges and to improve internal operations. Oakland has now balanced its budget and begun a program to maintain healthy reserves for the future. Throughout this process, the city has maintained a strong credit rating. Housing, jobs and public safety are the primary focus for Oakland’s leaders, and they explain that everyone has a role to play in addressing these persistent issues. City leaders, community advocates, faith-based leaders and residents alike have to work together to meet the city’s goals.


Affordable Housing

To learn about the affordable housing picture in Oakland, we visited with the Oakland Housing Authority, the largest landlord in the city. Between its Section 8 program and public housing units, the authority accounts for more than 15,000 households, representing approximately 10 percent of Oakland’s low-income families. The organization is currently working to understand some interesting trends in the Oakland housing market For example, the need for larger units is dropping, while 1- and 2-bedroom units are on the rise. They will be evaluating this new data to better understand the needs for low-income residents in Oakland and how the Housing Authority can be most responsive.

The Housing Authority has worked hard on how to make a quality product for low-income families. We saw a great example of this when we visited architect David Baker’s project Tassafaronga Village. Completed in 2010, the East Oakland development features a range of beautiful homes surrounded by green pathways, pocket parks and open spaces — and it’s conveniently located to transit. The project replaced 87 deteriorated public housing units with 60 affordable apartments in a new, three-story building; added 77 more units in new two- and three-story townhouses; and put 20 more, along with a medical clinic, in an adapted building that formerly housed a pasta factory. 

While the city is seeing innovation in new low-income housing, mixed-income housing is more challenging to develop in Oakland, due to the city's lower home prices (which have the benefit of giving residents more housing options). Oakland does not have an inclusionary requirement like the one in San Francisco, which requires developers to build a percentage of their units as below-market-rate housing.


Economic Development

City leaders are working to create a diversified economic development strategy that maximizes Oakland’s assets and makes the city more attractive for potential employers. They have started by creating a workforce and economic development program within the City Administrator’s Office. Assistant City Administrator Fred Blackwell, a long-time Oakland resident and former SPUR board member, told us he hopes that this change will help improve the skills of the workforce so that matching employees with potential businesses is more seamless. Attracting and retaining business investment in Oakland continues to be a struggle, and one that will require a multi-pronged approach.

One of Oakland’s economic strengths right now is a strong micro-entrepreneurial sector and a growing creative class of workers willing to invest in the city. Leaders described Oakland as a city of many neighborhoods, suggesting the need for an economic development strategy that diversifies and broadens the city’s economic base. Manufacturing and the Port of Oakland are still strong economic assets for Oakland. As the fifth-largest port in the nation, and with ongoing investments like renovation of the Oakland Army Base currently underway, the port will continue to provide jobs for Oakland residents.


Public Safety

Fred Blackwell described Oakland as “a tale of two cities.” There is a visible demarcation in geography between the Oakland Hills and the flatlands, and residents in the two areas can have a very different experience living in the city. The Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, Dr. Tony Smith, illustrated this point when he described the biggest challenge facing the district as safety. Some communities are suffering loss of life and the on-going threat of violence, and educational goals cannot move forward as long as this remains true. Many children and families don’t have adequate resources, he explained, sharing the example of an African-American child born in West Oakland compared to a white child born in the Oakland Hills. The black child is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature; 7 times more likely to be born into poverty; 2.5 times more likely to be behind in vaccinations; 4 times less likely to read at grade level by 4th grade and more than 5.5 times more likely to drop out or be pushed out of school.  As an adult, he is 5 times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes; 2 times as likely to die of heart disease and 3 times more likely to die of cancer. In short, an African American child in Oakland can expect to die 15 years earlier than a white child born a few miles away. 

Smith matches this stark reality with great optimism and a plan to address Oakland’s challenges head on. He is approaching the challenges with a collaborative spirit, including parents and other community leaders who are working to reverse these trends. Under his leadership, there has been visible improvement in test scores in the district. Smith has also reduced the district’s structural deficit from $40 million in 2009 to $1.1 million in 2012.


Next Steps

The Oakland study trip was SPUR’s first step to better understand what is happening in the city and how SPUR’s resources might be useful to support existing efforts. We have been meeting with city and community leaders over the last several months, and we will continue this work to ensure that we are well versed in the opportunities and challenges that exist in Oakland. SPUR believes that developing a strong urban agenda for the three central cities — San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland — will be an effective strategy to benefit the entire Bay Area region.


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