Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Estuary Planning Workshop review

Monday night, at the urging of this post, I went to a planning meeting for the Estuary area of East Oakland. Since I'm new to this whole scene, I thought I would write about my impressions, in the hopes that it will be less intimidating to other people to get involved in stuff like this.

I got there a little bit late, so when I came in a guy from the consulting firm was giving a presentation about the whole project. It was boring. (Note to self: come late every time.) There were about 85 people in the audience, skewing heavily to an older, white demographic. I hadn't known what to expect--I thought there would be a larger contingent of hipsters throwing their weight around, but it seemed more like retirees performing their civic duty.

Anyways, the consultant guy then gave us some information about the area currently, with a little bit of history thrown in. That part was actually pretty interesting, and I learned some things, although it was amusing how much he sugared up his description of the estuary area. I just can't think of streets like this as very nice:

On the other hand, I guess it wouldn't be good form for the speaker to shit all over an area that he's working on. Seriously though, I was surprised at how much I didn't know about this relatively small strip of land. I didn't know that it was a food production area, or that there were so many condos, and I had no idea about the white elephant sale. So maybe I'm the idiot here.

After the presentation we were supposed to break up into four groups to discuss our ideas for the area, but people kept asking the speaker general questions. It was obnoxious as hell every time somebody was like, "what about ConAg?" "What about the railroad?" I get the sense that people relish the idea of being the "lone voice speaking truth to power" in a context like this. They think that the dude with the microphone represents "the system," and they're the little people in the audience standing up for the community.

Anyways, we finally divided up into our breakout groups. This was the heart of the meeting. My group was interesting in that it had a pretty thorough mix of interest groups. There were a couple of neighborhood condo residents, an industrial business owner, a landowner/developer, a guy from Urban Strategies, a few pro-environment people, an aspiring chef/bleeding edge hipster, and a couple random others thrown in. They all seemed pretty well-educated, solidly middle class people--not necessarily representative of the whole community, but thoughtful and diverse in their opinions. The developer guy looked like McBain from The Simpsons, which is pretty much how I would imagine a developer looking.

Anyways, the guy leading the exercise asked us first to write down what we value about the waterfront. I definitely learned some things from the responses people gave. For one thing, plenty of people love the estuary just the way it is and don't want it to change. The business owner said that what he liked about the area was that it was isolated from the rest of the community. And here I thought that was a bad thing! After that was the awesome quote from a resident that "there are so many things you can do here, despite it looking like a wasteland." Another person said she liked the low population density, which again, I tend to think of as a bad thing, especially for a place with good potential like the estuary.

The second question asked what we would like to see changed about the estuary area. My response harkened back to this post of mine. I basically said that Alameda is nice, and Fruitvale BART/International has a lot of flavor, so the estuary could be a good connection between the two, instead of a no-man's-land. The business owner wanted less bureacratic red tape, the Urban Strategies guy said he wanted more blue-collar jobs, the environmental people wanted greenways and a beautiful waterfront, and so on. At times it felt like people were just reciting the talking points for whatever thing they were speaking on behalf of. The aspiring chef's answer to every question involved the phrase "artisanal foods," and I had to keep myself from cracking up by the third or fourth time. After a while though, people stopped being caricatures of themselves and some interesting conversation developed.

The developer made what I thought was the most interesting comment of the night when he said that "right now we have warehouses that are empty. But if you have incubator space--lofts, small businesses, small warehouse space--people want those all day long." The issue of zoning conflicts came up, since the zoning map and the general plan are apparently in conflict. The Urban Strategies guy made a good point on this issue when he said that "people can't act as rational economic agents when they don't know what the results will be at city hall."

Everybody seemed pretty surprised at areas of agreement within the group. I've started to become more and more aware of the "strange bedfellows" phenomenon in urban planning. The business owner was in sync with the Urban Strategies guy as far as keeping the area friendly to industry and jobs, and in sync with the environmental people as far as being pro-rail. The developer was in sync with the artisanal foods guy in terms of wanting space for small businesses. The biggest faultline I noticed was between the "develop and build" philosophy and the "leave it as it is" philosophy. Nobody really tried to tease out the conflicts though, so they were sort of just smoothed over instead.

When we had finished, one guy from each group was chosen to present a summary to the larger group. That was pretty much it.

So that's what it's like going to a community planning workshop. It's a clever idea in that it forces people to deal with each other rather than blame the guy at the podium for everything they don't like about a city plan. (And also it's democracy in action or something.) My biggest concern is that gathering input from the community in this way can be a feel-good process that sidesteps the hard questions and potential conflicts that might come up. I'm afraid that the ending resolution will be some mushy-mouthed statement like, "we want a nice, mixed-use place with interesting architecture." (i.e, the kind of statement where no matter what happens, politicians can say, "see, this is what the people wanted!") I hope that as the process goes along it gets a little more into the nitty-gritty of what's realistic and what the conflicting issues might be. I don't want to witness screaming matches, but I'd like something more realistic than a collective Christmas list. And I really don't want Oakland to end up with another underused park or plaza.

The next meeting is in late April, probably at the same location (Fruitvale/San Antonio Senior Center, 3301 E. 12th Street #201), although they might find a new venue. Check the website (or most likely abetteroakland) for updates. If you're not persuaded to come yet, keep in mind also that there are free Oreos at the end.


East of Alameda said...

Awesome post, especially the McBain reference.

I'll want to comment in more depth when I've got my notes from the meeting in front of me. I found there was a lot of contridiction in what people were saying, sometimes even in the same sentence. People wanted strong backing for the bay trail but wanted to accomodate waterfront business and industry. People wanted "more acitivity" but didn't want the increased density and residential imprint that such activity would require. People wanted more greenspace and streetscape improvement but didn't want the types of development that would generate the user fees to make such cost-intensive projects possible. People wanted pollution mitigation but weren't willing to get tough on the major industrial sources of the selfsame pollution. I know this was a 'big vision' meeting and all, but you've gotta break some eggs to make a cake. This whole project is predicated on creating a streamlined EIR process so the specific plan area can accumulate development-generated user fees to forge all these new and wonderful improvements we all talked about on Monday night. If there's no development, there's no user fees. Simple as that.

What especially worried me is that some of the people at the meeting seemed to take the tone afterwards that now that their voice had been heard, any deviation from that stated vision would be a subversion of the will of the people and a cop out to shadowy special interests. But that isn't what the meeting was about. I'd agree with Crimson that this meeting was more for the benefit of the participants rather than the planners. People come face to face with other real people who might actually disagree with their talking points. Novel concept, I know.

Still, good meeting. Can't wait for the next one.

East of Alameda said...

Also, the leading questions from the know-it-alls in the audience designed to trap staff in "gotcha" moments were not only rude but counter-productive as well (not to mention that their so-called "gotcha"s were actually incorrect answers to their own questions). How is pissing off any of the planners or staff going to improve the process? How is trying to embarrass the speaker in a public forum going to make staff more attentive to their cause? It's simply self-indulgent, self-important grandstanding at its worst. There are better and more productive ways to communicate the information they were trying to disseminate among staff and the stakeholders.

Crimson said...

Thanks for letting everybody in the Blogoaksphere know about the meeting, and thanks for your insightful comments. I'm sure you have a lot more to say on this subject.

"This whole project is predicated on creating a streamlined EIR process so the specific plan area can accumulate development-generated user fees to forge all these new and wonderful improvements we all talked about on Monday night." --That wasn't clear to me going into this. Maybe if I had paid attention when the speaker was talking.

Mule said...

You're a great writer. I enjoyed hearing about your experience at the meeting. I love these kinds of processes. Why wait until jury duty to learn more about your fellow citizens and find out what you agree with them on?

Anonymous said...

Your comment: "the "strange bedfellows" phenomenon in urban planning" is astute. Am reminded of Paul Gobster's study of park planning at Montrose Point in Lincoln Park, Chicago. If you are interested, here's the citation:

Visions of nature: conflict and compatibility, Gobster, Paul H., 2001, Landscape and Urban Planning 56:35-51

Online here

- Georgia (

Unknown said...

I enjoy the Estuary "as is." I like the industrial back-ways. I like the grit and decay. The trains and warehouses. The lack of crowds. The ugliness is beautiful. I like the unusual geese that sun themselves just west of the 5th street bridge on embarcadero. I've seen them there for 10 years and I guess their spot is threatened. That'll be too bad.

East of Alameda said...

The problem, Russel, is that nothing *ever* stays "as is". Change is constant; even if nothing new is build, the slow decay of the area is change in and of itself. Rather than lament the inevitability of such change, you should involve yourself in the process and try to retain the things that you think make the area so special. Divorce yourself from the specific industrial back-ways and try to make sure that what is so appealing about them to you survives the evolution of the neighborhood.

Additionally, the CESP only covers 19th to 54th, 880 to the water. Embarcadero and 5th will not be affected by the specific plan. Now, that area might be affected by Oak-to-9th, but with the economy, their battles with OHA, waterfront action and the Silvera's, I don't expect anything new to happen down there for quite a while.

Crimson said...

I think it's perfectly possible for that area to stay pretty much the way it is for years or even decades. I just don't think that's a good thing. From a big picture perspective, I think we have an obligation to reduce our consumption of natural resources, and one of the most efficient ways of doing that is through greater population density and intensity of uses in urban areas. If the estuary area can be home to productive industrial uses that's one thing, but I hardly think it's justifiable to keep this area in a state of decay for nostalgia's sake. The unintended consequence of this attitude is greater sprawl in previously unspoiled places.

There are ghost towns in the Sierra Nevadas if that's what you want. We don't need one in a centrally located section of the Bay Area. Just my opinion.

ShopGirl said...

Thanks to Chris Kidd, I found your post. I felt a sense of deja vu because I felt very similar things after an early Oak to 9th "Charette" (I think that's what it was called) where we first heard from the developer (who already had their vision). We then got into small groups where everyone talked about their personal agendas/wants. Compromise wasn't even considered! (giggling over the "artisinal food" phrase thinking that it sounded very familiar)

In the end it didn't matter because the developer continued on with their plan (because it made financial sense) and people that went to those meetings were upset that their voices weren't heard, including myself. I mean why even bother to have these "feel good" meetings if ultimately they don't make you feel better. On the other hand, I know that participation in other meetings has equated to some projects being better than they would have been if the original plan was accepted. (the new Jack London Square parking garage for example)

Many who go to these meetings aren't looking for change. They live in these areas because they like it as it is. But as Chris says, nothing stays the same, so how do you work towards a solution that can at least please some of the people?

I'm actually pro-change, but I want to make sure it's smarter development than what we currently have. Sometimes us lowly non-planner/developer types have a hard time seeing how a developer's idea is the best way to make those changes. And those that are dead set against change aren't going to like pretty much anything that gets done at all - even if nothing were to happen.

Although I used to regularly ride my bike in the area in question, I haven't spent a great deal of time around there in a while. I found both ugliness and prettiness in the area - much as I do throughout Oakland. ;)

Maybe I'll see you at tonight's meeting.