Issue #145, Spring 2006
Designing a Socially Just Downtown
Mayor Brown’s plan for a new downtown in Oakland was stymied by a resurgence of grassroots housing advocacy
By Alex Salazar
Affordable housing is not a dirty word. Despite its association with the drug-infested, crime-ridden public housing projects of the past, there is a growing awareness that affordable housing increases property values. Downtown Oakland, California, is a classic example. Throughout the 1990s, on infill sites in the most risky areas, nonprofit developers were the first to produce attractive, high-density buildings. Projects that revitalized streets and contained social services for extremely low-income residents were often mistaken for market-rate developments. Twenty years in the making, they were the outgrowth of an active community of advocates and nonprofits who helped establish the financial and political will to address housing inequities. By the turn of the century, however, the tables turned. Neighborhood stability spurred a booming condo market, and gentrification and displacement became commonplace.
No project better encapsulates this turn of events than the Uptown project a 1,040 unit mixed-use development by Forest City Enterprises, designed by Calthorpe Associates with McLarand Vasquez Emsiek. Uptown is the keystone of Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan a New Urbanist planning effort intended to attract 10,000 residents into Oakland’s downtown core. Uptown alone promises to add about 2,200 residents to the area about as many as all the 10K projects completed in the first five years of Brown’s administration. Forest City’s initial proposal in the late 1990s requested tens of millions of dollars in public subsidies to produce mostly market-rate condos and high-end rental apartments. But after years of organizing, protests, policy advocacy and community design work, affordable housing advocates won concessions: 210 affordable units will now serve a range of incomes from 30 to 50 percent of the area median income (AMI).
Jerry Brown: How do you know what color they are going to be? Well, that’s kind of a stigmatization of nonwhite people. There are African-Americans, Chinese, Filipinos and there are white people and by the way, race is just kind of silly anyway because 99 percent of our DNA is the same.
Since the 1930s, West Oakland, which includes downtown, was the point of disembarkation for African Americans who escaped southern racism and found employment in Oakland’s wartime port economy. By the 1950s a backlash was underway, with white flight to the suburbs, redlining and other less overt race-based policies becoming part of local planning tools. For example, a 1950 redevelopment study that documented the African-American population was used to plan its removal under the guise of improving dilapidated housing. This failure to meaningfully address political and social inequities in the city, coupled with the decline of Oakland as an industrial center, gave rise to the West Coast Civil Rights movement and, later, Black Liberation struggles. West Oakland, in particular, became the hotbed of social struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, epitomized by the rise and fall of the Black Panthers, who polarized the city and helped brand Oakland as one of the most dangerous places to live in the country.
Not much physically changed downtown until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when commercial and historic buildings, along with miles of infrastructure, were left in ruins. The quake significantly damaged most remaining single room occupancy hotels, forcing thousands of very low-income people, mostly African Americans, out onto the streets and into homelessness. In the vacuum left by fleeing private developers, nonprofits stepped up their advocacy for affordable housing and harnessed state and federal resources to do the job. The city embraced this strategy in the 1990s as a way to maintain investment while addressing the needs of a booming homeless population. Dozens of affordable developments thrived in downtown during this period and helped establish the sophisticated public-private finance mechanisms and design standards that East Bay nonprofits have become known for.
When former California Governor Brown became Oakland’s mayor in 1998, this history appeared forgotten, along with Brown’s new-age sensibilities and the left-wing talk show persona that helped him win the election. As mayor, Brown was born again, this time as a realist aiming to liberalize Oakland’s political economy. During his first year in office he launched several new policy agendas, including creation of charter schools, reorganization and expansion of the police department, promotion of environmental responsibility and the 10K plan. The 10K was a market-driven utopian vision encompassing New Urbanist, Smart Growth and Transit Village principles. According to Brown, 10K would create a new “Ecopolis,” where an environment-friendly city could reduce suburban sprawl by producing “elegantly dense” downtown housing linked to public transportation. Brown hoped that when they were complete, a variety of condo projects would help revitalize the heart of the city, providing an upscale 24-hour commercial economy that had not operated here for over 30 years.
While the 10K was not entirely at odds with nonprofit developments that preceded it, attitudes about the plan changed in 1999 when, during the middle of the “dot com” technology boom, housing affordability became a major issue. Downtown rental prices increased 40 percent in 1999 alone. “No-cause” evictions tripled, disproportionately affecting low-income minorities living in East and West Oakland. This is why Brown’s infamous “slumification” speech backfired. Early in his mayoral term, at a very public address, he described Oakland’s economic future as a choice between 10K gentrification and the “slumification” of downtown fueled by new affordable housing projects. Spoken in a room full of affordable housing advocates, his characterization lent credibility to the view that the 10K was a racialized vision serving middle- and upper-class whites, mostly San Francisco commuters, while fostering gentrification and displacement. This political rhetoric also fueled the fire of low-income residents to fight the plan.
Artists living in the warehouse districts were some of the first displaced in the early boom years, and they quickly dubbed the 10K the “Jerryfication” of Oakland a term later embraced by mainstream media. Tenant and homeless advocates, meanwhile, mobilized around evictions and rising rents, creating Just Cause Oakland a successful tenant rights ballot initiative and organizing project that mobilized record numbers of tenants to speak out against displacement. Community-based organizations, such as People United for a Better Oakland, created the JerryWatch Coalition, which tracked the mayor’s activities and helped mobilize protests. Other organizations such as labor unions and church-based coalitions began making housing one of their key organizing issues.
Out of this resurgence of grassroots housing advocacy, East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), an umbrella nonprofit housing group, spearheaded the Coalition for Workforce Housing (CWH) to bring these activists together with nonprofit housing developers and social service providers. CWH demanded that: 25 percent of the 10K housing be affordable to households earning $35,000 or less; the City enact a “Just Cause for Eviction” ordinance and not displace residents for the 10K; and the 10K preserve single room occupancy hotels and downtown social services for extremely low-income people. While CWH demands addressed the 10K overall, the real target was the largest and highest profile development the Uptown.
Unlike San Francisco and San Jose, Oakland had seen little new condo development in the 1990s, so city leaders were easily persuaded to give sweetheart deals to developers, including a proposed $60 million to Forest City. This largess made the Uptown a focal point for advocates, and by summer 1999 CWH launched a three-pronged advocacy strategy.
The Media Pressure Campaign. Early on, CWH held a series of events that highlighted the lack of affordable housing in downtown, and in the Uptown project in particular. In March 2001, 300 Oakland residents of all economic and racial backgrounds came together for a “Gentrification Tour.” Homeless and tenant advocates marched near the Uptown site and visited a dozen surrounding locations where residents had been evicted or would soon be at risk. The event was CWH’s first major victory. It raised awareness of displacement and put the spotlight on city officials’ position on housing issues.
The Public Policy and Watchdog Role. CWH participated in nearly all city-sponsored meetings regarding housing and used this platform to promote its demands. In winter 2003, 20 residents and advocates turned out for Peter Calthorpe’s Uptown community design charrette. After a short rally outside, the group took over the meeting and forced the design team and city staff to hear testimony from local residents and review a presentation of the CWH affordable housing design proposal. This action was the second major CWH victory, pushing the city of Oakland and Forest City to negotiate on affordable housing.
The Community Design Role. CWH organizers knew that technical analysis of the Uptown was essential if the community was to be part of negotiations with city staff and developers. In 2002, volunteer architects and planners developed an affordable housing design proposal for the Uptown site demonstrating how the community’s demands could be met without significantly changing Forest City’s development plans. This organizing culminated a year later with a CWH-sponsored Community Design charrette at SEIU Local 250 a union hall slated for demolition in the Uptown development. Around 30 coalition and community members turned out to study the Uptown’s gentrification impact and to give input into the mix of units and levels of affordability in the CWH design proposal. City staff and the Forest City development team participated in the event, which was a third major victory for CWH. It demonstrated to the city and developer that CWH had the technical knowledge and power to challenge the development.
The Activists’ Plan
CWH set out to show the developer an alternate approach to the land that would greatly increase the amount of affordable housing for tenants earning less than 50 percent of AMI. They pulled together a volunteer technical team to design the scheme (which I led, along with Sean Heron of East Bay Housing Organizations and Elissa Dennis of Community Economics, Inc.). The team’s proposal worked within the Uptown development grid, but used two of the city blocks to create stand-alone affordable housing developments with on-site social services. CWH’s plan hinged on the fact that these buildings would be more financially viable, serve families and extremely low-income tenants, offer many social services and help Forest City make good use of less desirable land parcels that were risky for market-rate buildings. This scheme would produce more than 210 affordable units at incomes from 20 to 50 percent of AMI, using a variety of funding sources. It also followed many of the design principles promoted by New Urbanists: orienting ground floor uses like retail stores to the street for a walkable, pedestrian-oriented environment; articulating building scale and form/massing to fit the context of the surrounding neighborhood and particulars of the site; and orienting dwelling units toward the street, with front stoops and windows, in order to increase safety and create a neighborhood atmosphere.
With this scheme, the organizers promoted the idea of concentrated affordable housing and proposed that Forest City partner with local nonprofits to develop and/or manage these buildings. This helped avoid the sticking points of inclusionary zoning, which often entails scattering small numbers of affordable units among multiple housing developments. Except for a handful of affordable units, each development is priced at the market rate. Many housing advocates and grassroots organizers support this kind of zoning in Oakland, as do more conservative politicians who see it as a way to reduce the “concentration of poverty” in wholly affordable developments. Whatever the benefits of inclusionary policies, in practice developers such as Forest City are often unable to make units in their buildings truly affordable to low-income tenants. Moreover, private developers are often unfamiliar and unable to provide on-site social services that very low-income tenants need, such as job training, day care or even drug, alcohol and psychological counseling. From CWH’s perspective, it made sense to concentrate affordable units in one or two buildings and provide services there as well.
CWH’s plan to focus on two sites was also strategic, as the organizers knew that once in negotiations with Forest City, they would need something to give up in a compromise. This strategy paid off, as it turned out that one of the proposed sites was still owned by the city. As a result of public pressure, the city’s redevelopment staff was pulled into negotiations, giving CWH leverage with the developer. Subsequently, CWH gave up one site and in return convinced the developer to set aside the city-owned parcel for a local nonprofit.
By 2003 the process was moving forward and CWH started working with a local architecture firm to refine the proposal. Meanwhile, Forest City agreed to provide 20 percent of the rental units in its part of the Uptown site at 50 percent of AMI, as they had in 2001, and set aside some of these units as family housing. In return, Forest City kept the $60 million subsidy from the City of Oakland to kick-start the overall development. But the deal set a precedent for future projects, in that developers cannot expect to use city funds without creating their fair share of housing. In 2004 the agreement between CWH and Forest City was accepted by the city council, and in 2005 the city selected Resources for Community Development (RCD) and Pyatok Architects to develop and design a building on the nonprofit’s parcel the first of six city blocks to be developed in the Uptown.
The Power of Community Design
In this respect, the CWH example highlights a challenge to design and development professionals to deal with the impacts of gentrification. While organizations such as the Association for Community Design are helping to re-kindle this debate, others, such as the Congress for New Urbanism, are trying to play down its importance. Part of the discussion centers on changes within the affordable housing field. As it has grown and professionalized over the last two decades, both nonprofit developers and the private architecture firms that serve them have increased in size and sophistication to compete on larger and larger projects becoming distanced from local communities.
The challenge of the day, it seems, is for the next generation of community designers to find new methods of practice that bridge the gap between architecture and community organizing. For my part, as an architect for CWH whose day job is to design Oakland condos, I am reminded that design agendas Smart Growth, New Urbanism, even Mayor Brown’s “elegantly dense Ecopolis” mean little to low-income communities of color. Working extremely low-paid, part-time, service sector jobs and traveling on deteriorated and under-funded public transportation systems, most find little smart or new about displacing people because of their race and class, no matter what it is called. I am also reminded that while community designers and housing organizations are extremely important and essential, at the end of the day the power to make sustainable change comes not from board meetings or the drafting board, but from the grassroots.
Alex Salazar is an architect in Oakland. He helped found Just Cause Oakland and is on the board of East Bay Housing Organizations.
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