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 Oakland.net 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.