Monthly Archives: March 2010

Special Council meeting on climate change tonight

Tonight is the fifth Tuesday of the month. Normally, that means the Oakland City Council would have the night off. But not tonight!

No, tonight, they have scheduled a special workshop to deal with a pressing issue facing the City — climate change.

36% GHG Reduction by 2020

So, the Council is very concerned about greenhouse gas emissions. Last summer, the same time as they were voting to downzone two major streets in the Central Business District so that you can build no more than six stories on highly developable land in this middle of a major regional transit hub, they also told staff to make a plan that would allow Oakland to reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 36% below 2005 levels by 2020. That is 10 years away.

So this plan is going to be released on Earth Day (April 22nd), and you will have opportunities to weigh in at public workshops and on the City’s website during May and June. But for those of you who just can’t wait, you can get a preview with the presentation about the Oakland Energy and Climate Action Plan (ECAP) at the special Council meeting tonight.

Also, if you just can’t stand to wait until 5:30, all the powerpoint slides are already there for you to read in the agenda report (PDF). Basically, the recommendation is that we approach this goal through a three of different arenas.

Land Use & Transportation

In terms of land use & transportation, the ECAP has concluded that we should do the following:

  • Develop citywide transportation plan for all modes of transportation
  • Support a Transportation Impact Fee
  • Tailor parking options to reduce driving
  • Support low carbon fuels and vehicles

Also, people should bike or walk or take transit to work instead of driving, and use fuel efficient vehicles and live near transit.

Building Energy Use

Of course, cars are not the only way we use energy. Lots of energy gets used when we buildings and so on. In terms of reducing that, the ECAP recommends:

  • Provide ongoing energy retrofit programs, including technical support, incentives, financing and workforce development
  • Adopt superior building energy standards (e.g. via Green Building Ordinance)
  • Advance use of renewable energy

We can meet the 36% goal in relationship to building energy if we retrofit half of Oakland’s residential properties and get all businesses to improve their energy efficiency by 20%

Materials & Waste

Now, we should be way ahead on this one anyway, since we already have a Zero Waste by 2020 plan. But we can always do more. ECAP recommends:

  • Redesign the city’s solid waste management system
  • Preserve industrial areas for zero waste industry
  • Expand the Construction & Demolition Recycling Ordinance
  • Support producer product responsibility
  • Promote local manufacturing with recycled materials

Citizens can help out by buying only what they need. Okay. I am not entirely clear on how to reconcile that goal with our big plan to bring Nordstroms and other destination comparison goods retail to Broadway, but whatever.

Does it matter?

No offense to all the people who put a lot of time and work into the climate action plan, but no. Personally, I do believe that the City should do more to reduce emissions and energy use. And I believe that many of the steps suggested in the plan are smart ways to do that.

But the City is already full of smart plans and policies about transit first and livability and development and smart growth and so on and so on. The problem is not a lack of plans or policies telling us what we should be doing. The problem is that the Council lacks the stomach to follow them. It’s very easy to talk about how much you are against climate change and want to reduce energy consumption. It is not so easy to do anything meaningful about it.

Wait, no. I take that back. It is actually super easy to do something about it. You just have to be willing to suck it up and accept that it might, you know, involve some inconvenience. You cannot radically reduce energy consumption while keeping everything about the City and everything about your lifestyle exactly as it is now. And as far as I can tell, keeping everything the same is the only thing the Council wants to do. Anyway.

Oh, also I guess they are going to talk about community choice aggregation.

Meeting starts at 5:30 tonight (PDF). I will not be tweeting this one, but I bet some other people will be. Just search the hashtag #oakmtg. Also, you can catch the action on KTOP, which you can find live on Comcast Channel 10 or streaming online.

Great Oakland Public Schools: 2010 School Board Elections – Oakland’s Big Opportunity

Every two years, we elect people to the Oakland Board of Education – a group of seven adults who arguably hold the most power in our community to improve Oakland’s public schools. This November, Oakland voters will elect school board Directors in Districts 2, 4, and 6.

As Board Member David Kakishiba recently told GO Public Schools, “If you care about kids, you should run for school board.” Given Oakland’s affinity for democracy and activism, voters should be choosing from an amazing array of school board candidates. Oakland has no shortage of passionate leaders, well-qualified to be effective board members. Teachers, volunteers, nonprofit leaders, coaches, principals, after-school providers, neighborhood activists, and parents (only one sitting board member has children in OUSD schools) can all be candidates.

Compared to a city council race, running for school board in Oakland can be an inexpensive endeavor. If there are fundamental reasons that the position of School Board Director does not attract candidates, it is our responsibility as Oaklanders to change the job description and public perceptions of the board. To create a great system of public schools, we must elect a great school board.

Of the seven sitting Oakland School Board Directors, three ran unopposed. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are not good Directors. It just means there’s a lack of competition. Competition in school board races generates important ideas and critical conversations about our public schools. Voters are better able to hold school board members accountable. Board members better engage with their schools, parents, and students. Conflicts of interest are revealed. We spend public money conducting elections — competition helps ensure real engagement in return.

School Board Director is a very powerful position: the board directs hundreds of millions of dollars for Oakland’s 45,000 public school students, 95 campuses, 3,000 teachers, and 476 acres of land. The Board’s areas of influence are wide-ranging: teaching and teacher effectiveness, school facilities, parent engagement, collective bargaining, technology use, college and career readiness, budgeting and taxes, health, safety, and more.

Oakland Public Schools are the most improved in the State of California over the past five years. After five years of state receivership, we have local control back, the school board hired a promising new Superintendent Dr. Tony Smith, the Mayor hired Police Chief Dr. Tony Batts, and Oakland will likely have a new Mayor next year. The 2010 Board of Education election comes at a crucial time for our public schools.

If school board elections and OUSD decision-making got just a fraction of the attention the City Council gets from the media, advocacy groups and aspiring elected officials, our schools would make dramatic progress.

Our schools are our city. Oakland’s children are Oakland’s future. Great Oakland Public Schools believes that Oakland’s adults need to dramatically increase engagement with our Board of Education.

Decide how you will be a part of the Board of Education elections this year:

  • RUN for the Board of Education. GO explains the basics of running for school board and about the Oakland Board of Education.
  • CHALLENGE candidates about schools and education – including City Council and Mayoral candidates. GO has prepared a list of questions for Board of Education candidates.
  • VOLUNTEER your time for a candidate you support.
  • GIVE money to a candidate you support.
  • VOTE — October 18th is the last day to register to vote, and vote-by-mail begins October 4th.
  • ATTEND candidate forums and debates.
  • SIGN UP and BE INFORMED via GO Public Schools’ regular election and education updates.

Great Oakland Public School Information Center is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the education reforms that have made the Oakland Unified School District the most successful large, urban district in the State of California for five years in a row. GO Public Schools Information Center provides the much needed avenue to increase your understanding of public school issues, facilitates participation in decision-making about our schools, and provides ways to volunteer to improve our schools. We invite you to be a part of our coalition. Visit us at today!

Oakland finally gets a Sunday Streets! Plus, highlights of this week’s blogoaksphere.

There are so many great blogs in and about Oakland. I try to tag the good politics-related ones for my news feed here on the site, but I often wish I had a way to highlight great posts from Oakland bloggers on other subjects. So I’ve decided to start a weekend feature where I can share some of the ones I really enjoyed.

I would be remiss to not use the inaugural weekly blogoaksphere highlights post to note how much I enjoyed reading all the great blogs posted about the Oakland Marathon. What an exciting event for Oakland! The other day, I encountered eight (eight!) people who had come to town just for the marathon. All of them made a point of saying how surprised they were to discover what a beautiful city Oakland is. It was totally heartwarming.

Oakland Marathon on Broadway

And it was so awesome seeing how crowded downtown Oakland was on the beautiful afternoon yesterday (and of course again today) so I was thrilled to come home after a day out and see that Baseball Oakland had been thinking the same thing. Deborah from Oaktown Art was delighted about the race passing through Ghosttown, where she lives. Aimee Allison shared a similar excitement about how well the marathon showcased the city, and then last night posted some really sweet stories from participants in yesterday’s twilight 5k.

And the New York Times Bay Area Blog had a nice interview with event director Gene Brtalik.

But our local metroblogs weren’t the only ones all abuzz about the race. Virginia of A Runner’s Story anticipated today’s event with a touching story about the emotional experience of her first marathon. (She also tweeted the marathon today). Tim from A Bay Area Runner was nervous about the hill and spent the last week hurt and sick, but excited for the event nonetheless. Running on Faith tried to pinpoint on the eve of the race what makes her push herself so hard.

Sesa in Stride talked about the new “booty shorts” she bought for the occasion. Another blogger running the half marathon hoped to wear his father’s shirt from when he ran the Oakland marathon in 1984.

Callipides and Roadburner thought the expo on Saturday sucked, but were excited for the race anyway. And maybe it wasn’t so great, I don’t know. But at least one runner was excited to meet Mr. Cooper while waiting on his bib.

It was really fun to listen to all the pre-race cheering this morning and watch all the runners go by.

Oakland Marathon

There was also plenty of post-race blogging from both runners and spectators, which you can find at:

  • Callipides: “Oakland is a great city that put on a great event. The police officers manning the course were cheering on the runners which is highly unusual in my experience. There was even on police officer out using his radar gun!”
  • tattarrattat: “7:25am – high five mr. cooper. RUDE people around me commented “mr. cooper, that’s the best we get in oakland?” um hello, mr. cooper is AWESOME!”
  • Virginia Runs: “I can’t think of enough good things to say about the inaugural Oakland Running Festival. This marathon was the best race I’ve ever run.”
  • I’m just sayin: “I didn’t even know this was going on right outside my window.”
  • Sesa in Stride: “For now, I’d like to thank the following…The City of Oakland, for closing the necessary streets, as well as gracing us with hot policemen and firemen”
  • Oakland Focus: “Regardless of who is named, Gene Brtalik of Corrigan Sports, and newly-minted Oaklander, made the Oakland Running Festival not just a reality, but a smoothly-running event.”
  • Spirit. Energy. Life.: “It was totally inspiring and totally helped me to have people cheering me on, letting me know i could do it!”
  • Photos at, the eJournal of Vincent Rafe, Toujours l’audace, Oaklander Online, Half-Assed Marathoner, Running Commentary, Oakland Seen, Oaktown Art, and
  • Metrorocker: “It was the sense of community that this event brought to Oakland. Often ‘misunderstood,’ Oakland residents have great pride in their community, and the Marathon was no different.”
  • ublach: “What a great event for Oakland!”
  • Couch to 70.3: “Can I tell you how much I loved this event? Finally one event that brought the people of Oakland together to do something healthy and positive.”
  • Out Box: “We ran through fiery arch at a soldering studio; we were cheered on by Oakland A’s fans and Raiders’ fans; we were sprinkled with fairy dust at Children’s Fairyland. And everywhere (and what I love about running these races) were people who just stepped out of their homes and businesses, with pots and pans or just their hands, rooting us on.”
  • A Trail Runner’s Blog: “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums gave me some pointers – he used to be an avid runner, but “now that he’s 70 he just sticks to martial arts”. How cool is that?”
  • Baseball Oakland: “Heaven on a Sunday was how the Oakland Running Festival felt yesterday.”
  • On the Trail of Plastic Snappy Things: “Basically, it hella rocked.”
  • New York Times Bay Area Blog: “On Sunday, there was a connection between the runners and those who lined the race course. I started to feel as if I was running for a cause beyond stretching my own physical abilities.”
  • Becky Jean: “Anyway, as we were waiting at the start, we were greeted by Oakland’s very own Mark Curry. (You know, from “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper?) He ran through the start line about 10ft from me, giving everyone hi-fives. I thought it was pretty exciting.”
  • The Tao of Me: “The first thing I saw when coming up from the 12th St/City Center BART station was the Oakland Mayor and the actor Mark Curry, aka “Hanging with Mr Cooper.”
  • Mac on a Mission: “The Oakland Marathon runners breezed by my building this morning and there were a ton of them!”
  • The San Francisco Marathon Jog Blog: “I have no plans to run 2 races in the same weekend again, but I will say, it was definitely an adventure.”
  • Meet your new math teacher: “To anyone who has never run a half-marathon: do it. The race today was probably one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”
  • Runner Girl Knits: “The route was varied and interesting and I saw a few areas of Oakland I’d never been through.”
  • A Bay Area Runner: “Before I get to my performance, I want to state that Oakland did a great job. There were about 1,100 full marathon runners. There also was a half and 5K. Overall it not a large race. Yet, the community came out in full support as if 25K people were running it.”
  • Fish Out of Water: “Yeah, well, the SF Marathon last July couldn’t hold a candle to the nastiness of the Oakland hills yesterday – yikes!”
  • Job Slobs: “So anyway, yesterday’s run was not that well-organized, but even though it was a little crazy and chaotic, the 13.1 miles was totally worth it for one reason: MR. COOPER WAS THERE!”
  • rebron: “I was surprised by the number of people that were out and about cheering (moreso than the San Francisco marathon).”
  • foodfoodbodybody: “But on the other hand, it was a beautiful experience. I loved the community, the being out in my great city, the energy.”
  • Terminal Berkeley Denizen: “The inflatable arch started to collapse! Someone ran under it to hold it up with outstretched arms as the rest of us runners zipped through. Holding up the arch for us: Comedian Mark Curry!”
  • Chasing Silas: “It was a tour of many lovely and not-so-lovely parts of the Town, highlighted for me (who am I kidding – for everybody!) by running through a flaming arch set up for the occasion in front of The Crucible.”
  • Running on Faith: “Check out who greeted us when we crossed the finish line. SUPPOSABLY he was not there when runners crossed earlier. So it is possible that the Big Guy wanted me to cross the finish line later, so I could see the MR. COOPER.”
  • Kathy Runs: “The amount of support and excitement from within the marathon, to the citizens of Oakland was outstanding. I’m definitely going to be running this race again next year!”
  • Entropical Paradise: “One young man rolled up on his motorcycle, and sauntered down to the corner, smoking a cigarette. “I guess I should put this out if I’m gonna watch them run,” he said sheepishly as he dropped his butt on the ground and turned it under a heel.”
  • “Already looking forward to the 2011 Oakland Running Festival!”

And my favorite, from Mariposa Tales:

Although I am not an Oakland native nor a current resident, I couldn’t be more proud of a city that is usually seen in a negative light by the media and outsiders, and is somewhat notorious for having negative relations between its residents and the police department. Today, none of that was seen, felt, or heard. Today, was a good day for the City of Oakland.

Besides all the totally glowing media attention, another cool by-product of the marathon is the fact that like all the streets were closed today. Hooray for Sunday Streets in Oakland! I took a ridiculous amount of pleasure in marching smack down the middle of a totally car-free Broadway this morning to go get coffee after all the runners had passed.

Empty Broadway in Oakland

In other blogoaksphere news, this week saw the debut of another addition to the Oakland new media landscape — Oakland Seen, a project of former City Council candidate Aimee Allison. Jennifer Ward of Scenes From Oakland celebrates the launch by declaring this a golden age in Oakland journalism. I have to admit, it’s pretty freaking cool to think of how far online Oakland media has come in the last four years. When I started blogging, you could, like, count all the Oakland blogs on your fingers. It’s so thrilling how much things have exploded over the past couple of years!

And here’s some posts on other topics I really enjoyed:

Oh, and if you like the idea of car free streets in Oakland on more than one day a year, you may want to consider becoming a member of Walk Oakland, Bike Oakland and getting involved in their Oaklavia campaign.

Bruce Nye: CitiStat is The Best Thing That Could Happen to Government Accountability in Oakland. But Not Now.

Bruce Nye is Board Chair of Make Oakland Better Now! The opinions in this post, however, are his, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the organization.

So, has everybody seen dramatizations of police department CompStat meetings on “The Wire” and other cop drama shows? These make for great television. A bunch of high-level police department officials get together in a room. The police commissioner or chief grills some poor division commander who stands alone at a podium sweating and trying to answer questions about his division’s inadequacies, while everybody else watches him squirm.

CompStat was invented in New York City, and in real life, it’s a process by which crime statistics are collected, computerized, mapped and disseminated quickly. Officers are held responsible for the crime in their areas. There’s more about CompStat here and lots of other places on the internet, and since you read A Better Oakland, this is probably all old news to you.

Then, there is CitiStat, the non-law enforcement version of CompStat used to hold city department management responsible for providing city services and for managing their departments. The most well-known version of CitiStat was developed in Baltimore (the same city that brought you The Wire) ten years ago. Baltimore has what Oakland city staff has repeatedly described as the “gold standard” for CitiStat programs.

In 2000, Baltimore took the CompStat model and turned it into a way to track performance of non-law enforcement city services. The mayor promised that potholes would be fixed in 48 hours and that they’d track responses to other city service requests.

To do this, they have day and night 311 system fielding all of the city’s non-emergency service calls. They have a software package designed for Baltimore by Motorola (and now available off the shelf) that issues service ticket numbers, tracks every call, tracks resolutions and, most importantly, generates performance data.

Baltimore has bi-weekly CompStat-style meetings for every program under CitiStat review, in a dedicated CitiStat room, where the chair of the meeting grills department heads and managers whose programs aren’t meeting performance standards. He or she also exacts commitments for improvement, and brings department heads and managers back to report on progress. Meetings can be chaired by the mayor, or, more likely, by a deputy mayor who has full authority from the mayor to obtain compliance. To make sure directors and managers are telling the truth about their compliance, the mayor’s office sends staff out with cameras on a regular basis to look for potholes not repaired, graffiti not removed, trees not trimmed, etc.

CitiStat Meeting

Doesn’t that sound great? Doesn’t that sound like exactly what Oakland needs to hold department heads accountable? Can you imagine living in a city where the mayor regularly meets with city department heads and mayors, and measures performance based on real, meaningful data? And where residents get city services by calling a 311 line instead of by hounding city council staffers? It sounds like a pretty terrific accountability measure to me.

Well, an Oakland version — dubbed “OakStat — was recommended in the famous Robert Bobb/PFM Group report (PDF) in January of last year. Since that time, the City Administrator’s office has submitted a number of reports on the subject to council’s Finance & Management Committee, which you can see here (PDF), here (PDF), here (PDF), and here (PDF).

Earlier this month, Marc Broady, a staffer from the Maltimore Mayor’s office came to Finance & Management to put on his Power Point presentation about CitiStat, and everybody in attendance was pretty well blow away. Here’s the presentation:

As at many council meetings, it was a little bit hard to discern exactly what the committee decided when they voted (I watched that part of the meeting twice, and I’m still not sure), but it was something like “have staff put together a task force to figure out a way to implement this as to public works and public safety and get it all done by this summer, or right after Labor Day at the latest, and do it with existing resource.s And report back to council. And this will save us lots of money.”

Well, I’m sorry, but WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Council should take a hard look at a terrific fifty page report (PDF) by Robert D. Behn, from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “What All Mayors Would Like To Know About Baltimore’s Performance Strategy.” Staff gave council members the introductory pages, but they really need to see the entire thing. If they do, they will learn the following:

Q: What exactly is CitiStat?

A: A leadership strategy!

Citistat is a leadership strategy that a mayor can employ to mobilize city agencies to produce specific results…CitiStat is more than meetings and data. It requires:

  • Targets (which provide benchmarks for judging successes and failure)
  • Tactics (which focus organizational efforts on achieving the targets)
  • Data (which track the performance of agencies and subunits)
  • Analysis (which, using the data, identifies the causes of both success and failure)
  • Questions (which reveal what agencies are doing and not doing to achieve their targets)
  • Learning (which come from these analyses, questions, and answers)
  • Collaboration (which help the mayor’s staff and the agency’s director and managers to determine what to do next)
  • Experimentation (which creates new ways of achieving success)
  • Meetings (which regularly review agency progress, targets, analyses, and strategies)
  • Thinking (which can suggest how the entire approach can be improved)

If a mayor and his leadership team are doing these things consciously, persistently, imaginatively, and skillfully, they are undoubtedly doing somethinat that — even if it does not have the outward appearance of Baltimore’s CitiStat — accomplishes the CitiStat’s purpose: to improve the performance of city government.

Q: What kind of commitment does CitiStat require?

A: A real, serious commitment.

No mayor should initiate the creation of CitiStat without fully recognizing the implications of the undertaking. After all, most city employees and many managers of city agencies will quickly interpret it as another management fad. They’ve seen it all: management by objectives and total quality management, zero-based budgeting and performance-based budgeting, the balanced scorecard and the organizations dashboards. They aren’t going to get too excited about the mayor’s latest little brainstorm (or brief mental shower). From experience, they have determined how best to cope with the latest mayor’s random neuron firings. Why bother, they have learned, when this will soon disappear, to be replaced by another mayoral impulse? Thus, a mayor who wishes to establish CitiStat not only needs to make a real commitment; he or she also needs to dramatize this commitment.

Q: Should the CitiStat office be part of the budget department?

A: No.

Baltimore emphasizes that if CitiStat is run out of a city’s budget office, the sole measure of concern will quickly become dollars saved. The budget office has one set of purposes: to create the mayor’s annual budget proposal; to ensure that the city’s expenditures are consistent with its sources of revenue; to ensure that all funds are spent exactly as appropriated; to ensure that the city does not overspend its budget. For a city budget office, spending less is always good. The budget office would, inevitably, want to get the same bang for fewer bucks. The budget office might even be happier with a smaller bang for fewer bucks.

In contrast, the CitiStat office has a different set of purposes. Primarily, the CitiStat office wants to improve the results produced by city agencies.

Q: What is the role of the members of the city council?

A: Not much.

In other words, and as Baltimore’s Broady pointed out at the committee meeting, CitiStat isn’t a software program or a reorganization; it is, instead, a leadership strategy and an entire new way of looking at data. And as Vice-President Biden mught put it, this is a big deal.

What staff is working on now is an incremental start called “CleanStat” (for Public Works and Parks and Rec) and “SafetyStat” (for police and fire). And from council members’ comments at Finance & Management, it is clear they are looking at this as a way to save lots of money. Furthermore, directly contracy to the Baltimore recommendations, OakStat reports will go to Council, and the process will be staffed with Budget Office analysts.

There is nothing wrong with incrementalism, particularly in these tough economic times. And I’m certainly in favor of saving money (Baltimore claims to have saved $350 million through CitiStat in ten years). But this isn’t what CitiStat is about.

CitiStat is a strategy to lead city departments to improve their performance by obtaining, tracking and working with performance data, by demonstrating a commitment to accountability that show directors and managers they either have to get with the program or get out, and by having the mayor demonstrate every day that the city means business. Baltimore’s CitiStat calendar for January 2010 shows 19 CitiStat meetings in the dedicated CitiStat room. Oakland is looking at one meeting a month run by the City Administrator in a city conference room.

Oakland may have only one opportunity to do this right; a failed CitiStat program will ensure that the process is looked at as just another management fad. CitiStat can work under the leadership of a strong mayor in a strong mayor form of government. That obviously won’t happen with the current mayor. The best hope for having a CitiStat program that brings accountability and performance improvement to Oakland is for a truly strong mayor to implement it, and to make sure everybody knows that CitiStat is the most important management initiative in the mayor’s office. Until that happens, council should put this one on hold.

(Thanks to Baltimore’s Marc Broady for sending the Power Point slides.)

Watch the full video of the Committee’s CitiStat discussion below:

Oakland budget nightmare getting scarier

Oakland is in a tough situation with the budget, right? We all knew that already. Just how tough? O.M.F.G. You have no idea.

That $4.8 million gap that we still had left to figure out for this fiscal year (the one that ends in July)? Now it’s $10.4 million. Oh, and that $33 million deficit expected for FY10-11 (which starts in July)? Yeah, now it’s $42.6 million.

Is the budget really all that bad?

The “Context” section of the agenda report for next week’s budget meeting lays it all out in pretty frank language, so I am just going to quote that for you:

  • The severity of the City’s fiscal crisis is truly unprecedented.

  • Less than four years ago, in FY2006-07, the City collected over $471 million in General Purpose Fund (GPF) revenues, and by year-end had nearly $56 million in reserves. That year alone, the Real Estate Transfer Tax revenue was at $61.5 million.

  • In FY2010-11, the City is anticipated to have only $10.4 million in GPF reserves by year-end, and is projected to collect just under $400 million in revenues by year-end. The Real Estate Transfer tax collection is now at a low $28 million. Collectively, this means that the City has over $120 million less in resources today (between one-time reserve funds and ongoing revenues) than we had just four years ago. During the same period, while the GPF-funded workforce shrunk by 12.5%, personnel costs in this fund have dropped by less than three percent.

  • The City has already implemented $170 million in budget balancing measures since July 2008, with $18.9 million approved for the current fiscal year as recently as February 16, 2010. Since the February action — which addressed most of the current year’s $23.7 million gap — our revenues continued to decline, increasing the budget shortfall by $6 million in FY 2009-10 and $11.2 million in FY 2010-11. Currently estimated financial gaps (net of previous Council actions) are: $10.4 million for FY2009-10 and $42.6 million for FY2010-11.

  • At the same time, means of filling the financial gaps have diminshed: (a) the City has already cut a great proportion of spending and programs, and the remaining discretionary budget is just 8 percent of the total GPF appropriation; (b) the reserves are minimal; and (c) “easy” revenue fixes, such as fee increases and uses of one-time unrestricted funds, have already been exhausted. At this point, balancing the budget structurally will require a combination of new taxes and significant cuts to public safety departments. Public safety accounts for 66.5% of the General Purpose Fund budget, and if a 15% (as an example) across-the-board cut were to be applied to non-safety departments only (also excluding debt service), only $15 million in savings would be generated while decimating key recreation, senior, library and internal programs. Moreover, cuts to youth and library programs would violate local Measures K/OO/D and Q. At the same time, a 15% cut to public safety departments would generate an additional $42.6 million in savings, but would violate provisions of Measure Y.

So yes. It is really that bad.

So what are we going to do about it?

Well, with only 3 months left in this fiscal year, it’s basically too late to do get to $10.4 million by making cuts. Well, not basically. It just is. So instead, staff is proposing the following:

  • restructure pension obligations ($5.5 million)
  • sale of or issuance of revenue bonds for the Medical Hill Garage ($5 million)

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Wonderful, more tricks. But again, this late in the year, there really is no other choice.

How did the deficit even get so big?

Well, it turns out that like, every tax is lower than we planned it to be. Shocker, right? $5.3 million shortfall in sales tax, $4.1 million shortfall in utility consumption tax, $1.1 million shortfall in real estate transfer tax, $1.7 million shortfall in hotel tax, $0.95 million shortfall in parking tax, and so on and so on with permit fees, fines, service charges, interest, etc. You get the idea.

Anyway, just lower than expected revenues brings us to a $25.6 million for next year’s deficit. Then we have to account for the fact that the budget for FY10-11 was never actually balanced when the Council adopted it in the first place. It hinged on revenue that just was not going to come in, notably $9 million from a surcharge on ticket sales at the Coliseum. Add to that your typical overspending from the police department, you get a little deeper in the hole.

And then there’s the small matter of us needing to get around to, you know, hiring some police officers at some point, since the police force is already well below Measure Y mandated minimum staffing levels, and it just keeps getting lower. So that costs money too.

And what about next year?

Balancing next year’s budget, well, it’s gonna hurt. How much? Here you go:

  • Staff reductions, including elimination of Microcomputer Computer Specialists I and III in Information Technology, administrative staff in Finance & Management, Human Resources and Police, are anticipated to save $2.4 million; transfer of 9.0 PT Cadets to the Asset Forfeiture Fund from FY 2009-10 to FY 2010-11 would save $0.3 million. The proposal reflects the elimination of 15.05 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, of which 13.05 FTEs are filled (8.0 FTEs were approved for elimination as of April 1, 2010; of these, six positions were filled.

  • Savings from the 15% cuts to elected offices – requested by the City Council on February 16, 2010 – are included in the above estimate. Details on the specific reduction measures are available for the Mayor’s Office (2.0 FTE Mayor’s PSE 14s and operations and maintenance reductions), City Council (6.0 FTE Legislative Analysts would be eliminated, including 4.05 FTE in the GPF) and City Attorney’s Office (3.0 FTEs eliminated and savings from filling a position at a lower rate). The City Auditor’s Office will have operational savings for FY 2009-10; this office has informed staff of its intention to seek a City Attorney opinion on minimum staffing levels for chartered City departments prior to providing detailed reductions.

  • Program reductions and eliminations, including the Linkages Grant Match and the Homeless Mobile Outreach programs in the Department of Human Services ($0.3 million).

  • Grant reductions of varying levels ($1.9 million), including

    • 25% reductions to City institutions, including the Oakland Zoo, Chabot Space & Science Center and Children’s Fairyland

    • 50% reductions for City-affiliated entities (AIDS Prevention & Education Initiative, Hacienda Peralta and the City/County Collaborative on Children & Youth) and non-profit organizations (Family Bridges, Fruitvale Senior Center, Vietnamese Senior Services, Family Bridges, Fruitvale Senior Center, Cypress-Mandela Training Center, Symphony in the Schools, Women’s Business Initiative, Jack London Aquatic Center, Oakland Asian Cultural Center, OUSD Academies Program, Artists’ Grants and the Day Laborers’ Program).

    • 100% reduction for the Oakland School of the Arts

  • Proposed new revenues and other financing, including a proposed new public safety parcel tax and increased and expanded utility consumption tax; an increase in the parking citation revenue expected from better collection rates); one-time and ongoing annual proceeds from the sale of billboard space to Clear Channel, Inc. (which is the subject of a separate staff report included on the April 1, 2010 special City Council agenda); anticipated new grant revenue to offset firefighter personnel services costs; and stricter enforcement of false alarm fines ($24.1 million). Proposed new taxes would need to be approved by the voters; this notion is discussed later in the report.

  • Sale of assets ($12.8 million), including lease of the George P. Scotlan Convention Center to the Oakland Redevelopment Agency (ORA); sale of two properties to private parties; and sale of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. Sale of assets is the subject of a separate staff report included on the April 1, 2010 special City Council agenda.

No, I don’t understand how the City is going to get $24 million from false alarm fines either. Nor do I understand why the Auditor thinks it is okay to just refuse to take any kind of budget cut just like every other department in the City has been doing for two freaking years.

And what about taxes? Well, the report is pretty frank about that too:

Ballot measures to raise additional revenues are simply unavoidable. We can not solve the current fiscal crisis with one-time measures and program cuts alone, unless significant reductions to public safety are made. The possible ballot measures are a public safety parcel tax and temporary increase and expansion to the utility users tax; combined, they could generate up to $20.6 million in new revenues as soon as FY 2010-11. Another ongoing source of revenue would be a quarter-percent add-on sales tax, otherwise known as a transactions and use tax (TUT).

So did I depress you enough?

Don’t like these cuts?

If you have, like, you know, ideas about the budget, you should share them with the Council. Because otherwise, they’re just going to get like 300 e-mails saying the City shouldn’t cut any grants and the Council will decide that must be what everyone actually wants and that’s what they’ll do. Contact info:

Special budget balancing meeting (PDF) happens on April 1st. Expect it to be long. Happy Friday!

How should Oakland decide where to underground utilities?

I don’t suppose you guys have been following this whole undergrounding controversy in Piedmont?

I have more than enough on my plate trying to keep up with what’s going on in Oakland, so I have to admit, I don’t pay a ton of attention to what goes on in our wealthier neighboring cities where nobody lives. But a few months ago, as I was paging through a very large folder of feeds, a post in Piedmont Neighborhood News caught my eye. It began with a big, bold quote from their City Administrator from a recent Council meeting:

Such an extraordinary, such an unpleasant, such a difficult recommendation. The recommendation is mine and I am responsible for it.

How’s that for melodramatic? You understand why I had couldn’t help but click through and read the whole thing.

Anyway, so it turns out that this incredibly difficult decision that the City Administrator had to make was about whether or not Piedmont should spend one third of its general fund to subsidize the undergrounding of utility lines in front of 144 houses in the fancy part of Piedmont. No, I am not making that up. And yes, his recommendation was to go for it.

So ever since then, I have just not been able to get enough of this ridiculous controversy. Basically, what happened was that this neighborhood, “Piedmont Hills,” decided they wanted their power lines undergrounded. So they made an assessment district to pay for their undergrounding, and the project went out to bid. The bids that came back ranged from $1.5 million to $2.5 million. I am sure it will not surprise to learn that the $1.5 million bid was choosen.

So this company got to work on the undergrounding, and were shocked when they started digging and discovered that the ground there is actually rock. Um, yeah.

So then, this company is all “Oh, it’s going to cost another million dollars to dig through all this rock” and the people of Piedmont Hills were all like “Yeah, we don’t want to pay a million dollars” and went out and raised $30,000 instead. So the City Administrator was like well we have to finish it (PDF) one way or another. They would find the money from their General Fund reserve.

Reserve [ri-zurv]

OMG, I am so sorry!

I bet that last line totally confused the hell out of a lot of you Oaklanders out there. My bad. You see, a reserve is this neat-o thing that some cities have where they take some of the money they get and instead of spending it, they put it away somewhere else.

Yeah, I know it’s confusing. Go back and try reading it again slowly.

No, you don’t spend it on something else. You put it somewhere else.

No, not even if there’s something you really want to spend it on. You just put it away and let it sit there. Then, if something terrible happens, like, oh, I don’t know, if say revenues were to suddenly plummet or you unexpectedly had to bail out some beautification project in a ritzy neighborhood, then you would have money sitting there that you could use to deal with the problem. So you could take care of the issue without having to like, lay off half your park maintenance staff or whatever.

Think of it sort of like a savings account, but for the City. It sounds crazy, I know. But trust me when I say it actually is fairly common practice in other places.

Piedmont’s undergrounding problems

Anyway, so Piedmont had $3 million in their General Fund reserve. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but you have to remember that Piedmont is super tiny, so it is actually quite a bit of money per person. Good for them.

Anyway, so back in December, the Council approved this emergency resolution to spend a third of their reserve to bail out this underground project. But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the project had even more problems (PDF) than they had realized in December, and to get it finished was going to cost another $1.15 million. Oops! People were seriously pissed.

Underground Utilities in Oakland

I am sure you are all wondering right about now why on earth I am talking about Piedmont’s undergrounding controversy. Mostly, because I find the story pretty entertaining (in a oh-god-government-is-so-depressing way, of course), and figured that since I was writing about undergrounding anyway, it would be fun to mention it.

And why am I writing about undergrounding at all, you ask? Why, because the Public Works Committee was talking about it earlier this week, of course.

You guys know what underground is, right? It’s when you take the power lines and other wires on poles in a neighborhood and you put them underground. We had underground utilities in the town where I went to high school. It was nice. Power lines are really unsightly. Also, they get knocked down in storms and your power goes out, and having your power out sucks. Plus, downed electrical lines are like, you know, extremely dangerous and a fire hazard.

First Come, First Served

So, if neighborhoods in Oakland want their utilities undergrounded, the way it happens is they ask they City for undergrounding and then they get on a list. Then the wait. Usually for a very long time. Then, once they get to the top of the list, the City goes and looks to see if that neighborhood meets one of the four eligibility requirements set by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for undergrounding. (If you don’t meet any of the criteria, you can still have undergrounding if you really want it, but you have to pay for it yourself. You can’t use money from this undergrounding fund that we get from PG&E). Anyway, the CPUC’s eligibility requirements are as follows:

  • heavy overhead electric facilities

  • heavy volume of auto and pedestrian traffic

  • civic area or public recreation area

  • arterial street or major collector

There are 23 neighborhoods on the list right now. 23 probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but undergrounding is expensive. Most of it gets paid for out of this pot of undergrounding money we get from PG&E every year, but also the property owners in the neighborhood pay some too. Right now we get like $3.6 million a year from PG&E, and for the neighborhoods that get the undergrounding, the cost to the property owners is like $15,000 each. Based on the current funding, all the neighborhoods on the list will get their utilities undergrounded within the next 40 years.

We’ve been doing it that way since 1968.

Priorities for Undergrounding

So, the City Council’s Public Works Committee got a report about this undergrounding list (PDF) back in September, and they were like “Maybe just giving this to whoever asked first isn’t the smartest way to do it. Maybe we should have, like, criteria or something to decide who gets undergrounding.” So they asked staff to come back with another report about how other cities decide what neighborhoods get undergrounding, and that happened on Tuesday.

As it turns out, like, nobody else makes this decision based on who asked first. Crazy, I know.

Instead, they look at factors like (PDF):

  • Whether the area is has other projects going on, like major street construction

  • Whether there is a safety issue related to the overhead wires

  • Whether the undergrounding would be near major public facilities (schools, parks, rec centers, commercial corridors, etc.)

  • Cost/benefit analysis of doing undergrounding in the area

  • Whether the undergrounding would happen on a major street

Seems reasonable, right? After all, if it’s going to take 40 years before we get all these projects done, it seems logical to do them in some sort of, you know, rational order, based on where undergrounding is more needed.

So, there weren’t very many speakers on this on Tuesday, but the ones who did show up said that whether overhead utilities is a safety issue should be the number one criteria. The meeting in September had more speakers, and they were also really adamant that safety issues should be the top criteria.

Here’s former Oakland City Councilmember Dick Spees making the case for safety at that meeting back in September:

It’s kind of hard to argue with. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks said she was supportive of safety as a criteria, but made sure to note that overhead utilities are not a safety issue exclusively in the hills. She is unhappy with the fact that most of the undergrounding gets done in ritzy neighborhoods.

District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan said it wasn’t quite so simple as all that, noting that the next neighborhood on the current list is in her District, and that they really really want their undergrounding, and that it isn’t fair for them if we just go and change the rules after they have been waiting for like 30 years and if we do they will get really angry.

I definitely feel bad for people who have been waiting a long time for something and don’t get it. But what’s more important? Being fair? Or a fire? Fair? Fire? Fair? Fire? Kinda seems like a no brainer to me.

You can watch the whole discussion here:

If you have some time, you should watch it. It’s interesting. I’ll try to upload the September discussion later.

What do you think?

The report on Tuesday was just an information item, so nothing happened then. But the Committee did schedule the undergrounding issue to come back on May 11th, this time as an action item. That means they might actually adopt new criteria, not just talk about maybe doing it. If you have feelings about what the criteria should be, you should contact them about it.

The contact information for the Public Works Committee is as follows:

1100 Broadway not happening anytime soon

Do you guys remember a couple of years ago how everybody wanted to build new office buildings downtown? Swig was gonna build two new skyscrapers at 20th and Webster. There was Encinal Tower. Shorenstein was going to plop down 600,000 square feet of new office space at 601 12th Street. And who could forget about 1100 Broadway?

Right now, the block between 11th and 12th on Broadway features an abandoned building and a giant empty lot. It’s depressing, and makes downtown Oakland look just terrible.

1100 Broadway, downtown Oakland

The abandoned building on the other side of the block is actually quite beautiful. It was once the headquarters for the Key System, and was so damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that now nobody can use it. It just sits there, sad and empty.

Key System Building

So, SKS Investments was supposed to build a 20 story building on this lot. It would have had 310,285 square feet of office space and 9,810 square feet of ground floor retail space, and also, as part of the project, rehab the Key System Building so that people could actually use it again.

New Class A office space is good. New retail space is good. Green buildings are good (it’s supposed to be LEED Platinum). Making beautiful historic buildings is good. Getting rid of hideous vacant lots on the main street in downtown Oakland is good. Also, the building was going to be really pretty.

Rendering of 1100 Broadway proposal

So, this building got approved by the Planning Commission in 2007, and then in April 2008, SKS announced that they would not be starting construction anytime soon. So two years later, everybody still gets to be greeted by a vacant lot when they come out of the 12th Street BART station.

Fence at 1000 Broadway

And I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon. This afternoon, the Oakland City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee (PDF), will consider a proposal to extend a bunch of deadlines (PDF) for building this project for as much as five years.

There’s a bunch of deadlines and fees in the proposal about deposits and money about SKS buying the parking garage and options and more deposits, which you can read about if you like (PDF), but I’m not going to get into here because I’m guessing most of you aren’t interested. The main thing is that under the proposal, SKS would have until as late as June 2014 to start construction, and April 2016 to finish.

So it isn’t like this long delay is any kind of surprise. But it still sucks. The good news, I suppose, is that SKS is still serious about building this thing. Otherwise, they wouldn’t bother doing all these negotiations with the City. But it is really sad to think we’re going to have to wait so long.

In the meantime, SKS should have to do something to make this a little less hideous.

Vacant Lot

Even something as small as just putting up a nicer fence would probably make a huge difference. Vacant lots with cheap green fences sitting downtown on top of the BART station can’t exactly be helping their or anyone else’s efforts to attract quality office tenants downtown.

What should Oakland do about pensions?

Here’s one I know you guys are going to love.

On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council’s Finance and Management Committee will receive an informational report on Oakland’s long term pension and other post-employment liabilities. The report will also list a number of options for reducing future obligations. Although no action will be taken on these options right now, if you feel strongly about pensions (and I know a lot of you do), it would be a good idea to go share your thoughts on this one, or at the very least e-mail or call the Committee members beforehand. The meeting starts at 11 (PDF), although the pension stuff is towards the end of the agenda.

The rest of the post is mostly just a summary of the staff report (PDF), so you guys can get an overview, but again, if this is a subject that interests you, I strongly suggest you read the whole thing (PDF).

What kind of post-employment benefits do we offer?

Well, there are a couple. First, there’s CalPERS. This is how we provide retirement benefits to current employees. CalPERS, or the California Public Employees Retirement System, provides retirement benefits for most (but not all – not everyone uses it) public employees in the State besides teachers. Mostly this blog will talk about CalPERS, but I just want to quickly mention the other ones.

We also have PFRS, the Police and Fire Retirement System (PDF). Before we joined CalPERS, we managed our own system, and it serves sworn employees hired before July 1976. I believe there is only one current employee in PFRS, everyone else is retired already or transferred to CalPERS. I’m sure it will not surprise you that we haven’t managed these obligations well. In 1997, we decided that we didn’t like having to pay every year into PFRS and issued bonds to cover the costs through July of 2011.

At that point, we have to start paying. How much, you ask? The most recent estimate of the unfunded PFRS liability is $435.3 million (PDF). That means that in July of 2011, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not very far off at all at this point, we’re going to have to cough up something in the neighborhood of $40 million a year (PDF). Where’s that money going to come from? Well, we’re probably (PDF) going to issue more bonds (PDF).

OMERS, the Oakland Municipal Employees’ Retirement System (PDF), is like PFRS in that it’s from before we joined CalPERS. It covers non-sworn employees we hired before 1970. Employees hired before that date and who kept working for the City had the option of transferring to CalPERS and most of them did. As of July 2009, there were only 50 people in the plan.

OMERS is unlike PFRS in that it’s almost completely funded. The most recent estimate of the OMERS unfunded liability is $518,000 (PDF).

Finally, there are retirement medical benefits. I am not going to get too much into this one right now just due to space concerns and cause it really should have its own post, but basically, Oakland pays for health insurance (up to a certain cost) for retirees. This is a huge unfunded liability, estimated currently to be in the neighborhood of $600 million.

If we were going to put aside money ahead of time to cover the cost of these future benefits, we would have spent $85.7 million last year. Instead we paid $12.5 million to cover the cost for current retirees. You can see the problem here.

The report lists a few options for reducing future liabilities – some sort of prefunding of benefits, instituting medical benefit cost sharing for current employees, and adopting a two tiered system where new employees would not be promised the same level of benefit.

What kind of retirement benefits do people get?

Sworn employees (police and fire) are eligible to retire at age 50, and to receive 3% of their highest annual salary for every year of service. A minimum of five years of service is required to receive this benefit. So, for example, if you retire at age 50 after 20 years of service, you will get 60% of your highest annual salary (PDF) as your pension.

Non-sworn employees have a plan called 2.7 percent at 55. You can probably figure it out yourself, but just in case – that means that if you retire at age 55, you get 2.7% of your highest year’s salary for every year of service. Again, you need to work five years to be eligible. So if you retire at age 55 after 20 years of service, you will get 54% of your highest annual salary (PDF) as your pension.

What does it all cost?

As you can image, providing these benefits is expensive. How expensive, you ask? The City’s CalPERS contribution cost last year was $74.5 million.

That’s based on a contribution rate of 27.877% for public safety employees and 19.588% for other employees. That percentage is set based on a combination of what your pension obligations are going to be and what your unfunded liability is.

Okay, I’ve rewritten that last sentence about a dozen times, and still don’t think I’m doing a very good job explaining it. I’m just going to let the report (PDF) explain it to you:

The contribution rates are comprised of the normal cost (i.e., the future annual premiums) and the amortization base cost which is determine by CalPERS to bring the system to 100% funded over 30 years. The amortization base cost is dependent on the unfunded liability of the City. The higher the unfunded liability the higher this rate will be to make the plan whole. For example, since the City has an unfunded liability of $254.7 million for the safety plan as of June 30, 2008, the City pays a contribution rate of 28.092% for fiscal year 2010-11. If the City pays that unfunded liability ($254.7M), then the contribution rate would only be 17.689% for fiscal year 2010-11. Beause the City has an unfunded liability of $254.7M, CalPERS charges 10.403% (amortization cost) in addition to the normal cost to bring the plan funding status to 100% over time.

So, the way we’re going, we can expect those contribution rates to keep rising – up to 33.7% for safety employees in 2016 and 26.5% for non-safety employees in 2016. And of course, payroll costs will rise during that same period.

How do we pay for it?

Well, the City’s CalPERS contributions are just part of the salary costs. So they come from whatever source of money is also funding the payroll.

Oakland workers also contribute to their pensions. The rate varies depending on what they do. This is called the “employee share.” The idea behind the employee share is not, as some people seem to think, that the employee necessarily pays it. The employee can, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I just wanted to make it clear that it isn’t done that way everywhere. All it means is that the money paid into the employee share belongs to that specific employee rather than the City’s whole pension fund in general. So if you quit the City, you can decide you don’t want whatever pension you may have been eligible for, and take the money that was paid as employee share out of your account and roll it into your IRA or whatever.

CalPERS sets the employee share for civilian employees at 8% of pay, and for public safety employees at 9% of pay. In Oakland, civilian employees pay the full 8% employee share into their pension out of their paychecks. Police Officers contribute nothing, although they will start giving 2% in 2013. Firemen contribute the full 9% employee share, and then on top of that, also give another 4% of their paycheck to help cover the City’s portion of the costs.

What can we do about it?

The report includes a couple of options for reducing the cost of pension obligations.

  • Introduce a two-tiered retirement system: This would allow us to continue the current benefits for existing employees, but give a smaller benefit to new hires. That way, costs would decrease over time.

  • Change calculation of final compensation: Retirement benefits through CalPERS are based on the employee’s “final compensation.” Although this sounds like an obvious thing, it’s not. There is more than one way we can calculate final compensation. In Oakland, we calculate it as the total of your highest paid consecutive 12 months of work. You could make that number based on the average of the employee’s three highest years pay, and it would end up being a little lower in many cases.

  • Increase employer paid member contribution: Another option would be to just make employees pay more. The more workers give out of their paycheck, the less the City has to pay.

  • Pay all or part of unfunded liability: If we paid our whole unfunded liability of $537.3 million, then our annual percentage that we have to pay to CalPERS would be way lower. I don’t even know why this one was mentioned at all, since where would that money come from?

Discussion on Tuesday

Okay, so like I said before, this is an informational report. Nothing is going to happen at Tuesday’s meeting. But if you are concerned about the City’s refusal to deal with ever increasing post-employment liabilities, this is an excellent opportunity to voice those concerns.

Like I said before, the meeting starts at 11 on Tuesday (PDF). You can also contact the members of the Committee beforehand. Their contact information is as follows:

If you do elect to go speak, or send your comments in advance, here are a few words of advice. Try to be reasonable. Read the report, make sure you understand the issues and the options, and try to ask for something that might actually happen. For example, there is no point to calling and saying the City should no longer use a defined benefit plan. You might think that, and it might be a reasonable position, but there is just no way that it’s going to happen. So don’t bother. Don’t go and say that all employees should take a 50% pay cut. That’s not going to happen either. And if you demand things that are completely outside the realm of possibility, you will just be dismissed as crazy and your effort will have been a waste of time. So try to keep it reasonable.

And if you can’t make it in person, you can always catch the action streaming online on KTOP.

Possible progress for City Walk?

Oh, City Walk. I had such high hopes for you. I used to daydream about how nice you would look when you were all done as I gazed at your construction crane from the window by my cube in 555 12th St. I really thought your two hundred and fifty two units could go a long way towards livening up the West DTO. I dreamed that all your residents would come to my restaurant at night to eat. You had such pretty signs. There were rumors that you were going to house the world’s largest Starbucks. And you were supposed to be finished in December 2007.

But you weren’t. Instead, three years later, every time I go to AAMLO, I am forced to stare at this tremendous ugliness:

City Walk, half-built and abandoned

You guys know where I’m talking about, right? It’s the half-finished condo project between the Federal Building and Preservation Park, and it’s a giant freaking eyesore.

City Walk: Abandoned since 2007

City Walk suddenly halted constructed in July of 2007 when the developer, Olson Co., ran into, like, all sorts of problems. Olson insisted they were going to be able to get it together and finish, and in December of 2007, the City Council gave them an extension on their completion deadline. They were supposed to restart construction by the end of January 2008 and finish by July 2009.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Then, like nine months later, Olson was all “Oh yeah, we will restart construction – in November!.” Hahaha. Finally, in February of 2009, Olson admitted defeat and asked the City to amend the DDA so the project would no longer be in default and they could sell it to a rental housing developer, which they said at the time was like, totally about to happen any day now. Construction was going to restart in May, and be finished by December 2010.

Big surprise, that plan didn’t work out either. So then, last summer, someone else decided they wanted to buy the building and finish it up as rental units, so the City once again extended the DDA, this time promising completion by the end of 2011. If you’re wondering at this point why we even bother having these construction deadlines, well, it’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for you.

New City Walk owners need help

Anyway, this time, the sale actually did go through. So that’s something. Unfortunately, this new company that owns it now and wants to finish the building off as a 264 apartment project (instead of the originally planned 252 condos) can’t get the all financing to finish construction. Or, I guess more precisely, they can’t get enough financing that they think it’s worth their while to finish construction.

So in order to just get the damn thing finished already and give the poor pedestrians of downtown Oakland their sidewalks back, Redevelopment Agency staff is now proposing that we just loan them $5 million of redevelopment money (PDF), which will be enough, apparently, to fill in the financing gaps that are preventing the project from getting restarted. I’ll let the report explain it to you:

The loan is required to decrease the equity and investor profit requirements in order to make the project financially feasible. Without this reduction in equity the investor does not meet its minimum return and is therefore unwilling to finance the project. Providing the loan will help complete the project and transform the blighted site into beautiful new rental housing.

I don’t know how “beautiful” the finished building it going to be, but “blighted” is definitely an accurate way to describe the site as it sits now. Here are the loan deets, also from the agenda report (PDF):

The loan terms will be at least as favorable as the other debt financing Wood Partners obtains for the project. The interest rate will be set after negotiations are completed with the other construction lender. The negotiations were under way at the time this report was being written. The interest rate will be at least 8%, but no less than one percentage point higher than the interest rate on other debt; the higher rate on the Agency loan is appropriate given that the loan will be in second priority position. Wood Partners’ latest offer from a construction lender is a loan at 7.5% interest, with a term of up to 7 years, a 1% origination fee and a 1% early termination fee, which would set the Agency loan interest rate at 8.5% assuming similar fees. The Agency loan would be interest-only until stabilized occupancy and then converted to a 25 year amortization schedule with a balloon payment (i.e. loan due in full) in 2015, five years from execution of the loan documents. The Agency could be repaid sooner if conditions are favorable for refinancing with a long term permanent loan. There will not be a prepayment penalty. Given 1) that this is a market rate loan, and 2) the troubled status of the housing market, no additional project development conditions are being proposed in return for the loan.

As far as I’m concerned, this is excellent. It is just like, downright shameful that the City could let that freaking eyesore just sit there unfinished, sometimes shrink-wrapped, sometimes not, for years and years, right in the middle of downtown! It’s blight, and it makes the City look like crap. It just needs to be finished, I don’t care what it takes.

The City Walk loan will be considered by the City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee on Tuesday. The meeting starts at 2, but this is last on the agenda (PDF) and the first item is going to take like a year.

Let’s downzone downtown so people can squint to see old buildings!

Do me a favor, and imagine yourself standing on the east side of Lake Merritt, facing towards downtown. What do you see? What makes the vista before you special? What unique features of this place do you notice the most? What is the most striking aspect of your surroundings? Here, let me help you out with a photo.

View Corridor to City Hall

Is it City Hall?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

View Corridors

This afternoon, the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee will discuss a proposal to downzone large chunks of Oakland’s downtown core (PDF) in order to protect views of City Hall and the Tribune Tower from four points on the far side of Lake Merritt.

Downzone by how much, you ask? Well, we’re talking about 90 feet in areas that would be otherwise zoned for 400 feet and 110 to 120 feet in areas that would otherwise have no height limits.

Why are we even considering this?

Do you guys remember that whole downtown zoning process? A proposal for new downtown Oakland zoning first came to the Planning Commission’s Zoning Update Committee in March of 2008. Lots of people, both pro and anti-development, showed up to talk about how they hated it. The Committee asked questions. It came back. The same thing happened. It came back again. And again. And again.

This went on for an entire year. There were Zoning Update Committee meetings and Landmarks Board meetings and joint meetings between the two and special workshops where they brought in a professional facilitator to help everyone work through their issues about the zoning. And over time, the plan changed, compromises were made, and a little more than a year after the new zoning first showed up at the Zoning Update Committee, it went to the Planning Commission and passed onto City Council.

Getting to the City Council didn’t mean that all the work on the new downtown zoning was done, however. The staff report (PDF) from that meeting notes two areas where work would continue – findings required for demolishing historic buildings, and view corridors.

Now, some people advocating adoption of this view corridor proposal have been going around saying that we’re doing it at the direction of the City Council. The way they tell it, you would think that there was no plan to study view corridors until the downtown zoning update came to the City Council, and that it was a motion made at Council that directed staff to do the view corridor study. That isn’t true.

What happened was this. A number of people advocating for lower height limits downtown had been asking throughout the whole year-plus long downtown zoning update process to adopt zoning that would not allow any buildings to be built that block views of the Tribune Tower and City Hall from Lake Merritt. When introducing the zoning proposal to the City Council, Deputy CEDA Director Eric Angstadt explained the status of the view corridor plans like this:

Staff has a work program in order to define view corridors and bring those back for Council approval for June of 2010.

So, yes, the Council did say to go ahead and do the view corridor study that was being planned anyway. But their approval was hardly the ringing endorsement that certain people are making it out to be. In fact, during the lengthy Council discussion on the issue, view corridors hardly came up at all.

Take, as an example, the clip below from that meeting where District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan addresses the view corridor issue.

She basically says that she’s fine with doing the study, but that her main concern is not views of particular buildings, but views of the sky. Anyway.

So what views are we talking about?

Well, there are five. All the “views” proposed for protection are of either City Hall or the Tribune Tower from the far side of Lake Merritt. The photos below (all taken from the staff report (PDF)) are labelled with the location the picture was taken from, and also with what the view is supposedly of, which is helpful, since the buildings in question are actually kind of hard to see in a lot of them.

View Corridors 1 and 2

View Corridor 3

View Corridor 4

View Corridor 5

To me, these photographs are a better argument against adopting the view corridors than anything I could come up with myself. I mean, you have to squint to see the buildings in question in any of them! How is that a “corridor”?

What would protecting these views mean?

Well, basically, if we adopted these particular corridors as protected views, it would mean that nobody would be allowed to build anything that would block the view of the building at the end of the corridor. Here’s what all the corridors look like when you put them together.

Overhead image of view corridors

The map below shows what kind of height limits we would adopt within the corridors in order to guarantee that nothing could get built that would block the view.

Height limits in view corridors

In case you were wondering, the dark brown and grey areas where all the corridors converge are the parts of downtown where we zoned to allow unlimited height. The idea was to concentrate intense development along the “Broadway spine,” particularly around the BART stations.

Why on earth would we do that?

Advocates of these view corridors bend over backwards to make it sound like this is a normal thing to do. “Lots of cities have protected views,” they insist. And that is true. There are many cities in the US that have adopted ordinances prohibiting new buildings that would interfere with certain views.

What the view corridor proponents don’t tell you is that none of those protected views are at all similar to what’s being proposed here. First off, most of them are of natural features, not buildings.

Take Denver, for example. Denver has elected to protect views of the Rocky Mountains from a number of places. In fact, they actually just adopted a new one last year, which limits heights immediately west of Coors Field in order to preserve the view of the mountains from the park.

Now, Coors Field is a wonderful ballpark, and sitting there and watching the sun set over the Rocky Mountains on a summer evening is a truly special experience. If you ever happen to be in Denver during the summer, go to a baseball game!

Coors Field at Sunset
WyoLibrarian on Flickr

The arresting beauty of that view is hard to capture in a photograph, but you get the idea. The mountains are big, they’re striking, and the are the most prominent feature of your view. If I lived in Colorado and my blog was called “A Better Denver,” I totally would have supported the Coors Field view plane ordinance.

Another example people like to give to justify view corridors is Austin, TX, where views of the Texas State Capitol are protected from a number of places (by both State and City law). Now, I’m from Texas, and I actually lived in Austin for a while. The Texas State Capitol is a magnificent building. No offense to the Trib Tower or City Hall, but seriously, there is just no comparison.

Here’s an image of one of the protected view corridors for the Texas State Capitol:

Texas State Capitol from Congress Avenue
daleexpress on flickr

Don’t have to squint to see that one, do you? No. Just like in the previous example, the protected view is actually protecting something that is the most prominent thing in the view.

The view corridors proposal came to the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board last Monday, and the Board recommended the adoption of all five view corridors by a 3 to 1 4 to 3 vote (Sorry, I have no idea how that happened.) This post is already ridiculously long, so I’m not going to talk about that discussion right now, but if you’re interested, I encourage you to view the video clips below. The first three clips show statements from the three dissenting Boardmembers, all of whom I thought had very good arguments, and the last one shows the argument of the Boardmember who made the motion to support the corridors.

If that wasn’t enough on view corridors for you, you can watch the entire LPAB conversation here.

Lakeshore under seige – from frozen yogurt!

I never cease to be amazed by the hostility people in some of Oakland’s commercial districts have towards shops. The most stunning example of this would undoubtedly have to be the activists in the Grand Lake neighborhood, who, with the support of District 2 Councilmember Pat Kernighan, succeeded in preventing Out of the Closet opening on Lakeshore and also stopped a Fatburger from opening up in the abandoned Kwikway just a few years ago. And is the neighborhood better for it? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that one.

Anyway, with this history in mind, it didn’t surprise me at all when I started hearing complaints a few months ago about a proposed new frozen yogurt shop wanting to open in an empty space on Lakeshore (between Arizmendi and the Lakeshore Cafe). There are already too many frozen dessert shops! Nobody in the Grand Lake survey from 2 years ago said they wanted to see a yogurt shop! The competition could put the gelato shop out of business! A new yogurt shop will destroy all the businesses on Lakeshore! They should open an adorable butcher shop that sells only the highest quality organic meat but has super cheap prices instead!

I just rolled my eyes, and figured it would go away. After all, as best as I could tell, there were only a handful of people on the anti-yogurt shop bandwagon, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the neighborhood was finding their arguments particularly persuasive. So then I stopped hearing about it and I kind of figured it was all over.

Not yet! At tomorrow’s meeting (PDF), the Oakland Planning Commission will hear an appeal of the yogurt shop’s approval (PDF). Why can anyone appeal a yogurt shop to the City in the first place, you ask? It’s because businesses of the type “limited service restaurant and cafe” require a minor conditional use permit to open in this type of retail district.

Anyway, the appeal, as it turns out, is not being filed by random angry neighbors because they’d rather have a fantasy butcher. It has been filed by the owner of another frozen yogurt shop in the neighborhood. But he’s not appealing because he wants to shut out the competition. No, he’s objecting to the new yogurt shop on public safety and public health grounds:

I disagree with your decision for the new yogurt shop. The space to open the self-service, do-it-yourself frozen yogurt store at 3261 Lakeshore Ave between Arizmendi Bakery and Lakeshore Cafe within that compact area would not generate a large enough span for pedestrians to safely cross that active space without accidental incidents that could incite. Especially in the weekend, the Pedestrians would feel crowded, uncomfortable, and possibly cause some sort of conflict to arise. An elderly, handicap or a mom with a stroller would have a difficult time passing and could have the likelihood of being knocked over, shoved into others, or a car.

The self-service, do-it-yourself frozen yogurt store design to open in this small space is not big enough for tables and chairs for the costumers to sit comfortable. As customers eat on and go, the street waste and trash rates would also increase because of the higher concentration of inhabitants which would lead to foul odors and possible health hazards. This will not serve Lakeshore community as it claims under Attachment A. Please review this appeal.

Unsurprisingly, staff does not find the objections persuasive, and recommends that the Planning Commission deny the appeal. I’m guessing the Commission will agree. So watch out, Lakeshore! Frozen yogurt and the accompanying foul odors are on the way! Hold onto your strollers! You don’t want to get knocked into a car.