The Best Equity Plan for Downtown Oakland: Grow for Everyone’s Sake
By Robert Ogilvie, Oakland Director
February 15, 2017

Downtown Oakland's Art and Soul Festival. Downtown's role as an economic generator and civic gathering place means it has a bigger role to play than other neighborhoods, and should be planned accordingly. Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.

After a bit of a hiatus, Oakland’s Downtown Specific Plan process is about to restart, but with a major shift in approach. More than a thousand people commented on the city’s Plan Alternatives Report after it was released in March 2016; the overwhelming majority were concerned that the Downtown Plan would have a negative impact on historically marginalized communities of color Oakland. In response, the Department of Planning and Building has hired a team led by the Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational and Environmental Design to conduct a racial equity impact assessment of the plan and develop a defined and actionable equity framework.

SPUR was one of the organizations that commented on the Plan Alternatives Report. We said then, as we still believe now, that the alternative development proposals the city put forward were too timid. Downtown Oakland remains in the bind of displacement without development, and the Downtown Specific Plan — if it is bold enough — can help chart the way out of this bind. How? By stimulating growth that can create new space for housing at all income levels, generate public benefits and provide room for small businesses, arts organizations and industrial users to thrive. The key phrase here is “if it is bold enough,” which brings me back to the racial equity framework. 

Since the framework does not yet exist, we would like to offer some guidance that we hope the consulting team will take into consideration as they get to work. These suggestions are grounded in our belief that downtowns are one of the greatest achievements of American urbanism. Getting the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan right will depend on recognizing and respecting the important roles downtown has to play, both in the city and within the broader region.
 

Downtowns are different from other neighborhoods and should be treated differently.

The request for proposals that the City of Oakland put out states that the equity framework’s goal is to “weave social equity strategies into all areas of the Downtown Specific Plan,” including:

  • housing
  • employment
  • access to goods and services
  • improved quality of life

This sounds like an agreeable project in almost any neighborhood, but downtowns are unlike other city neighborhoods and should not be treated in the same way. When they function well, downtowns provide important community benefits for their residents — and for the surrounding city and the broader region. To ensure that these community benefits are fully realized in Oakland, downtown needs to grow. And for that to actually happen, we need to make sure new projects aren’t burdened by unsustainable exactions or requirements. Downtowns, after all, are not just places, they are places of opportunity, and the racial equity framework needs to ensure that Oakland’s great opportunity is not missed.

A downtown plays three key roles within a city:

The Physical and Spatial Role: Concentrating Higher Densities Around Transit

Downtown Oakland is beginning to come alive, but there should be a lot more people living and working there. Downtowns are the ideal place for high-density development and tall buildings, especially around transit. Former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K Plan breathed life into downtown Oakland, and there are now about 20,000 residents living there. There’s room for lots more, though, and SPUR recommends that the race and equity analysis prioritize adding another 25,000 more. With all the empty lots and surface parking lots downtown, there is plenty of room for people of all incomes. Increasing downtown’s population will attract retail, especially much-needed supermarkets, and this will greatly benefit the existing as well as the new residents. It will also make downtown more active, particularly during evenings and weekends, and more eyes on the street will mean greater safety for everyone.  

To fit 25,000 new residents downtown, we recommend that the city update its zoning to allow more housing and improve amenities. To prevent displacement, Oakland should strengthen its enforcement of current rent protections. And to make sure that downtown remains accessible and affordable, the city should experiment with new housing models. There is a vibrant community of architects in Oakland; let’s see what they can come up with.  

The Economic Role: Generating Revenue, Providing Opportunity

A successful downtown functions as an economic hub, a revenue-generator and a place of vitality and commerce. It provides a wide range of jobs and opportunities to a city’s — and region’s — residents. This economic activity attracts people and generates revenue to support city services. With all this is mind, SPUR advocates that the Downtown Specific Plan should focus on bringing 50,000 more jobs downtown to add to the 80,000 already there. This will put downtown Oakland on par with downtown Portland. 

Downtown Oakland is uniquely suited for new office construction. Nowhere else in the Bay Area is there such a supply of large vacant lots so close to transit. Encouraging large office buildings on those lots should be a priority for the City of Oakland, as adding a significant number of new jobs will be good for the whole city.  Office towers are great sources of jobs across the income spectrum, and they could be great sources of employment for people from all across Oakland.

But not all of the buildings in downtown should be office towers. On some of the best streets in downtown, like 15th Street, every building is different. The Downtown Plan should allow for many different types of structures be built and rennovated. Diversity of building types will enable diverse businesses and a diverse populace.

The Cultural and Civic Role: Providing a Space for Public Life

Great downtowns are meeting grounds, places that encourage and celebrate city life. They are where people of different economic, racial and cultural backgrounds come together. Jobs and housing may be the reasons why people initially come downtown, but a thriving downtown that works for everyone needs more. Downtowns accept and expect more experimentation and a greater mixture of uses. Other neighborhoods, even dense urban ones, would not permit a high-rise next to a one-story historic building, a nightclub next to an apartment complex or a high school on top of a music venue. But in downtown Oakland, all these things should, and do, happen.

 

Making sure that the development process is clear and simple is the most important thing the Downtown Specific Plan can accomplish.

To add all of these new jobs and residents, and to enable all of this other activity, there will have to be a lot of new development. This means Oakland’s development rules, while considering the needs of the community, will also have to ensure that developments are expeditious and financially feasible. Moreover, the approvals processes will need to be predictable and streamlined so that much-needed new construction and renovation can happen in a timely manner (A recent study confirms the costs of development regulation, acutely felt in California: our cities have some of the most restrictive building laws in the nation). This latter point is most important for smaller, locally owned businesses that don’t have the resources to wait long periods for permits, can’t afford to pay for expedited processing and don’t have staff to shepherd proposals through a potentially arduous set of hearings.

 

Downtown Oakland is enjoying a renaissance, but it’s still fragile.

After struggling for years, downtown Oakland has become a destination — the kind of place a downtown is supposed to be. There is a pulse — the place is dynamic, and culture and nightlife are thriving. Eighty thousand people work downtown, and 20,000 live there. But downtown is only just starting to succeed, and there’s a long way to go before it becomes the economic engine that Oakland needs it to be: the sort of place that can help put the whole city on much firmer economic footing. Even in this booming regional real estate market, there are still nearly 40 acres of vacant lots downtown. Only two new commercial buildings have been built in the last 15 years. Broadway remains full of vacant storefronts, too many public spaces are poorly maintained, most streets are devoid of activity after business hours and the physical damage done by 20th century urban renewal and freeway construction remains. 

 

The fragility of downtown Oakland’s recovery means that its current state can’t be taken for granted.  As we stated in our report A Downtown for Everyone, the best path forward is to plan for growth downtown — and to shape that growth to make downtown Oakland a great place that provides benefits to all. Downtown Oakland is an opportunity to demonstrate that equity will come from supporting economic growth — not from stifling it. 

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