Monthly Archives: August 2008

Enjoy Oakland! Visit the Art & Soul Festival

So, it’s really tempting sometimes to just dismiss the City of Oakland’s ability to do, well, pretty much anything at all right as non-existent. But it’s important to remember that there are actually some bright spots in City Hall, and one of the brightest is the Art & Soul Festival. The Cultural Arts & Marketing Division does just a bang-up job putting this festival together, and it’s actually one of my favorite things about this town.

If you haven’t been, they basically fence off a ginormous section of downtown, from Broadway to Jefferson, and from 15th to 11th, and fill the streets with vendors and stages and other random activities. They have all sorts of neat little art things, like a paint by numbers mural and I guess the 10,000 Steps people are going to be there. They’ve got seven stages, so you can find some performance to watch anytime all day. And while the Indigo Girls might be somewhat of a lame headliner, it’s certainly not reason to skip the festival. The stuff on the Bay Area Blues Society stage is pretty much just always worth listening to. I also usually enjoy the Latin stage.

What else? If you have kids, they’re got bouncy castles and slides and rides and face painting. They’ve got midway games. They have all sorts of overpriced festival food, including those disgusting nachos with the gross fake cheese, which I love. The Oaklandish people are usually there showing Oakland movies in a tent. I usually don’t buy any of the crafts on sale, but it’s always fun to walk through the booths and check them out. Although, if you’re looking to stock up on Oakland t-shirts, this is the place to do it. And if you happen to be interested in zoning, it provides an excellent opportunity to observe how people really feel about the “shadows” cast by tall buildings.

But most of all, I just love seeing so many people wandering around and having a complete blast in downtown. The place is always packed, and there’s families and there’s teenagers and there’s old people and just everyone is there and having a great time and it’s all just so completely heartwarming and really makes you feel good about Oakland. So if you happen to be in town over this long, hot weekend, I urge you to check it out.

As much as I love Art & Soul, I’m unable to attend this year on account of being out of town, instead enjoying the Jazz Aspen festival, which, ironically, is neither jazz nor in Aspen. The music’s better here, but Art & Soul is a more exciting overall experience, hands down. But here are some photos of last year’s festival if you want a sense of what it’s like: Continue reading

When your best isn’t good enough, it’s time to go

So I’ve had like a dozen people ask me this week why I haven’t written anything yet about the latest plan for ending Oakland’s spate of restaurant robberies from Mayor Ron Dellums and Police Chief Wayne Tucker.

For those who missed it somehow, Dellums says that the problem will not end until we all start running around writing down license plate numbers of all the suspicious looking vehicles we see. The Mayor also made the extremely helpful observation that he thinks people are robbing restaurants because they are “targets of opportunity.” Um…duh.

Meanwhile, the police department basically blames the continued robberies on the media, saying that all the coverage of robberies and no reporting on arrests emboldens would-be robbers. Again…duh.

The police department thinks this is unfair, since they’ve actually arrested 52 robbery suspects in the past two months, although none of those arrests are of suspects in the recent restaurant robberies. So…52 suspects. 60 days. Out of how many crimes? Well, between June 24th (xls) and August 24 (xls), we went from 1,897 reported robberies for the year to 2,606. So…two months, 709 robberies, 52 arrests. And the problem is with the media not reporting arrests? If they say so.

Anyway, I mostly haven’t written about it yet because it’s just too depressing. The latest pleas for help and rounds of blame and sad defensiveness are just so totally pathetic that my immediate reaction was one of pity rather than anger. Both Dellums’s and Tucker’s remarks just give off this overwhelming stench of complete desperation. And yeah, it’s totally unacceptable that they can’t get a handle on things, but my feeling at this point is that both really are doing the best they can. The problem is that both are just completely overmatched by their jobs. And when you’re doing your best and working as hard as you’re capable of (I’m not saying that the Mayor is working harder than most people would be capable of, BTW, just that I don’t think it’s in him to do anything beyond what he’s already doing), and the result is just flat-out not acceptable, that means it’s time to hand the reigns to someone else. At this point, the best thing both Dellums and Tucker could do to help Oakland move forward is to put their egos aside and admit that these extremely important jobs should be filled by someone with more energy, more ideas, and more, well, just general competence.

More on house prices versus condos

I was actually going to hold off on writing any more about this until next week, but since yesterday’s post about falling home prices in the East Bay has generated an insane number of comments, I’ll add a little more today.

So I was trying to do two things in yesterday’s post. One, demonstrate the logical flaw in an argument made elsewhere that a 12% drop in the median sales price of condos is evidence of overbuilding by comparing the drop in median home sales prices using the same metric. Two, highlight the relative affordability of Oakland in comparison to neighboring cities.

I didn’t think I was really saying anything controversial, but I got a ton of comments in response that appeared, at least to me, to be attempting to explain the discrepancy between the drop in condo prices and drop in single family home prices. The reasons people came up with (condos are often in better condition, condos are in nicer neighborhoods, etc.) seemed for the most part logical. But where I’m getting lost is that it sort of seems to me like people are then making a leap from the fact that they can see reasons for the relative price drops to assuming that means the data should be dismissed. But why? The market doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Obviously there are reasons for that different properties have different values. People will pay more to live in a nice neighborhood than a crappy one, people will pay more to live somewhere that’s in better condition, and so on. Just because there’s a rational explanation for something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Quite the opposite, actually.

Anyway, I’m going to hold off on addressing some of the more specific issues of data collection or getting into neighborhood based data until next week, but for now, look at this as a fresh place to comment on the same subject, with the added benefit of a little bit more citywide data. The charts below illustrate median prices for condos and single family homes in Oakland over the last year. The first chart shows the overall market, then the following four are broken into quartiles (that is, the first chart shows the most expensive 25% of properties in each category, the second chart shows the next most expensive 25% of properties, and so on). Continue reading

Falling housing prices in Oakland and elsewhere

So the current San Francisco Business Times has an article about how it’s rough times for developers in Oakland, in which we learn that resale condo prices have dropped 12% since last year, from an average price of $475,614 per unit to $418,901 per unit. One blogger at Curbed SF appears to think that this crisis is a result of overbuilding in downtown under the Brown era. Reading the story, my immediate thought was that it didn’t seem like 12% was really all that bad, given the current state of the housing market. So it got me wondering, what kind of drop in price did single family homes see over the same period?

So I started looking at the market profiles over at Altos Research, where I learned that the median price of a single family home in Oakland is $290,925. As for the decline in that price since last year, well, it’s a whole hell of a lot more than 12%: Continue reading

Ballot Measure Round-up

Oakland voters will have themselves a packed ballot in November. On top of picking a brand-new City Councilmember and deciding whether they feel like adding another $450/year to their tax bills, they also have a whole slew of inane propositions to say no to at the State level. Anyway, in case you’re having trouble keeping track, here’s the rundown.

Local:

  • Measure VV, AC-Transit: Increases its existing parcel tax by $48 a year for 10 years to fund transit improvements for seniors, people with disabilities and students. Two-thirds vote required.
  • Measure WW, East Bay Regional Park District: Extends existing property tax of $10 per $100,000 assessed valuation per year. Proceeds of $500 million will be used for preservation of creeks, wildlife, open space, purchase of open space and development of parks and trails. Two-thirds vote required.
  • Measure N, Oakland: Levies a 10-year parcel tax of $120 a year for improvements at the city’s public charter schools. Two-thirds vote required.
  • Measure NN, Oakland: Establishes a parcel tax to fund the addition of police officers, crime management data systems and independent audits. Two-thirds vote required.
  • Measure OO, Oakland: Amends city charter to increase the dollar amount of grants to organizations serving children and increase the amount the city must spend on children and youth. Majority vote required.

State:

  • Proposition 1: Authorizes the state to sell $9.95 billion in bonds to partially fund a high-speed passenger train between Los Angeles and Northern California. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 2: Prohibits the confinement on a farm of pregnant pigs, calves raised for veal and egg-laying hens in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 3: Authorizes the state to sell $980 million in bonds for construction projects at children’s hospitals, including the five University of California children’s hospitals. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 4: Amends the California Constitution to require a physician to notify the parent or legal guardian of pregnant minor at least 48 hours prior to performing an abortion involving that minor. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 5: Expands drug treatment diversion programs for criminal offenders, modified parole supervision procedures, allows inmates to earn time off their terms for participation in rehabilitation programs and reduces penalties for marijuana possession. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 6: Creates new state-funded criminal justice programs and mandates that funding for certain existing programs be maintained at 2007-2008 levels. Total funding would increase by $365 million to $965 million starting in 2009. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 7: Establishes and enforces increased use of renewable resources on electricity-generating companies. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 8: Amends the California Constitution to specify that marriage is between a man and a woman. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 9: Amends the California Constitution to expand the legal rights of victims of crime and mandate payment of restitution by offenders, restrict early release of inmates and change the procedures for granting and revoking parole. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 10: Authorizes the state to sell $5 billion in bonds for renewable energy, alternative fuel, energy efficiency and air emissions reduction programs.
  • Proposition 11: Amends the California Constitution to shift the responsibility for drawing political boundaries from the Legislature to an independent citizens commission. Congressional lines are exempted from the new commission’s duties but state Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization districts after the 2010 Census would fall under its purview. Majority vote required.
  • Proposition 12: Authorizes the state to sell $900 million in bonds for the Cal-Vet program, which would allow 3,600 additional veterans to receive farm and home loans. Majority vote required.

Oh, and if that’s giving you a headache, just thank your lucky stars that you don’t live in San Francisco, where they have to deal with ballot measures A through V. OMG!

How much of our crime crisis has to do with ineffective leadership at OPD?

So in Citywise today, we learn that Robert Bobb announced at an event yesterday that the budget deficit is going to be between 40 and 60 million. Ouch. Bobb is right – it’s going to be an ugly September indeed.

But he said something else at the same event that I find even more upsetting. In response to a question about crime or the police department or something like that, Bobb reported that he had actually asked Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker recently what the department’s crime reduction goal for the year was. Tucker responded that they didn’t have one. Take a second to let that one sink in.

If I hadn’t been completely convinced already that Tucker just needs to go as soon as possible, hearing that certainly did it for me. If you haven’t jumped on that bandwagon yet, you may want to take a gander at some of Ron Oz’s essays. Oz has many interesting things to say about policing, although I recommend taking his demographic comparisons with a grain of salt, well, not even that – just ignore it. He has a habit of taking data from two different sources and draws sweeping conclusions from these apples to oranges numbers and makes assumptions based on them and in general, it’s kind of a bad scene. But the police stuff is solid.

Rebecca Kaplan on TagamiVision

 In this installment of TagamiVision, Phil Tagami talks to Rebecca Kaplan, candidate for Oakland City Council’s at-large seat. Kapland discusses her endorsements, the differences she sees between herself and her opponent, Kerry Hamill, her experience with policymaking and balancing budgets, public safety, and economic development.


If you missed the last episode, featuring Kerry Hamill, the other contender for the at-large Council seat, you can view it here.

Tower and base

So the new CBD Zoning (PDF) is going to the Zoning Update Committee again today, and the recommendations continue to be completely bizarre, overly complicated, and completely unconcerned with the historic character of downtown (in fact, on Monday’s downtown walking tour, at one point someone asked strategic planner Neil Gray, who was explaining the code to the group, which of the 8 or so buildings we were looking at right then would be permitted under the new code, and he was forced to admit that not a single one of them conformed).

I’ve said all this before. What I want to talk about today is tower and base. The form being dictated by the proposed code is terrible. I’m sorry, it’s just awful. I simply cannot understand why anyone would think it’s a good idea in the first place, and I absolutely cannot understand why, after seeing this silly design model month after month after month, the Committee members have not asked staff to eliminate it.

So in case you haven’t been following the discussion, this is what the form-based aspect of the proposed new zoning code does: buildings have a maximum allowable base height and also a maximum allowable tower height. The idea here is that all new buildings will have a wide base on the street, but that the tall portion of the building will have a narrower tower. In the maximum height area, buildings are described as having “unlimited” heights. What is unlimited is the height of the tower – the base of the building has a maximum height of 120 feet.

On Monday’s walking tour, Gray pointed out the new Madison Lofts building as a “model” of what the new zoning is trying to achieve.

So you see how the bottom of the building goes all the way out to the sidewalk, and then the bulk of the building is smaller, so the upper floors are not flush with the sidewalk? Under the proposed code, all new buildings are supposed to look like that. And what I still cannot understand is why? Do people really think that this building is better because the tower is set back from the sidewalk? Unlike practically every other building in the neighborhood, the bulk of the building mass is not flush with the street – in what way does this improve the pedestrian experience? Who benefits from this? Is there really anyone who finds this shape aesthetic pleasing? I really, really, really just don’t understand why we would even consider dictating this very specific and very ugly form for every new building downtown. Who is benefitting? Who? And where in the LUTE is there any justification for doing this, because I sure as hell can’t find it.

The key to creating a pleasant streetscape and pleasant pedestrian experience is demanding quality ground floor treatments and design. I think, when you’re walking past the windows on the 14th Street side of this building, that it’s pretty pleasant. And I certainly don’t see how it would be less pleasant is the rest of the building was the same size as the ground floor portion. It seems to me that the only thing the tower/base regulations really achieve is a reduction of potential density, and I really don’t think it should be our goal to limit density in the Central Business District, home of 3 BART stations and most of the major bus lines in town, and Oakland’s best hope creating future employment opportunities and tax base growth. That’s like, exactly the opposite of what the General Plan says to do.

For a building roughly this size, the tower/base form is pointless, but relatively inoffensive. I mean, I think it sucks that the Madison Lofts are smaller than they need to be, but life goes on. But for larger buildings – well, frankly, it just looks stupid. For example, we started the tour at that huge surface parking lot at 14th and Jackson in front of the post office – the one where Chauncey Bailey was murdered. Gray explained that the proposed code for that lot would allow a base of 85 feet (the maximum base height for Height Area 4 has now been reduced from 100 feet to 85 feet for reasons beyond my comprehension), topped with a narrow tower of as much as 400 feet.

Again – why would anyone want to do this? Has anyone thought about what this is going to make downtown look like?

Think of the Trib Tower. Now imagine that the shorter part of the base was the same and the tower portion was like, twice as tall. That’s what we’re talking about. An exagerated version of what we’re talking about (nobody would build a tower so skinny now), but still, that’s the idea. Do people really think that would look good? I mean, I like the Trib Tower as much as the next girl – it’s fine to have a handful of buildings like that, they add some visual interest, I suppose. But do we really want every new building downtown to look like that? Do we really think that’s going “enhance” our skyline? Do we honestly think that this will make downtown a more pleasant place to be? Sigh. I just don’t get it.

Oh, and for those of you keeping score at home, the staff report (PDF) is once again wrong about the heights of existing buildings. On page 3 of the report, the description of Issue Area 1 claims that the buildings in the lakeside area south of 14th Street, like the County Courthouse and the Library, are between 40 at 87 feet in height. I swear, they tried to pull this with the Courthouse last meeting, too. Hi, folks – it’s a twelve story building. It isn’t 80 feet tall. In fact, according to CEDA’s own map (PDF), the Courthouse is 220 feet tall.

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Experts say: restaurant robberies not due to economy

I know the posting here has been pretty light lately, and I do apologize for that. Other things are getting in the way of blogging at the moment (and I’m also busy working on some changes to this site itself, which I hope you will all get to enjoy very soon), and hey – everyone’s on vacation right now anyway, and what with it being recess and all, it’s a good time for a little break.

Hopefully I will be able to get something up about the CBD zoning later this afternoon, but if not, definitely tomorrow, and FYI – there is another Zoning Update Committee meeting (PDF) about this tomorrow (Wednesday) at 5.

Anyway, for now, I just wanted to say that I loved Chip Johnson’s column today and that if for whatever reason, you haven’t read it yet, you totally should go do so. I mean, obviously I think it’s great, because he’s saying the same things I’ve been saying, but I loved, loved, loved the fact that he trotted out a criminal justice law professor to explain that Dellums is out to lunch, just for the like 10 people in Oakland who bought the ridiculous excuse that we can blame the housing downtown for the restaurant robberies:

In Oakland, where higher-than-average crime is normal in good and bad economic times, it’s a weak argument.

“I would be enormously doubtful if that were the case,” said Frank Zimring, a professor at the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley. “Robbery is a dreadful way of making money and suggests things that are clearly not cyclical to employment opportunities.”

Anyway, if for some reason you missed the column, go read it now.

Relying on charity is not a plan

So there’s this guy I know who never seems to have any money. He works off and on, picking up jobs here and there, and in general is just barely getting by pretty much all the time. Which isn’t all that unusual, and hey – if it works for him, who am I to judge, right?

Sometimes, mere minutes after complaining to me about how broke he is, he’ll then suggest we go get drinks together. If I inquire as to how that’s going to work if he has no money, he’ll say something like “Oh, don’t worry, I have a plan.” Then we’ll get to the bar and he’ll buy one drink, drink it, and when it’s finished, he’ll stand around waving his empty glass and complaining loudly about how broke he is until someone takes pity on him and offers to buy him a drink. If that fails, he’ll bat his long eyelashes at everyone in the vicinity and just straight up ask them one by one to buy him a drink until someone does. Using this strategy, he can usually squeeze like five or six cocktails out of the $10 he brought with him. I find it kind of annoying, but it’s hard to fault him for doing it, since it seems to work out pretty well.

But it’s one thing if your strategy is just to depend on the charity of others when we’re talking about martinis. When you’re talking about the safety of 420,000 people, it’s a totally different story. Which is why I was particularly disturbed to read in the Trib yesterday Ron Dellums saying “Bringing in the Guardian Angels is part of the city’s comprehensive plan to provide additional security for Oakland’s business corridors.” Really?

I mean…really? Look, I’m reluctant to knock the Guardian Angels. Personally, they kind of creep me out. But it’s hard to condemn people who are willing to give up their time and spend their own money traveling somewhere they don’t even live to help out. Which brings up something else I don’t quite understand. What’s so special about the Guardian Angels? Why do we need people to fly here from San Diego or wherever to walk around commercial districts? Can we seriously not find 40 people in all of Oakland willing to walk up and down Grand Avenue for a couple hours at night carrying pepper spray?

Anyway, I certainly hope there’s an awful lot more to Dellums’s “comprehensive plan” than the Guardian Angels, and honestly, I don’t even understand why they’re part of our “plan” at all. I realize that this isn’t anything new, and I’ve complained before about how the Mayor’s approach to governing Oakland appears to rely on begging for charity and how that is the exact opposite of sustainability, which seems to be like, one of the Mayor’s 10 favorite words, but I swear, it really just drives me completely bonkers! I mean, if the City wants to hire private security for commercial districts, I’m down with that. If the City wants to employ its own unarmed force to patrol commercial districts, like they do in Philadelphia and Atlanta, fine. If the City wants to try to coordinate volunteer walking patrols of neighborhood residents, well, I guess that’s okay too. But I am completely baffled as to why anyone would think it’s okay to even suggest that safety for Oakland businesses should hinge on the presence of temporary volunteers from across the country. I just don’t get it at all.