Monthly Archives: February 2011

How can we improve the area around Lake Merritt BART?

I have been mystified by the wasteland that surrounds the Lake Merritt BART Station since like two days after I moved to Oakland.

A friend and I were sitting in my new downtown apartment and about to go…I don’t remember where we were going, but it was somewhere on BART. I suggested we get lunch downtown beforehand, and asked which BART station we should go to, since my place was roughly equidistant from the Lake Merritt and 19th Street stations.

He didn’t have any specific place in mind to eat, and suggested we try the Lake Merritt station so I could see a different part of downtown than I had been frequenting. “There’s a BART station, tons of apartments, and a community college right there,” he said. “Of course there will be plenty places to get something eat.”

So we headed down that way. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t what I saw.

Lake Merritt BART Station Neighborhood

There was nobody outside, nowhere obvious to buy anything, no activity around the station — nothing. It made no sense to me.

Ten years later, it still doesn’t make any sense. I moved away from the immediate area a while back, but I’ve worked in close proximity to that BART station for I think a combined total of four years now, and I still marvel at how empty it always feels. The station itself isn’t a failure — more than 5,000 people are using it every day (PDF), but whenever I find myself down there, I end up having to buy my coffee at the Metrocenter cafeteria, which is just totally depressing. (I did notice recently a new coffee shop across from the station, but haven’t had the opportunity to visit yet. But hey, that’s progress, right?)

Lake Merritt BART Station

Lake Merritt Station Area Plan

So the City also thinks that it is a problem that the neighborhood around the BART station is so dead. In hopes of making the area more successful in the future, they are currently in the process of creating an Area Plan for the neighborhood around the station:

The City of Oakland, BART and the Peralta Community College District, through a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, have come together to prepare a Station Area Plan for the area around the Lake Merritt BART Station. The Plan will consider land use, buildings, design, circulation, BART improvements, streetscape improvements, parks and public spaces. It will identify actions the City and the other public agencies should take to improve the area, and it will establish regulations for development projects on private property. The project also involves the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report for the Station Area Plan.

The planning area is a one-half mile radius around the Lake Merritt BART Station, which encompasses Chinatown, Laney College, civic buildings of Alameda Photo of Laney CollegeCounty and Oakland and the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the estuary. Many diverse residents, businesses and students make up the community of this area, and Chinatown functions as a citywide center for the Asian community. The Station Area Plan must address the needs of the community, as well as the needs of BART related to ridership, and the needs of the College District related to education and maximizing the use of their land. BART has stated that it envisions the area transitioning from its current status as an “Urban Neighborhood Station” to a “Regional Center” station type. Completing the environmental review process is also a critical component of the project, so that issues are resolved and development can proceed by tiering off the environmental analysis.

You can learn more about the planning effort on the project website.

Add your voice to the plan

If you’re interested in being involved in the planning process, you have an opportunity to do so this Saturday, February 26th, and next Saturday, March 5th, interested parties will have another opportunity to weigh in on the Station Area Plan at two public workshops. Both will be held at the Laney College Student Center at 900 Fallon Street. They’ll begin with an Open House from 9:00 to 9:30am, followed by a meeting from 9:30 to 12:30pm.

Lake Merritt Station Area Plan map

For discussion purposes, the plan area has been divided into two subareas: East and West. In the image above, the East subarea has been shaded in blue, and the West subarea in orange.

East Subarea

This week’s meeting will focus on the East subarea, and next week’s will focus on the West subarea. Helpfully, the project website already contains some materials to help you prepare.

I’m more interested in this portion, since the West subarea is for the most part, a much more successful neighborhood. There’s no reason I can see for the East subarea to be so sad — after all, aside from housing a BART station, it also includes Laney College, the School District Headquarters, the Oakland Museum, the County Courthouse, and the Oakland Main Library. People are clearly around. But walking around the area, it appears that for whatever reason, they’re unable to support normal neighborhood amenities.

Alameda County Courthouse

The map below highlights the existing uses in the area.

Lake Merritt Station Area Plan East subarea map

If you’re having trouble reading that, click here to download a bigger PDF version.

Discussion Guide

A discussion guide (PDF) on the project website gives you an idea of the types of issues that will be discussed at the meeting, and offers some specific questions to prompt discussion.

The questions are divided into three different sections. The first section asks about street improvements:

What we’ve heard so far

  • Improve the connections between the many unique places and destinations in the area, such as Chinatown, Laney College, Lake Merritt, the BART stations (including Lake Merritt, 12th Street, and 19th Street BART stations), Alameda County facilities, and the Jack London District
  • Ensure the safety of people walking, riding bikes, and driving ars throughout the planning area.
  • Incorporate distinctive street design into the area that reflects the community

Questions

  1. What streets do you think should change?
  2. How would those changes improve your ability to get around the neighborhood?
  3. How could the streets you use be safer, more attractive and pleasant for walking and biking?
  4. What are your top three street improvements?

Improved connections seems like a no brainer.

Lake Merritt BART Station neighborhood

The Jack London District is right down the street from the BART station, but you certainly wouldn’t know it just standing by the station exit.

One thing I wonder about sometimes when I’m in the neighborhood is if part of the problem is that the streets are simply too wide for the existing building stock. They appear to have a great deal of excess capacity as well.

Lake Merritt BART Station & Laney College

I’m not sure what the solution to that is. Widening the sidewalks would be one option, I guess, although for the moment, there seems to be no shortage of capacity on the sidewalks either. Maybe it just needs taller buildings?

The second part of the discussion guide asks about development and services:

What we’ve heard so far

  • Promote a vibrant and thriving neighborhood, including new businesses, new shopping, restaurants, and other commercial services.
  • Expand and strengthen Chinatown and establish more businesses around the Lake Merritt BART station.
  • Promote a night market or farmers market, and promote businesses staying open later into the night.
  • Accommodate a diverse community by providing a wide range of jobs, local services, and housing — both affordable (low cost) housing and market rate housing.

Questions

  1. Where should new shopping and dining areas be located?
  2. What kinds of entertainment and attractions would you like to see? Where should new entertainment or attractions (such as a farmers market, night market, performance spaces, or other nightlife) be located?
  3. Are there specific types of housing you would like to see in the area? (Examples of housing include family and student housing, and ownership and rental housing, etc.
  4. Are their specific types of goods and services you would like to see in the area? (Example of goods: home repair supplies, appliances, office supplies, etc,; examples of services: health services, senior services, child care services, etc.)
  5. Are there specific types of new jobs you would like to see in the area?
  6. How tall (i.e., number of stories) would you like buildings to be?

Madison Square Park

The final section focuses on parks and public facilities:

What we’ve heard so far

  • Existing parks should be improved and new parks should be added to accommodate future population growth.
  • Parks should provide space for multicultural and multigenerational programs and activities (such as space for tai chi, community gardens, and athletic fields).
  • Provide an additional multi-generational, multi-cultural community center, and a youth center, either as part of the same center or as a separate facility.
  • Preserve, celebrate, and enhance the heritage of Chinatown, as a cultural asset, regional community destination, and an anchor for businesses, housing, and community services. Highlight these resources and ensure that new development complements these existing resources.

Questions

  1. Existing community resources include the many historic or cultural assets in the neighborhood, such as the Buddhist Church, Lincoln Square Park and the Lake Merritt Channel. Which of the many existing community resources would you particularly like to see highlighted and enhanced in the planning area?
  2. What new parks, public spaces, and/or community facilities (such as youth center, cultural center or community center) would you like to see in the area, and where would you like to see them located?

That should give you plenty to think about in preparation for the meeting. I’m going to do my best to make it, although I’m not 100% sure I’ll be able to get there.

If you want to participate in the process, once again, the workshop will take place this Saturday, February 26th from 9:30am to 12:30pm at the Laney College Student Center located at 900 Fallon St..

How do you use the East Bay’s regional parks?

Do you guys get out much to the East Bay Regional Parks?

I adore them.

I used to go to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park (formerly maintained by EBRPD, but as of January, now maintained by the Port of Oakland) all the time before the bus stopped running there. I still visit Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline fairly often.

I go up to walk in the hills parks as often as I can, although not being able to drive makes that kind of hard. Last week when I said that the main reason I want to get my driver’s license was so I could attend EBRPD Board meetings, that was only partially true. I definitely want to be able to go see their meetings. But also, I want to be able to go to the parks more often for recreation. People are always telling me how helpful being able to drive is for everyday things like grocery shopping or whatever, but I manage those tasks just fine on my feet and AC Transit. For me, wanting to drive is all about the EBPRD. I have a little dream of making a project out of visiting all the parks in the District.

Anyway. If you’re one of those people who is constantly out and about hiking in our amazing regional parks, good for you. If you have never been to one, you are missing out on a tremendous resource, and I strongly urge you to visit one soon.

EBRPD Master Plan Update

In the meantime, you can help shape the future of the East Bay Regional Park District (EPRD) right now by taking their community survey, which is being used to help craft an update of the EBRPD Master Plan:

The East Bay Regional Park District is preparing an update of the Park District’s Master Plan, a policy document that guides the District in future expansion of parks, trails, and services. The District provides and manages the regional parks for Alameda and Contra Costa counties, a 1,700 square mile area which is home to over 2.5 million people. The District manages 65 regional parks, over 108,000 acres of open space, and 1,200 miles of trails.

Its Master Plan defines the vision and mission of the Park District and sets priorities for at least the next decade. The policies set forth by the Master Plan help guide the stewardship and development of current and future parks in such a way to maintain a careful balance between the need to protect and conserve natural resources while offering recreational use of parklands for all to enjoy now and in the future. Accompanying the plan, is the Master Plan Map which was updated in 2008 and outlines several proposed new areas within the Park District’s jurisdiction.

The Survey

I took the online survey on Saturday. It was pretty long, so wait until you have like fifteen minutes to devote to it before trying to fill it out.

But it’s worth doing if you care about the future of the EBRPD. I don’t know a whole lot about the way the District is run, or what kind of issues they struggle with, so I really enjoyed completing the survey because it gave me a little insight into the types of choices they have to make about their services.

The first page asked a bunch of very general questions about people’s opinions of the regional parks and the EBRPD. Do they improve your quality of life? Is maintenance of the parks important? What about environmental maintenance? Do the parks increase your property values? Stuff like that.

I marked “strongly disagree” on only one of the questions, which was:

Social equity is a core value to the East Bay Regional Park District; clearly, the District is well known for making a concerted effort to accommodate the needs and desires of people in ALL levels of income and ALL ethnic groups who reside in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

If the EBRPD does, in fact, make such a concerted effort, it is certainly not well known by me. Access to the parks for people without an automobile is very poor.

Several years ago, I agreed to help out a friend who worked with Oakland kids in a flatland neighborhood and tag along with them on a field trip up to Redwood Regional Park. The way they reacted when we got up there, you would have thought we had taken them to Mars. It was profoundly sad to me to realize that these kids who live really only a few miles away had basically no idea that this incredibly resource even existed, and really have no opportunity in their daily lives to enjoy it.

Of course, that was just one experience, and like I said, I don’t know the details of everything the EBRPD does. Maybe they have tons of outreach programs that I am unaware of and that this particular group of kids was somehow not exposed to. I don’t know.

But from where I sit, there is no way that the EBRPD can be claim social equity as one of their core values if they are not actively working to get people, particularly children, from disadvantaged communities in the East Bay to their parks.

And the little amount I actually do know about the EBRPD’s activities and investments certainly does not suggest some strong commitment to social equity. Look at the poor Jack London Aquatic Center (JLAC). So here is this great operation that is partially funded by the City and partially funded by rent from tenants like the Oakland Strokes, a rowing team composed mostly of kids from Contra Costa County. This allowed the JLAC to provide rowing and kayaking programs for kids at Oakland public schools.

So then the Oakland Strokes decide that they don’t like sharing the space and so the East Bay Regional Parks District goes and builds them their own boathouse where they’ll pay a fraction of the previous rent and maybe do some “outreach” to poor kids in Oakland. And now with the loss of the Strokes combined with the cut of City funding, goodbye JLAC and the wonderful opportunities they provide. Thanks EBRPD!

How you use the parks

The next couple of pages were devoted to how people use the parks. One asked about what kind of exercise you do and how regularly, although the options were kind of weird. (I don’t usually think of “camping” as exercise). The next wanted to know if you were aware of the EBRPD before taking the survey, and then next asked how often you visit the parks and which ones.

They also asked if you have attended any of their classes or programs, which I admit that I have not. I’ve always kind of wanted too, though. I’m always seeing programs on their Twitter that look really interesting. Someday!

Why you don’t use the parks

The next page asked about barriers to using the regional parks. They had a list of options and asked you to mark whether each one was a major barrier, minor barrier, or not a barrier. Options included distance of the parks from your home, lack of transportation to the parks, park use fees, insufficient parking, safety concerns, lack of multi-lingual signage, overcrowding, inadequate accommodations for the disabled, and so on.

Like I said before, my biggest barrier is transportation. Public transit to the regional parks was never stellar, but with the recent AC Transit service cuts, it has actually gotten really bad. Now, from AC Transit’s perspective, it makes total sense to cut lines like these, which did not get used very much. But if the EBRPD is concerned about equity and providing access for everyone, they should cough up the cash to subsidize bus lines serving their out of the way facilities.

When I’ve gotten rides to the parks, I’ve never had a problem parking. But of course my experience in that arena is somewhat limited.

The next page quizzes you on your satisfaction with various aspects of the regional parks: maintenance, safety, amenities, programs, and so on.

Adding to the EBRDP’s holdings

The next page wanted input on whether the EBRPD should be buying more land, and if so, what type:

With over 108,000 acres of land, 65 regional parks, and over 1,200 miles of trails, some people believe that the land holdings for the East Bay Regional Park District are sufficient and there is no need to purchase more land. Other people argue that there is a very real need to purchase and protect more undeveloped land and open spaces, especially since there is not a great deal of this land left in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

First, it asked whether the District should purchase more land at all, which honestly, I’m not sure about. I like the regional parks, so I like the idea of adding to them conceptually. But I think I would have to know more about what land they want to purchase before I could give an informed answer. I marked “decline to state”.

Then it asked:

Do you feel the park District should place a higher priority on the purchase and protection of undeveloped open space and wildlife areas, keeping visitor access to a minimum; or do you believe the available funds would be better spent developing and opening up more of the existing parklands for public access, thereby enhancing public visitation and recreational activities?

So I think that this gets into those mysterious politics of the EBRPD that I know nothing about. I use the parks for recreation, and so it seems natural to me that they should invest in parks that people can use. But other people think of the District’s responsibility differently, and think that use by people is a bonus, and that their value is in the preservation of undeveloped space. Obviously, in a dense urban area there will be people concerned with that .

I have heard some people complain about how the EBRPD is all corrupt and just takes public money to buy worthless grazing land so they can give sweetheart deals to their cattle friends or something. But the people who say that might be totally crazy, I have no idea. They often sound kind of crazy.

The question made me think of when I took a trip to Montana last year and paid a visit to the local public library. I was wandering around just to get a sense of the place (it appeared, happily, clean & well-used), when a prominently displayed Environmental Impact Statement report caught my eye. Of course I could not resist going to take a look.

It turned out to be about the long term plan for some kind of State forest or nature preserve or something. They had four different alternatives about what the use priorities should be for the area — recreation for people, wildlife and habitat preservation, jobs and industry…I can’t remember the last one. Maybe it was like a combination of all three or something?

Anyway, I sat there reading for a while about the different impacts of the different options, and the reasons people made for and against the different options, and it was really interesting. I kept changing my mind about which was the best while I was reading it.

So this is sort of the same issue. I picked the recreational activities option, but it made me want to learn more about why the EBRPD was created and the history of the agency. I actually have a book about it, but it has been languishing alongside my book about the creation of East Bay MUD on my nightstand for months. If I ever get around to reading it, I will report back here.

Anyway. The final question on that page asked whether the District should be investing in “passive” parks, with things like hiking and walking trails, or “active” parks, with swimming and playground facilities. At first, I was going to mark passive parks, since mostly what I like to do in the regional parks is hiking and walking. But then I started thinking about the poor Jack London Aquatic Center, and the value of facilities like that in urban areas, and thought maybe the District should be investing in things like that. So I changed it to “combination of both.”

The following pages asked about global warming and something called Healthy Parks, Healthy People, which I was unfamiliar with.

How should the EBRPD spend its money?

The next page asked for input on the District’s spending priorities. There were lists of passive and active facilities and programs, and you were asked to rate each one as being either a high, medium, or low priority, or not a priority at all.

Options for passive activities included visitor centers, interpretive facilities, fitness trails, picnic areas, botanical gardens, more parking, and so on. Under active activities, they had options for hiking and jogging trails, bicycle riding, equestrian activities, dog trails, playgrounds, camping, fishing and — most bizarre to me — waterslides.

I don’t know what exactly that last option was referring to, but waterslides are fun, so I was tempted to list it as a high priority, although I ultimately went with low, since other options seemed like they probably were more important.

It went on to ask about what types of trails people prefer — dedicated to one use (bicycling or hiking) or multi-use. I had a tough time with that one. When I go hiking, I definitely prefer a trail that I don’t have to share with horses or bicycles. But on the other hand, it seems like shared trails are probably more efficient from a resource standpoint. I ended up saying both were important.

Then they asked all these really specific questions about which types of trails you prefer. I was totally out of my element on this one. I mean, the easy thing to do would be to just mark the types of trails I use right now. But of course, who knows how my habits will change in the future. It’s possible, in theory, that I might decide that I’m super into bicycles. If that happened, would I prefer dirt trails or paved trails? Or are there enough bicycle trails as is? I just don’t know. I think the most important thing is to offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities, but beyond that, I have a hard time saying.

Dogs in the Parks

One question about trail priorities that I had no trouble answering was the one about “DOG FREE trails.” I said that they are not a priority.

The trail page was followed by one about dogs in the regional parks. First it asks if the existing dog policies were adequate. There was no option for saying that the parks should be more dog friendly. You could only say that they are adequate or that there should be more restrictions on dogs.

Then it asked whether they should continue their policy of allowing people to hike with their dogs off leash on most trails. Those of you who have read previous posts I’ve written about dog parks will not be surprised to hear that I believe it should be continued. Hiking with dogs is great! Taking dogs to beautiful open wooded areas and forcing them to stay on their leash is torture. And I have never witnessed any problems with dogs on the EBRPD trails I’ve visited.

Do you trust the East Bay Regional Park District?

The final section focused on how much confidence you have in the EBRPD leadership. Like I said before, I don’t really know enough about how the District operates to answer any of those questions. I marked unsure on all of them except for the final one:

Officials of the East Bay Regional Park District never exaggerate about the need for money, therefore, I would almost always support a reasonable tax increase for the East Bay Regional Park District.

I said that I strongly disagree. I like the regional parks, and am not necessarily against voting for a tax increase for the District. But that depends on so many factors. What would the specific uses of the tax be? How much would the tax be? Without knowing those things, how could anyone say that they would “almost always” support more taxes? That seemed like a poorly phrased question to me.

Also. I really don’t know much about the East Bay Regional Park District’s finances, but the notion that any public official “never exaggerate[s] the need for money” is preposterous.

Take the survey!

Now that you know what to expect, it’s your turn. What do you want to see the East Bay Regional Park District look like in the future? What types of facilities should they invest in? Do you want to be able to hike with your dog?

Your input matters. Take the survey here, then come back and tell me what you said.

What you missed at Overhauling Oakland’s Budget

On Saturday, I urged readers to brave the rain and get over to Lakeshore on Sunday afternoon for “Overhauling Oakland’s Budget.”

On Sunday, it turned out to not be rainy at all. Instead it was sunny and beautiful, which made me fear even more for turnout at the event. When the sun comes out after such yucky weather, who wants to spend their weekend afternoon sitting inside some church meeting room talking about performance based budgeting?

So I was delighted when I walked in (late — I had a minor crisis trying to get there) to see the chairs almost all full, and a really healthy sized audience. It says a lot about how much Oaklanders care about seeing the City become more successful that so many people were willing to give up such a beautiful afternoon.

The event overall was great, too. The presentations were really informative, and it was just so delightful to see that amount of energy and interest in these wonky, but extremely important issues. I took some video of the meeting, so if you weren’t able to make it, you can see what you missed below.

Ignacio De La Fuente spent his time talking about how difficult it is to really make any kind of tangible change in City Hall, noting that he has seen a number of groups similar to Make Oakland Better Now! come and go during his time. He talked about the need for amendments to the City Charter relating to issues like PFRS, pension contributions, and contracting out City services, and said that such ballot measures will have to come from the people, because the Council will not place them on the ballot.

Make Oakland Better Now!’s Nicolas Heidorn gave a great presentation about how the City can be better prepared to weather future budget crises by adopting a rainy day fund policy.

City Attorney John Russo commended the group on the policy work they’ve done, and urged them to become more political in their efforts, and to think about forming or working with a Political Action Committee that would lead signature drives to put charter amendments on the ballot. Like De La Fuente, he insisted that change is never going to come from within City Hall. As an example of a needed charter amendment, he suggested language that would allow the City to more easily contract with volunteer groups, non-profits, and Business Improvement Districts for the provision of services.

City Auditor Courtney Ruby complained a lot about State issues and listing things she thinks our State representatives are doing wrong. I found it the least compelling of the presentations.

Make Oakland Better Now!’s Jim Blanchman made a brief, but thorough presentation about the City’s PFRS obligations — for those unfamiliar with the term, that is a retirement system that the City used to have for police and fire employees that is now closed, but that we’re still paying on.

The PFRS issue comes up every so often (and will definitely be more on the radar in the coming months), and I have to admit, I hate having to go through the whole thing and explain it, cause it is frankly, kind of convoluted and usually takes me a really long time. But I thought he laid out the whole issue really clearly, and from now on when people ask me about it, I’m totally just going to send them the link to this video.

BTW, there are a couple of PFRS-related items on the agenda for today’s Finance & Management Committee meeting, and I do plan to write about them, but I’ve got a wicked busy schedule, so I can tell you right now that it’s unlikely I’ll get anything up on that subject before the weekend.

In between presentations, there was a lot of interesting Q&A, and I’ve broken those out into individual videos as well, which you can watch below.

Thanks again to Make Oakland Better Now! and the East Bay Young Democrats for putting this on.

What criteria should be used to select public art?

You guys know that Oaksterdam University sign painted on the side wall of their building by 17th and Broadway? I think it’s cool. Certainly, it’s an improvement over the big blank wall that was there before.

City staff does not think it is so cool. Well, I suppose I don’t know their personal opinions on the coolness of the sign. But whether or not they think it’s cool, they do think that it violates Oakland’s zoning.

You see, under the new downtown zoning code that was adopted in July 2009, there are some pretty strict limits on the allowed size of signage. I personally think they’re too strict, and thought so at the time they were adopted, but I just really like signage in general. In any case, it’s law now, so whether or not the rules are good is not really relevant to the discussion.

Oaksterdam University current sign

The zoning code determines the permissible size of a sign for any business downtown by the size of the front facing portion of a building. For every foot of building street frontage, you are allowed one square foot of sign. If there are multiple businesses in the building, the allowed sign size applies to all of the businesses together. So, if zoning says signs on the building can be a total of 100 square feet, then than 100 square feet is for the combined size of all the signs for all the businesses.

Under the zoning, the building Oaksterdam University is in would be allowed a total of 60 square feet of signs for all the businesses in the building. Given the size of the other signs already on the building, the permitted size left over for their side wall sign is 20 square feet. You don’t need to take a measuring tape to it to see that the actual size of the sign is a great deal larger than that.

The staff report from July’s meeting (PDF) explains:

That Code section permits one square foot of sign area per linear foot of frontage, up to 200 square feet. The new wall sign exceeds both standards. The 60-foot wide frontage would allow 60 square feet of aggregate sign area for all businesses in the building. Since there is already a 20 square foot sign for another tenant and a 20 square foot OU sign, only 20 square feet of sign area remains available. Thus, the new sign is about 35 (thirty-five) times the maximum 20 square feet allowed.

The sign area originally reported by the applicant is 513 square feet, the area of letters and logo exclusive of the white wall space in between letters and logo. The appeal now states that the signs are really only 470 square feet. However, the sign consists of 20 green 24 square foot letters spelling out OU’s name, plus the 12 foot diameter 125 square foot green-and-yellow school logo, on a white background, located at the second and third story levels of the 3-story office building. Therefore, using the simplest rectangles as measured by staff, the area is closer to 725 square feet. This is the method of measurement used for signs in Oakland.

Of course, a 20 square foot sign on that particular wall would look ridiculous. It would be smaller than each individual item of graffiti that I took pictures of there this morning. So Oaksterdam University applied for a variance (PDF) that would allow them to keep their giant sign. Staff said no, and so Oaksterdam University appealed the decision to the Planning Commission. The appeal came before the Planning Commission staff report from July’s meeting (PDF)in July (PDF).

Presenting the issue, staff bent over backwards to stress that they didn’t have any problem with Oaksterdam University specifically, but that no matter how popular any given business is, it has to be treated the same as everyone else, and they just could not find a way to make findings for a variance for this particular case without setting a precedent. I’m sympathetic to their wariness about setting precedents, although I think they may have been somewhat overly dramatic about their phrasing:

Potentially every other office or medical office in the downtown area would then want a sign the size of a drive in movie screen. And there are just not enough walls to handle all that.

Right off the bat, Commissioner Michael Colbruno asked why it had to be considered a business sign at all, rather than artwork or some kind of mural.

Signage as placemaking

He got into a little back and forth with staff about examples of other signs that, although they may name a business, really serve in practice to designate an area or district, and suggested that this might be the case here.

So then, Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee comes up to speak, and says that they didn’t realize they needed a permit to begin with, that they felt it was unfair that they were being evaluated by the size of the front of the building when the sign is in fact on the side, and that they see Oaksterdam as a place, and that the University attracts people to Oakland from all over California.

Anecdotally, my own experience from living in this neighborhood suggests that yes, Oaksterdam is very much a place and people do come here to see it. The University is a huge attraction to Oakland.

When I moved into my building, there was a sad “pharmacy” below me that was closed on weekends. At some point it closed altogether. There was never anyone around on weekends, and it was actually kind of depressing around here.

Then Oaksterdam University took the vacant pharmacy space. All of a sudden, there were tons of people around all the time! Instead of being deserted on Saturdays, my neighborhood was full of life. After a while, Oaksterdam University outgrew that spot and moved into the larger space down they street they occupy now.

My corner is a little less exciting now, but people still come to visit Oaksterdam. Every other weekend or so, I’ll be walking to or from my apartment, and some lost looking person will stop me on their way out of BART or something and be like “Hey. I want to see Oaksterdam. Where is it?”

I always feel kind of bad when I have to tell them “Oh yeah, you’re actually here. There’s a coffee shop across the street you can go to and a gift shop a couple of blocks away if you want to buy a shirt. There’s not much more to it. We’ve got an ice rink down that way. You could go skating.”

Nobody ever wants to go ice skating. But they always ask where Oaksterdam University is. So I point down the street and I’m like “Just go that way. There’s a giant sign on the wall. You can’t miss it.” Often people are so excited about their visit to Oaksterdam that will ask me to take pictures of them standing in front of the sign, and I’m always happy to oblige.

Business Sign or Special Sign

The Planning Commission was clearly sympathetic to Oaksterdam University, and wanted to find a way to help them out.

So the conversation turned to a discussion of whether the Oaksterdam University sign was in fact a “business sign,” which is subject to size limits, or instead a “special sign,” which does not have the same size limitations.

Staff listed a couple of different options for ways the Commission could go about allowing Oaksterdam University’s sign, emphasizing that they would prefer that it be done in the manner that is the least precedent setting.

Commissioner Sandra Gálvez suggested that they sidestep the variance process altogether by declaring the sign a mural, and while the rest of the Commission seemed sympathetic to the idea, the consensus among the group seemed to be that there was simply now way to declare a sign that contained nothing other than the name of a business anything other than a business sign.

After some discussion, the Commission decided that Oaksterdam University should work with staff to come up with something that would be more of a mural than a sign.

You can watch video of that whole discussion below:

Oaksterdam: The Mural

Since the Commission never actually voted on appeal itself back in July, the issue had to return to them for resolution. This happened in January (PDF).

In the intervening months, Oaksterdam University put out an RFP for mural proposals, and returned with eight concepts (PDF) for what a mural on the building could look like.

The proposals were reviewed by City staff and representatives of the downtown Business District, and this is the one that “everyone liked the best”.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

In their comments in support of this option, CEDA offers (PDF):

The artist has presented a beautiful wall mural of Lake Merritt that demonstrates the University’s commitment to nature and beauty and presents a contribution to beautifying the landscape of Downtown Oakland.

I found this really sad. I mean, the whole original discussion about the idea of sign or mural was about placemaking. And whether one thinks this mural is pretty or not, it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the neighborhood. Oaksterdam is not on Lake Merritt, nor is it at Oakland City Hall. I live in the heart of Oaksterdam, and I cannot see either Lake Merritt or City Hall from my apartment. The only thing about the mural that identifies the neighborhood at all is the text with the name of the business.

The representative from Oakdsterdam pushed gently for a second option.

Oaksterdam Mural Conept

Judging the mural just on its own, and without thinking about how it relates to the neighborhood, the one they picked is fine, I guess. I find it underwhelming, yet inoffensive. I have no strong feelings about it either way really. I am fairly certain nobody will ever ask me to take their photo in front of it. My hands down favorite was a different option entirely (although I would never expect it to get selected):

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

I’ll mix the other proposals in through the rest of the post so you can see what else was on the table.

So this was a pretty interesting discussion. Well, most of the discussion was about whether the words “Oaksterdam” and “University” constituted the area considered a sign or if only the word “University” should be counted towards the 60 square foot maximum signage area out of the 800 square foot mural. So that actually wasn’t really that interesting. (They ended up saying that both words were part of the sign, but that Oaksterdam University could have a little bit of flexibility with the square footage allotment, in case you were wondering.)

What makes good public art?

But I was really fascinated by the discussion over which mural to pick.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

So Commissioner Madeline Zayas-Mart said that she preferred the first option because it had a broader appeal, and that we have to be careful when putting up a mural of that size to not offend anyone.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

Then Commissioner Doug Boxer said that he agreed we should pick the option with the broadest appeal, but that he wasn’t sure the postcard was that one, suggesting that perhaps the second option was more unique to Oakland.

Zayas-Mart responded:

The principles that I was trying to espouse was that it should be something that would have a broad appeal, that it shouldn’t be something that’s on the edge, not in this particular case — not because I don’t think that is a worthy thing, but that’s why I go to museums.

In Oakland, of course, we do have an existing process for reviewing public art, which is that proposals are considered by the Public Art Advisory Committee, a subcommittee of the Cultural Affairs Commission. City Public Art staff came to the meeting to politely inform the Planning Commission of this process, and offered to schedule a review of the proposal before that body.

The Commission said no, justifying their decision by saying that it would be unfair to Oaksterdam University to drag out the process any longer. Which is a fair point after this issue has gone on for nearly a year, so perhaps it’s too late to do anything now. But of course, the Planning Commission should never have been picking out murals in the first place. That, at least, seems like a no brainer to me.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

The Commission ended up deciding that Oaksterdam University could go with either the first or second option, after working with staff to refine the concepts.

But I thought these were interesting questions, and worth talking about. What should the criteria be that we use to select public art? I am certainly not some kind of expert on art, and I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems to me that the criteria definitely should not be to select whatever is the least likely to bother anyone.

It seems to me that art, even public art, should be designed to be somewhat interesting and capture people’s attention. In this case, when the original discussion focused on placemaking, it seems like the mural should have some connection to Oaksterdam as a place. I don’t know how well any of the proposals necessarily accomplished that, but I didn’t see how the one that was selected did so at all.

Here’s the video of the full hearing in January, if you’re interested:

I’m interested to hear about what readers think about criteria for selecting public art. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Talk transportation with the League

Over the next week, League of Women Voters Oakland will be hosting two events to discuss transportation issues in Oakland.

The first will take place tomorrow night at Oakland City Hall. AC Transit At-large Director Joel Young will give a presentation, followed by a Q&A, about the agency. Here’s the event description, from the League:

Hitching a Ride of AC Transit: Where’s this Bus Headed?

Joel Young, Director-at-Large for AC Transit, will talk about the state of AC Transit and what the future holds for both AC Transit and Bay Area transportation in general.

AC Transit is the largest bus-only transit provider in California, carrying an average of over 200,000 riders a day. Its goal is to serve the greatest number of passengers at a reasonable cost and fare. But with the budget problems facing our state and our local communities, transportation funds are hard to come by, and with the exception of fares, any significant increase to AC Transit’s operating revenues requires a vote of the public.

Join other League members and interested members of the public to hear Director Joel Young discuss Bay Area transportation issues, including how AC Transit plans to meet its long-standing commitment to preserving and improving the quality and quantity of transit service for East Bay riders. There will be time for questions following Mr. Young’s presentation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 — 6:00 to 7:30 PM
Oakland City Hall, Hearing Room 3
One Frank Ogawa Plaza
(to the left inside the 14th Street entrance to City Hall)

For those who attend and want to talk more about transportation, or want to talk about transportation issues beyond just AC Transit, the League’s monthly Hot Topics meeting, held on next Monday, February 28th, will focus on transportation issues more generally.

From the League:

Hot Topics – Transportation Issues

Conversation about transportation issues a follow-up to the AC Transit program

A speaker from AC Transit will have given us a lot to think about on February 22.

Now you can participate in a conversation about transit issues in Oakland and the Bay Area. Bring your questions, concerns, and ideas for improvement.

Monday, February 28
6:30–8:00 p.m.
Redwood Heights Community Center
3883 Aliso Avenue
(Off Redwood Road just below Highway 13)

All are welcome; bring a friend!

Joel Ramos from TransForm and Kassie Rohrbach from Walk Oakland Bike Oakland will be on hand to provide information and answer any questions attendees may have about transportation issues in Oakland.

I’ll be at both events. Hope to see some of you there!

Come talk City budget with Make Oakland Better Now!

So this weather is yucky, huh? It does not make me want to leave the house at all. My plans for today had included a visit to the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market and perhaps a trip across the Bay to go see that cool elaborate dresses made out of paper exhibit at the Legion of Honor.

After taking a short walk around downtown this morning, my plan is now to stay in my apartment doing work, and then take a nap.

But no matter how yucky the weather is tomorrow, I will find a way to muster the motivation to leave the house and get to Lakeshore, and you should too, because for people who care about the City’s budget, Make Oakland Better Now!’s “Overhauling Oakland’s Budget meeting is a seriously can’t miss event.

Here are the event details, via Make Oakland Better Now!:

Make Oakland Better Now! and the East Bay Young Democrats present Make Oakland Work Better Now! – Overhauling Oakland’s Budget

In the weeks and months ahead, our Mayor and City Council will be making critical budget decisions that will have a profound impact to Oakland citizens for years to come. Join us. Become informed. Make your voice heard.

Our guest speakers will include:

  • Courtney Ruby, City Auditor
  • John Russo, City Attorney
  • Ignacio de la Fuente, Vice Mayor, City Council Member and Council Finance & Management Chair

Items of discussion will include:

  • Establishing a Rainy Day Fund
  • Paying for pensions
  • Instituting a performance based budget
  • Reforming the budget process, more specifically how to pay for city services in a permanent financial crisis

When: Sunday, February 20, 2011
Time: 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Where: Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, 3534 Lakeshore Avenue (directions)

Immediately following the presentations and discussions, Make Oakland Better Now! will have a brief business meeting, as required by MOBN!’s Articles of Association.

Plus continuing discussion over cocktails afterwards at Easy Lounge down the street.

The way the City has been handling its budget is clearly not working, either for the City or the citizens, nor is it sustainable. I know that we can do better, and I am so glad that Make Oakland Better Now! has taken on the task of figuring out how. Oakland is in dire need of this conversation.

If you want to come super prepared, as homework, make sure you read the materials Make Oakland Better Now! has been putting out this week explaining some of their ideas and research. Over at their blog, they’ve posted items about the frightening Police and Fire Retirement System debt obligations and a rainy day fund proposal. Here at ABO, Make Oakland Better Now! Boardmember Bruce Nye has kindly allowed me to post two pieces on budgeting based on performance and outcomes.

So I hope to see a lot of you folks at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church tomorrow!

Notes from AC Transit’s fare policy public input meeting

After work yesterday, I attended AC Transit’s fare policy public input meeting. For those who couldn’t go, here’s how it went.

They gave a short presentation explaining the fare policy proposal, and the timeline for when things will happen. There will be a public hearing on the fare policy in April, then they will look for adoption by the Board, and would expect the fare increase to go into effect in January.

The meeting was fairly well attended. The seats in the room were probably about half full. I went straight there from work, but I still got there late, so I didn’t actually get to see the presentation except the very end.

However, AC Transit staff has helpfully provided me with the slides for the presentation, so if you want to review them for yourself, you can do so here (PDF). They provide a very good, simple explanation of the background and different elements of this proposal.

AC Transit Fare Policy public input meeting

After the presentation, everyone dispersed to look at the question boards they had prepared. There were five “stations,” each covering a different aspect of the fare policy proposal. There was one about the general guidelines of the fare policy, one about transfers, one about the rate structure, one about how they should go about raising the cash fare, and one about the prices for youth and disabled passes.

Each station had a board with questions, and a few staff members standing next to it. When you approached the station, the staff members would give you dot stickers, and asked you to put a dot in the box that reflected your answer to each question. If you had any questions about any aspects of that issue, they would answer them. And if you had additional comments on the subject beyond what was reflected in the boards, the staff members would take them down from you.

Fare Policy Goals station

I really enjoyed the format. For one, sticking your dots on the board was fun. I support anything that makes meetings more fun! Also, and I believe I have mentioned this in the past, I really like these meeting formats where they break the issue down into sections and have people walk around between them. I believe it is a much more effective way to collect input than the traditional presentation followed by a long line of people rambling about God knows what, or the also popular presentation followed by sitting around a table with crazy people for 45 minutes and all crafting some inane statement together. I also think it is more accessible to people who may not be comfortable speaking in front of groups.

So I was glad to see AC Transit do it this way.

In addition to the input stations, they had posters tacked up around the room with information about the agency.

I was particularly interested in the ones showing the breakdown of the AC Transit’s ridership.

Who is riding AC Transit

Age of AC Transit ridership

Another display I found fascinating showed the history of AC Transit’s fare rates. The photo I took was hard to read, so I have prepared some charts illustrating the fare history.

Local cash fares

History of AC Transit local cash fares

Monthly pass prices

History of AC Transit monthly pass prices

Transbay cash fares

History of AC Transit's Transbay Fares

All in all, I thought it was a really good meeting and I’m happy I attended. If you were unable to attend the meeting, but still want to weigh in, comments will be accepted through February 28th. Visit the fare input page on AC Transit’s website for information about how you can comment. And for additional background and discussion of the proposals, see the post I wrote yesterday about AC Transit’s fare policy.

Bruce Nye: What does budget reform look like? Part 2

Bruce Nye is a board member of Make Oakland Better Now!. Budget reform will be on the agenda at the joint Make Oakland Better Now! and East Bay Young Democrats meeting on Sunday, February 20, 2011, 2:00 p.m. at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, 3534 Lakeshore Avenue (directions). All are welcome.

Part II

At Make Oakland Better Now!’s February 20 meeting, we will be looking at ways our city could reform its budget process to make city government more responsive and more cost-effective. Thanks to our host V Smoothe at A Better Oakland for giving us the platform to discuss two possible reforms. Yesterday we talked about Performance Based Budgeting. Today we consider “Budgeting for Outcomes.”

What Does The Budget Process Look Like Now?

In recent years, Oakland’s budget process has worked this way: The Budget Director asks department heads to submit their budget requests. Departments submit information — usually not very detailed — about what they think they need for personnel and other resources (often adding a margin because they know their requests will be cut). The Budget office prices out the requests, estimates the year’s revenues, and makes proposed cuts to the requests until the budget is, theoretically, balanced.
The proposed budget goes to City Council for public hearings, during which members of the public, public employee unions and other stakeholders mobilize to plead their cases against what they perceive — often correctly — as devastating cuts. Council makes some political compromises, and eventually agrees on a budget that is, on paper, balanced.

We understand that the new Mayor is taking a much more active role in the process than did her predecessor, and the new Budget Director has been moved to the Mayor’s office. The budgeting process has been fairly quiet since the first of the year, but we also understand that staff are trying to close a $40+ million gap (not including the $46 million PFRS bombshell). So it sounds as though the process is the same as before. And, as before, there is much likelihood that once it is adopted, the budget will be the subject of repeated mid-year corrections as revenue assumptions turn out to be too high and expense assumptions too low.

We doubt many Oaklanders think this process is getting us the government we want. Is it time for Oakland to try something new?

The Price of Government: Budgeting for Outcomes

Last November, Ventura City Manager Rick Cole spoke to a gathering of concerned citizens in Vallejo about how to make city government work in tough financial times. Obviously, if there is any California city in urgent need of finding new ways of doing business, it is the recently bankrupt Vallejo.

The core theme of Coles’ presentation was this: cities can go on cutting and trimming and slicing all their city services until no city function is performed well — the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. Or they can turn the process on its head. Specifically, they can prioritize their desired municipal outcomes, determine how much money they have to spend, allocate sufficient funding to the highest priority functions to ensure cost-effective outcomes, and when the available funding is exhausted, stop. In other words, they can take on less, but do the most important things well.

The “budgeting for outcomes” approach, which Ventura has used for several years, is based on a book by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson, The Price Of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis. As the authors describe it at their web site, there are four key elements:

  • Set the price of government: Establish up front how much citizens are willing to spend. Get agreement on a revenue forecast and any tax or fee changes. Set the priorities of government: Define the outcomes or results that matter most to citizens, along with indicators to measure progress. Set the price of each priority: Divide the price or revenue among the priority outcomes on the basis of their relative value to citizens.
  • Develop a purchasing plan for each priority: Create “results teams” to act as purchasing agents for the citizens. Ask each one to decide which strategies have the most impact on their desired outcome.
  • Solicit offers to deliver the desired results: Have the results teams issue “requests for results” to all comers including their own government’s agencies or department, other governmental jurisdictions, unions, non-profits and businesses. Invite them to propose how they would deliver the result and at what price. Then choose those proposals that will provide the best results for the money.
  • Negotiate performance agreements with the chosen providers: These should spell out the expected outputs and outcomes, how they will be measured, the consequences for performance, and the flexibilities granted to help the provider maximize performance.

Budgeting for outcomes is not a privatization or outsourcing initiative, nor a bludgeon against public employees. Indeed, Coles reported that the transparency and buy-in processes that are part of budgeting for outcomes have resulted in collaborative and even cordial relations between the city and its unions. This is despite Ventura’s ongoing and worsening financial problems.

Budgeting for outcomes is a mechanism for inviting more innovative, more cost-effective ways to deliver the most critical services. The underlying theory is that competition makes service delivery more innovative and efficient. And Osborne and Harrison find that when city departments compete for the right to provide those services, most become more efficient and win the competition.

In a post-tax rebellion world, most cities are in a permanent state of fiscal crisis. Tax increases are unlikely, revenue growth from business growth is years away, and government will never have what it feels it needs to do everything. Indeed, in Oakland, the permanent fiscal crisis threatens to worsen dramatically (PDF) if some or all of Governor Brown’s budget proposals are adopted.

The usual way to address this permanent crisis is to make cuts every year. Certainly when Osborne and Hutchinson describe the usual budget process, it sounds awfully familiar:

The usual, political way to handle a projected deficit is to take last year’s budget and cut. It is like taking last year’s family car and reducing its weight with a blowtorch and shears. But cutting $2 billion from this vehicle does not make it a compact; it makes it a wreck. What is wanted is a budget designed from the ground up.

In the budgeting for outcomes approach, the community, and responsible leaders, jointly determine what outcomes they value most. They determine what it will cost to achieve those outcomes. And they provide sufficient funding to achieve the highest-priority results.

This process cannot be part of the routine, annual budget process. The initial organization and implementation will be complicated, contentious and time-consuming. So making budgeting for outcomes a reality will have to be a separate process from the usual, disheartening biennial budget dance.

It is too late to change the process for the 2011-13 budget. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a revolution in time for 2013-15 and beyond?

Should Oakland do this? We will discuss on Sunday, February 20.

Sad night, Happy night at Planning Commission

So last night’s Planning Commission meeting was both very exciting and also kind of sad.

The Happy Part

So the good news is that the Planning Commission did not support the Temporary Conditional Use Permits.

I’ll try to pull together a more thorough write up once I get the DVD and have a chance to rewatch and take notes. In the meantime, check out last night’s #oakmtg stream on Twitter for the play by play.

In short, three people came out to speak in support of the TCUPs, and thirteen spoke against. Let me give a huge thank you to all the people who gave up their time to sit in City Hall all night and make their case to the Planning Commission. I know how hard it is to find time for these things, and waiting around for hours for one’s item to be called totally sucks. A few people showed up and just couldn’t stay long enough to speak on the TCUPs, and I am deeply appreciate of their efforts as well. There were several really awesome anti-TCUP speeches, and when I get the DVD, I hope to put up video of some of them.

And for those who couldn’t come out, but sent e-mails: huge thanks to you too! Your efforts really made a difference, the Planning Commission got your message loud and clear. A number of people CCed me on their messages, and I have to say, from what I saw, you guys did a really great job. It always warms my heart to see people participating in local government. You guys rock!

The end result of the meeting was that the TCUPs are essentially continued indefinitely — well, until staff completes some study about the highest and best uses for vacant property. But the sentiment was clear from the Commission that they were not interested in supporting creating this whole new policy just to make it easier to add new parking lots, that they did not want the proposal forwarded to the City Council, and that requests for new parking lots should be dealt with on a case by case basis.

So to everyone who spoke or wrote on this, give yourself a big pat on the back — you did great work. It’s so nice when things turn out the right way, isn’t it?

The Sad Part

However, despite my delight over the outcome on the TCUP item, I left last night’s Planning Commission a little bit sad. You see, it was Commissioner Doug Boxer’s final meeting.

So. I will have been doing this for five years in April. In that time, I have sat through a tremendous number of meetings. I am pretty much constantly watching or listening to meetings. When I’m puttering around the house, or cooking, or working at my computer, there is basically always some meeting or another playing in the background. Of course there’s the big ones that I try to make a point of following regularly — City Council and all the City Council Committees, Planning Commission, Public Ethics Commission, AC Transit Board, BART Board, MTC, JPC, School Board, Port Board, and so on. But I try to get around as much as possible to the more minor Boards and Commissions, too.

I’ve attended at least one meeting of every major decision making body in the area, except for the East Bay Regional Parks District Board of Directors, because they meet way up by Knowland Park and there is no way for me to get there. (I realize this sounds hopelessly dorky, but my primary motivation to get my driver’s license this year is so that I can join Zipcar and drive to an EBRPD meeting.)

Anyway. My point is that I hear a lot of meetings. And so I have seen a lot of people sitting on daises and making decisions. Listening to that many people, you hear a lot of great arguments and insight and smart ideas and all that. (You hear a lot of really dumb stuff too, but that’s a subject for another post.) I think that a lot of times, people don’t realize how much work all these people are doing for basically no compensation, and how time consuming these positions are. So everyone who is willing to do that deserves to be commended for their service.

But out of all of the people serving on all of the different Boards I follow, I can say without any hesitation that Doug Boxer on the Planning Commission was hands-down the best, and should be a role model for anyone in public service. Nothing against the other Planning Commissioners, they are also good. (The Planning Commission is my favorite of all the bodies I watch.) But Doug Boxer just really stands out even among the highest class of elected and appointed officials I have seen in meetings.

His comments are always so well-considered and insightful. I tend to agree with him a lot, but even when I don’t, and even when I vehemently disagree with his position, his assessment always leaves me with something to think seriously about, which I find really helpful for honing my arguments, and sometimes even prompts me to reconsider my position. The consistency with which he brings a superlative quality of analysis and thoughtfulness to his comments and decisions is unmatched. When he disagrees with people who came to speak, he is always exceptionally respectful about the way he says so, and does an excellent job of making people feel like they’ve been heard. Most members of the City Council would do well to spend some time reviewing old Planning Commission DVDs and looking to him for pointers about how to treat the public.

Anyway, I won’t go on gushing any longer, but I did want to say that he’s been a really great presence on the Commission and I will genuinely miss having him there.

The silver lining

But let’s end on a happy note. New Mayor Jean Quan will be making her first appointments to the Planning Commission in a couple months. This represents a real opportunity to fill what I believe is a very serious hole on the Planning Commission. All the Commissioners have different backgrounds and areas of expertise, and this diversity of interest is really helpful, because everyone is bringing a unique perspective to the table.

But what I have long felt is missing from Planning Commission discussions is someone who really has a strong background and interest in transportation and bike/ped issues. Frequently, when speakers raise concerns, especially about bike/ped problems on projects, the Commission just completely glosses over them. I don’t think this is due to the Commissioners not caring about transportation or bike/ped. It’s just that nobody there has the appropriate background to know what the right questions to ask are, and how to fix those problems in proposals, or often times, really to even understand what the problems are. It would make an enormous impact to have a member of the Commission who is properly equipped to address those subjects.

By appointing a new Planning Commissioner with such a background, Jean Quan could do a tremendous good towards advancing Oakland as a livable city, a bicycle and pedestrian friendly city, and the “transit-first” city we claim to be.

Bruce Nye: What does budget reform look like?

Bruce Nye is a board member of Make Oakland Better Now!. Budget reform will be on the agenda at the joint Make Oakland Better Now! and East Bay Young Democrats meeting on Sunday, February 20, 2011, 2:00 p.m. at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, 3534 Lakeshore Avenue (directions). All are welcome.

Part I

At Make Oakland Better Now!’s February 20 meeting, we will be looking at ways our city could reform its budget process to make city government more responsive and more cost-effective. In posts this week, we will be focusing on two reforms: Performance Based Budgeting and “Price of Government” Budgeting. Both reforms have been used successfully in other cities.

Performance Based Budgeting

Oakland has been talking about performance based budgeting for nearly ten years. In the Budget Advisory Committee minutes from November, 2002 (DOC), it was noted that the City Council had committed to begin performance based budgeting by fiscal year 2005. And changing to performance based budgeting was part of the city’s “Moving Oakland Forward!” strategy (PDF) in 2003. Despite these discussions, the city has yet to make performance based budgeting a reality.

While there are many variations of the performance based budgeting model, they all have these features: Departments, divisions or other government units accept measurable goals for the budgetary period. They are given resources to achieve those goals. And at the end of the budgetary period, its leadership is evaluated on whether and to what extent those goals were met.

Here’s a comparison: Oakland’s 2009-10 and 2010-11 budget for its Public Works Department is here (PDF). In this budget, the department’s performance goals are described as follows:

  • Improve livability through sustainable practices for cleaning and maintaining streets, trees, sidewalks, parks and facilities.
  • Maintain the City’s infrastructure to meet current and future needs of our neighborhoods, support development and reduce the City’s exposure to liability.
  • Create a sustainable City through implementing green buildings, renewable energy and efficiency projects, alternative fueled vehicles, and recycling/solid waste services.
  • Leverage existing resources by seeking grants, public private partnerships and by enhancing volunteerism and sponsorship opportunities.
  • Foster collaborative opportunities with other agencies and individuals to improve service delivery.
  • Continue focusing on high-quality service and customer satisfaction to be the ‘provider of choice’ for our customers.

These are all lofty goals. But none of them are measurable.

Now let’s look at the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city with twice the population of Oakland. Here is Milwaukee’s Public Works, Infrastructure Services Division budget (PDF). Even in its executive summary, the budget document is specific and sets out measurable goals:

OBJECTIVES: Enhance transportation options and existing infrastructure. Reduce energy use in city operations by 15% by 2012.

STRATEGIES: Reduce local street replacement cycle to 65 years.
Increase capital maintenance of local streets. Improve bicycle and pedestrian access citywide. Complete installation of the LED traffic control signals and follow the development of LED street lights. Retrofit buildings to increase energy efficiency.

The sections that follow tell the reader all the details, of what will be accomplished, many of them quantitative, and what it will cost in terms of staffing, salaries and wages, benefits, equipment, etc. If the system works as designed, at the end of the budget period departments and divisions report on how well they met their goals with the resources they were given. This helps citizens and city policy-makers decide if tax dollars are being spent efficiently and in conformance with the city’s goals and priorities.

Performance based budgeting is on the agenda (PDF) of City Council’s Finance & Management Committee at 11:00 a.m., February 22, Oakland City Hall, Sgt. Mark Dunakin Room, First Floor. City staff seems less than enthusiastic about performance based budgeting (PDF). Make Oakland Better Now! supports it, however, and urges Oaklanders to come out in support.

What is happening with AC Transit’s fares?

Tonight, Thursday, February 17th, AC Transit will be holding a public meeting from 5:00 to 7:00 PM at their headquarters (1600 Franklin Street) in downtown Oakland to solicit rider input on a proposed new fare policy.

If you can’t make the meeting, no worries. You can also offer feedback on the proposals through an online survey or by sending an email to planning@actransit.org.

AC Transit provides a good summary of the issues related to the fare policy proposal on their website, so if you’re in a hurry, just go read that.

And for the rest of you…

Why a fare policy?

The idea of a fare policy has been bandied around at AC Transit Board meetings for a while, and last July, the Board directed staff to go ahead and start working on it. In January, staff presented the Board with an initial proposal reflecting their research, got initial comments from the Board, and will come back to the Board again after receiving feedback from riders. The Board will likely adopt a proposal in April, and we’ll get our first round of fare changes starting this July.

Perhaps you’re wondering why they’re talking about this at all. Or maybe whether “fare policy” is just a coded way to talk about raising prices yet again. The answer is, sort of. I’ll let the staff report (PDF) explain:

AC Transit’s fare and pass price structure has been developed on an ad hoc, as-needed basis. As such, it has been inconsistent and not integrated with any structured plan.

The process of raising fares has been unpredictable, episodic, and anxiety-provoking, especially for the riding public. Each fare increase is decried by some as a surprising imposition, despite the District’s steadily rising costs. The proposed fare policy seeks to create an orderly, transparent, and rational process for regularly scheduled increases that provides stability for both patrons and the District’s budget process.

Basically, in the past, the way AC Transit approaches fare pricing is to just keep prices steady until they need money, and then raise them. Sometimes six years will go by without a price increase. Other times it’s only one. The cost of monthly passes, youth passes, transbay passes, senior passes, and whatever other kind of pass or fare they might have bear no logical or structured relationship to one another — they’re just kind of set based on what the agency thinks they can get away with charging.

A fare policy would change all that. The agency would outline a regular timeline for scheduled fare increases, the way BART does. You have perhaps noticed that although BART is constantly raising their fares, people don’t flip out and act like it’s Armaggedon every time it happens. Again, from the staff report (PDF):

Maintaining the stability of the fare structure over time is also very important. Fare increases should occur at predictable intervals, to allow both the District and passengers to plan accordingly. BART implements regular fare increases once every two years. Fare increases should maintain the relationships among different fare types, so that the structure of fares remains understandable.

In all the materials and discussions on this subject, AC Transit is placing a great deal of emphasis on the importance of transparency and predictability in fare prices. Laudable goals, no doubt.

What would the fare policy be?

After reviewing fare structures used by other transit agencies, both within and outside of the Bay Area, they’ve come up with a set of proposed guidelines to dictate the way fare prices are set:

  1. Monthly Passes should be 36 times the relevant base (cash) fare
  2. Transbay fares should be 2 times the local fare (cash and pass)
  3. Discount fares (senior, disabled, and youth) should be 50% of the adult (cash or pass)

So basically, the normal cash fare for one normal, non-discounted adult ride on a bus would be the basis for the prices of every other kind of fare or pass. I think that makes sense. It seems simple and logical enough.

The cash fare

We’re clear so far, right? Everything stems from the basic cash fare and the cash fare increases on a regular, predictable, pre-planned schedule. That proposed schedule goes like this:

Staff recommends fare increases in a 2 year/3 year cycle; at the beginning of FY2011-12 (July 2011), FY2013-14, FY 2016-17, and FY 2018-10. If current low inflation levels continue, base fares are anticipated to be $2.10 in FY 2011, $2.25 in FY 2013, then $2.35 in FY 2016-17 and $2.50 in FY 2018-19.

So I will just say upfront that I do not find this fare increase schedule nearly as simple and transparent as AC Transit staff seems to. In fact, it seems really convoluted to me. 10 cents this year, no cents next year, fifteen cents the next year…I mean, I guess that yes, it is predictable in the sense that if you go look up the chart of when the fares are scheduled to increase, you can see what it says and therefore know the future. But is anyone going to remember this and expect it? I mean, nobody who isn’t working at that agency looks at these charts and thinks “25 cents every five years at predictable intervals every other year. Duh.”

Then there’s the line immediately following the ones I just quoted:

Higher rates of inflation may warrant greater increases.

That I do not get at all. I mean, I understand that from the agency’s perspective, sometimes they’re going to need more money. But I thought the entire point of this policy was to make things predictable for riders. Doesn’t that mean that when you adopt the schedule of increases, you stick with it, whether it’s convenient for you or not?

Youth Passes

But the erratic fare increase schedule, or the fact that in general, people don’t like it when prices go up (even if it is just ten cents) is not the rough part of this proposal. Youth passes are.

Remember that line above about discount fares, and how they should be half of the regular fares? Well, that is in accordance withmost transit agency practices, and it seems like a fair deal to me.

However. Well, you know what, I’ll let the staff report explain this one too:

The pricing of discount passes — youth passes in particular — has been held below market value (when compared to both other transit agencies and the District’s current fare structure) for a number of years. The Youth pass, priced at $27.00 in 1999, was lowered to its current $15.00 in 2000 at an estimated additional cost to the District of $4 million per year. The current $15 price is the lowest monthly Youth pass of any major transit agency in the nation. The Senior/Disabled monthly pass was last increased in 2002 and costs an estimated $2 million per year when evaluated under the proposed fare structure.

You see the problem here? It continues:

The severity of the discount is also highlighted in these pass categories when compared to the proposed 36-ride base rate. The Youth $15 pass is currently discounted at a 15-ride rate instead of the proposed 36-ride rate, a discount of over 58%. The $20 Senior/Disabled pass is discounted at a 20-ride rate, more than a 44% discount over the proposed 36-ride rate.

Staff acknowledges that many issues and vested parties are involved in this matter. However, staff also recognizes that the current deep pricing discount offered for these passes are unsustainable and corrective action should be undertaken. Staff recommends a gradual, multi-year increase in both pass categories that eventually aligns the pass price at the proposed 36-ride base discount rate. The recommendation is detailed in the Attachment.

Basically, the way youth passes are priced now is nowhere close to being in line with the proposed fare policy. And while raising fares is never a popular thing to do, dramatically raising fares on kids is an especially unpopular thing to do.

When they outlined this part at the January 12th Board meeting, Director Joe Wallace jumped in to point out that trying to enact such a change would be a “major political fight.” No one disagreed. Staff acknowledged that dramatic increases in youth fares is a “highly charged” issue, and offered that they were trying to do it in a “humane fashion.”

The plan is to phase the change in over a number of years, so that the discount fares slowly come into alignment with the fare policy. So the monthly youth pass is $15 right now, next year it would be $20, the next year $26.50, and so on, until 2018, when it matches up with the goals.

Director Chris Peeples, apparently sensitive about the idea of betraying the trust of the voters (what a novel concept!), stated firmly that he would not support raising fares on youth and disabled passengers as long as they’re still collecting money from Measure VV. And you know, he has a point. AC Transit campaigned for Measure VV on the promise of keeping fares low for kids and disabled passengers. I think it’s okay to have some wiggle room to raise fares sometime during the life of the tax, but we are talking about a tremendous increase here. Obviously that is not something the Board or the public is going to take lightly.

On the other hand, the bus does need to keep running. And just in case anyone had forgotten about that in their hesitancy to raise fares, General Manager Mary King stepped in to inform the Board that they were “whistling past the graveyard” if they think they can just not raise fares and also not cut service.

So, I kind of adore Mary King. Specifically, I adore her when she does stuff like this. The Board will go off on some thing, and it always sounds well intentioned of whatever, but she’ll step in and scold them, like a stern mother and be all “Yes, these decisions suck. Boo hoo. It’s your job to make them. Grow up and do it.” I’ve never been to a Berkeley City Council meeting, but someone told me once that their City Manager is like that too, which is perhaps why they do not have a huge budget crisis right now. In my dreams, once AC Transit hires a permanent General Manager, Oakland can hire Mary King to come sit at Council meetings and scold the Council when they’re being stupid.

One public speaker at the meeting got up to talk about how the idea of increasing the youth passes made her “ill,” and I expect that we will hear a whole lot more of that rhetoric tonight and in the coming weeks. While obviously nobody wants to run around banging the drum in favor of charging kids more to ride the bus, I do think it’s important to broaden the context of the way we talk about this issue. As sympathetic as I am to the particular problems of young people, I also have to ask how it is fair to every other rider of the system that everyone’s service has to suffer because we’ve made a choice to subsidize youth riders to a degree unmatched by any other transit agency in the country.

Seven day passes

So the youth passes are obviously the big battle here. But if you find that whole issue too depressing to think about, well, there’s other stuff the agency is looking for feedback on as well. Some of it is even really good!

One such issue that staff asked the Board for feedback on was seven day passes. Right now, you can either buy a single ride pass for $2.00 (supplemented with a transfer for a quarter) or a 31 day pass for $80. Those are your only options.

If AC Transit were to add a seven day pass, it would be good for unlimited rides for one week, and would be priced probably at 10 times the basic cash fare (so, $20 for now, more when that cost goes up). The reasoning behind introducing such an option is that it is often very difficult for low income riders to come up with the $80 to buy a month long pass, even though they might ride the bus enough to justify getting one. $20 at a time is a lot easier to produce, so a seven day pass would be expected to have some social equity benefits by making it easier for low income frequent passengers to get at least some break on their fares, even if it’s not as good as the monthly pass.

So I think seven day passes are a great idea. AC Transit should totally offer them — I think it’s a no brainer.

I am happy now to have reached a point in my life where, should I decide I need a bus pass some month, I can pretty much always do it. However, I recall vividly a time not all that long ago when this wasn’t the case, and I was totally one of those people who rode the bus every day, more than enough to justify the monthly pass, but I could never come up with that much money at once. And it totally sucked.

So while I no longer have to worry about that, I think AC Transit should definitely do it, just from an equity standpoint.

Also, seven day passes would be convenient for people like me. I ride the bus a couple of times a week, probably, but almost never enough to justify a monthly pass. However, my use patterns are very irregular irregular. Some weeks, I’ll have lots of things to do all over the City and will be riding the bus constantly. Other weeks, most stuff is downtown. If I could get a seven day pass for the bus-heavy weeks, I totally would do it, it would be super helpful.

Staff also said they were interested in feedback on the idea of going back to monthly passes versus the 31 day passes they’re doing now. A 31 day pass is like it sounds — good for 31 days from the time you buy it. A monthly pass is good for a specific calendar month. They mentioned that switching from monthly passes to 31 day passes had caused some “issues,” but if they elaborated on what they were, I missed it somehow. I don’t know what difficulty 31 day passes create from a system operations perspective, but I can’t imagine any problems they could make for riders. To me, that is a million times more convenient. Nobody really seemed particularly interested in that idea.

Transfers!

Should AC Transit offer transfers? Should they offer transfers to everyone? Or to only people with Clipper cards? Or to everyone, but make them cheaper for people with Clipper cards? Or free for Clipper card users? How long should they be good for? How many times should you be able to get on the bus with one transfer? I could go on all day asking questions about transfers.

Right now, AC Transit’s transfers cost twenty-five cents. You can use them only once, within two hours of the time you got on the bus. It used to be 90 minutes, but they expanded the allowed time last year when they cut service.

I have perhaps a spoiled perspective on transfers, since I never rode a city bus until I lived in Portland. In Portland, the transfers are free, everyone gets one when they get on the bus (or used to, I haven’t been back in a while), and they’re good for unlimited rides for three hours! So when I moved here, and discovered that not only did you have to pay, you can hardly even use the transfer at all — well, that seemed pretty lame to me. I would much prefer a more generous transfer policy.

On the other hand, AC Transit earns money from people buying transfers. So, sure, as much as riders like me all want everything to be as cheap as possible, that often is not practical from the standpoint of the people trying to actually operate the buses.

Still, I think that with the strict time limit, it’s crazy to also limit them to one use. I have definitely taken trips where I need to use three buses to get somewhere (such trips are more common now after the service cuts), and it is really frustrating to have to pay $4.00 for that each way.

The Board seemed pretty into the idea of allowing unlimited transfers within the transfer time period for Clipper users, since Clipper by nature circumvents the problem that the one-use rule for transfers was created to address, which is that people were using legally acquired transfers to get on a bus, then passing them out of the back window to other people, so the transfer would just get used over and over again by different people until it expired. With Clipper, you can’t have that kind of fraud.

Equity

There was some discussion of continuing to charge for cash fare transfers, but making them free on Clipper. I think that makes a ton of sense — free transfers would give people a huge incentive to use Clipper instead of cash. However, there was some concern that giving such special treatment to Clipper users could be a Title VI issue. I found that confusing. If the issue is that poor people aren’t using Clipper at the same rates as wealthier riders, it seems like the combination of a generous discount and an aggressive Clipper promotion campaign in areas of concern would be a logical solution to that problem.

It is in every rider’s interest to have as many passengers as possible using Clipper cards rather than cash, because it makes a significant difference in the speed of the bus. The less time every bus spends loading while people fish for dimes in their pockets, the faster they can move and the more reliable they will be. Everyone wins.

Day Passes

Another thing staff asked about was the idea of offering one day passes. Director Chris Peeples responded that they had tried day passes for “about ten minutes” some number of years ago, and that nobody used them.

Then he started going on about how things were in the time before BART, and how the buses used to run in different zones and you bought zone-based tickets and everyone was taking these long distance express buses everywhere all the time. And also the buses had racks for men to put their hats on. Not terribly relevant to the issue at hand, but it was kind of entertaining. You don’t hear people talk about getting around the Bay Area on transit in pre-BART days very often.

What do you think?

So hopefully, all that has given you guys some things to think about. You can listen to the whole discussion at the January Board meeting below:

And of course, those who have strong opinions about any aspect of this are encouraged to share their feelings with AC Transit. There’s the meeting tonight (5-7 PM, AC Transit HQ, 1600 Franklin Street) and the online survey, of course. Also, you can send in your comments by email (address messages to planning@actransit.org). Those of you still living in 1992 can fax your comments to (51) 891-4874. Voicemails are accepted at (510) 891-7293. And there’s always the old fashioned paper letter, which you can mail to: AC Transit Fare Policy Input, 1600 Franklin Street, Oakland, CA 94612.