EDITORIAL The Oakland City Council is moving toward final approval of a plan to build 3,100 housing units along the Oakland Estuary near Lake Merritt, and while the project sponsors have come a long way toward offering community benefits, there's a big hitch: The entire project was devised backward. City planners never sat down and decided what Oakland needed on the site; the developer, Signature Properties of Pleasanton, came forward with its own vision, and the people who actually live in the area have had to respond to it.
The result is the Oak to Ninth Project, a plan with too much market-rate housing, not enough affordable units, and a hefty price tag for the city. If the council signs off on it July 18, a gigantic project that never had proper scrutiny will be underway.
It will also be finalized just a few months before mayor-elect Ron Dellums — who has serious problems with the project — takes office.
The voters of Oakland made clear in June that they didn't like the way the current mayor (and Oak to Ninth backer), Jerry Brown, was running the city. Brown's candidate (and another big Oak to Ninth backer), Ignacio De La Fuente, was handily defeated, receiving only about 33 percent of the vote. The other two candidates, Dellums and Councilmember Nancy Nadel, both had strong reservations about Oak to Ninth, and together they got some two-thirds of the votes.
In fact, the pro-Dellums vote was pretty clear in Oakland: His former aide Sandré Swanson won the Democratic primary (and thus effectively the election) for assembly over City Attorney John Russo. The odds are pretty good that Dellums will be able to change the direction of Oakland politics — and possibly shift the balance of power on the council — fairly soon after officially taking office.
When that happens, he needs to come back to the developer and demand some changes in the project. In San Francisco, political leaders like Sup. Chris Daly have managed to force developers to build fairly significant amounts of affordable housing — without bankrupting any projects. Signature Properties could probably sell at least 15 percent, and maybe 25 percent, of the units at below-market rates and still make a profit, and the new mayor ought to demand to see the company's financial statements for the project as a basis for negotiating.
But all of that will be after the fact. Signature Properties will have a deal in place, plans will be in the works, architects and engineers will be well into their final drawings — and if Dellums demands and wins changes, all of that will have to be scrapped (and the developer will fight, scream, and threaten legal action to prevent that from happening).
There's a simple, logical solution here: The council ought to delay any final action on Oak to Ninth until Dellums is in office and can put his own imprint on the project. It's been in the works for years and will take as much as a decade to complete; a few more months at this point won't hurt anyone. And Oakland could wind up with a much better project. SFBG