Good news about City Walk

Looks like downtown’s inventory of abandoned half-built buildings is about to be cut in half, with news in the Trib of construction restarting on City Walk.

The Trib’s story is weirdly optimistic, with lines like:

The framework of the building was largely completed when the work halted. City officials said they were dismayed at the halt in construction.

So…the framing on this building, I have gotten the very clear impression from a number of different people that there’s some kind of problem with it and will have to be removed and rebuilt for the third time. The staff report (PDF) for a Council discussion of the project last winter seems to concur:

Project construction was delayed several times due to problems with framing sub-contractors. The initial framers performed substandard work and had labor problems which required them to be replaced. Work had to be removed and rebuilt again. A third framing sub-contractor was later hired. Olson eventually wrote the general contractor a default letter regarding various construction defects and other problems on the site. Rather than correct the defects, the contractor vacated the site.

Anyway, at that December meeting, the Council amended their DDA with Olson Co. (I wrote about it for the Oakbook) to extend their completion deadline, which, under the original agreement, had been the end of 2007. The Council agreed to an extension for the project, giving them a new completion deadline of June 30, 2009 and conditioning that they restart construction by January 31, 2008.

As anyone who walks by 14th and Jefferson can tell you, construction obviously did not restart by that date. In fact, in today’s Trib story, we learn that Olson is hoping to resume construction by November!

Look…the City is in a really difficult position here. Olson has totally failed to meet their deadlines, which means we are entitled to penalize them. Of course, doing so will only compound their troubles and might make it even less likely that the damn thing ever gets finished, and of course, nobody wants that. The nightmare scenario (which could happen, though almost definitely won’t) would be the City itself getting stuck owning a partially built project with construction flaws. Nobody wants that. So the temptation to be accommodating and just give Olson whatever they need is understandable.

But it’s also not fair to everyone else. I’m, well, pretty pro-development for the most part, and most of the arguments I hear from anti-growth types give me a huge headache and make me roll my eyes. But when they complain that they don’t trust the developers will keep this promise or that promise or that whatever condition of approval will actually be met…well, I see where they’re coming from. It’s pretty hard to argue against that when the City just lets a developer violate their DDA and stick the community with a big hunk of blight for a year (or in the case of 14th and Jackson, let properties sit shrink-wrapped for years). I’m sorry that Olson had that long legal battle with their contractor and I understand times are tough for the building industry, but we can’t let our sympathy get in the way of good government, and we shouldn’t forget that times also got tough for the small businesses that had to live next to the abandoned construction site – until they closed!

At last night’s Planning Commission meeting, all these people from the neighborhood around the new Kaiser Hospital were like, completely freaking out over the idea that one of the three new buildings might not get built at the same time as the others. When the Commissioners asked why we couldn’t just require them to build everything at once, the response was that we have no way to enforce such a condition. They should figure out a way to enforce things, whether that involves writing penalties into the approval (That’s just an example off the top of my head, I don’t actually know if you’re allowed to do that, but I’m sure that there must be something) or what, because letting developers get away with not keeping promises only gives more fuel to the complaints of anti-development activists.

In this case, we have a DDA that gives us very clear power to extract penalties from Olson for failing to meet deadlines, and the City should absolutely do so, even if it causes more headaches on this particular project. It would suck to have City Walk sitting around abandoned even longer, and it would suck even more if the City ended up having to take it away and tear the damn thing down and start looking all over again for a developer (one hopes it things would not get to that point), but it would also establish a precedent that we do not consider it acceptable to violate the terms we set. And in the long run, that would be better for everyone in Oakland.

24 thoughts on “Good news about City Walk

  1. Frank C.

    There are good developers, and there are bad developers. Simple as that. They are not a monolith. Some of them even truly care about community, design, architecture, etc.

  2. Carlos Plazola


    I’ll take this opportunity, spring-boarding off of Frank C.’s statement, to tell you a bit about the Oakland Builders Alliance, a new and very active group in the City of Oakland, made up of people in the development industry including small and medium sized developers, architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, and affiliated trades and professions–all of whom have a sincere love and appreciation for Oakland. This is what makes us unique. Our capital does not fluidly flow from one city to the next, depending on the economic and social conditions of any given city. We are deeply embedded in this city, and its future. We want to help grow Oakland’s revenue so we can hire more police, create more programs for youth, fix our parks and aging infrastructure, etc.

    Our 19 member board is made up of 5 contractors of sud-contractors, 5 small or medium sized builders, 4 architects or engineers, 2 reps from financial institutions, and 3 affiliated professionals such as brokers, lawyers, etc. Our mission is to encourage smart growth and urban infill projects in Oakland that lead to the creation of safe, pedestrian and mass-transit friendly streets, and to advocate on behalf the building trades and professions in Oakland. We have two committees: a housing crisis committee which is currently working on helping solve our housing crisis in Oakland, and an urban planning committee which is participating in the citywide rezoning process and advocating for bringing the best zoning practices in the world here to Oakland. Our report on the downtown rezone, which was featured in an earlier blog on this site, was part of this effort.

    We are in the process of potentially creating a “Business Development and Attraction Committee” to inspire our investment and business connections throughout the world to come to Oakland. We hope to work with city staff toward this end.

    You may have already heard some stuff from us, or about us. You will see and hear more about us in the coming months. We are committed to saying the things that need to be said, whether they are popular or not. We have been getting, and will continue to get, flak for saying what others are thinking–many of the same things you all have been saying on this blog. I give special honor and credit to our board and general members since they are in a business where it is more self-serving sometimes to stay out of the fray, but they choose instead to engage–because they care about our city.

    As Frederick Douglass said: Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

    Likewise, we will be contributing to our city through engaging in “think-tank” type discussions and producing reports related to economic development and land use in an effort to also be proactive in helping find solutions.

    For the good of Oakland, we must all step up and engage, in our own way. This is ours.


    Carlos Plazola, Chair
    Oakland Builders Alliance

  3. justin

    Frank C is right and so are you, V, on the dilemma (enforcing conditions of approval can often seem like kicking a project applicant when they’re down (or unable to get up), but letting folks break promises is not fair to the public). Developers want to get their projects up as fast as possible, generally, and when they can’t, it’s often because they don’t have the money to do so. So, how can penalties and enforcement help the situation?

    It’s a tough nut to crack, but even with the fear of abandoned projects in key locations, Oakland must enforce its DDAs for the sake of its own credibility. Oakland should accommodate good development, but it simply has to stick up for itself and its residents. There is nothing incompatible with being pro-development and pro-accountability. And you are also absolutely right, V, that every time the City fails to enforce a DDA, or unreasonably accommodates a developer, it adds fuel to NIMBY fire. In the long run, helping one development can cost headaches to any number of them down the road.

    Showing that the City means what it says in its DDAs is essential to create public support for development. It’s also, in its way, beneficial for developers, who, as we hear over and over, want certainty more than anything else.

    There’s also a broader public interest, as developers are not alone in being impacted by economic downturns. As all aspects of the City are dealing with these challenges, singling out developers for extraordinary consideration is not fair. Indeed, is anyone suggesting giving folks a break on their parking tickets?

  4. dto510

    Justin, I generally agree with your comment, but the idea that developers (or any other business) crave “certainty” is a socialist fiction meant to justify anti-business regulations as somehow beneficial to the economic activity they’re meant to restrict. Look at who talks about certainty “over and over” – Inclusionary Zoning advocates, groups pushing for handouts (also called “community benefits”), and planning staff. Not exactly the leading lights of the development community.

  5. Kevin Cook


    It’s a capitalist fiction that business people thrive on uncertainty and risk. I can’t think of a business that wouldn’t crave certainty in regard to their profits and cash flow. From the monopolies of the 19th century to the hedging strategies of today, it seems pretty clear that capitalists are always attempting to contain risk and uncertainty. In any case, I think Justin meant that developers want to be certain that they aren’t going to face an ever changing regulatory environment as they attempt to make long term plans. This seems to be a fairly uncontroversial statement which certainly doesn’t call for gratuitous red-baiting.

  6. dto510

    Kevin, I was referring to how “certainty” is used in Oakland politics: the folks who are saying it “over and over again” as Justin said, are pushing for anti-development and anti-business regulations, particularly Inclusionary Zoning (a gigantic per-unit fee assessed in many jurisdictions). Most recently, planning staff asserted that downtown development restrictions are good for developers because they create “certainty.” The certainty that development will be less intensive!

  7. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    (I’m back!)

    At our monthly (well, after 3 months, it finally happened) construction meeting, the subject of 13th & Jefferson (CityWalk) and 13th & Jackson came up. Indeed 13th & Jefferson is getting ready to get back to work. I *think* that a few reasons things are slow to get to get going again is that they have to submit new plans for specific permits – obviously not the overall planning approval, but more detail things.

    In scary news, The Ellington’s developer, Molasky Pacific, has seen Irwin Molasky file personal bankruptcy. Swinerton mentioned turning the building over to the Developer in October, so sales on that building should start soon. (3rd & Broadway)

    (if you follow the above link, there’s a funny quote from a “troublemaker” regarding developers who have cocktails parties for their projects prior to the completion – that they never get completed. Funny how the Ellington had such a party back at the beginning of the year, but the building – which was originally set for occupancy in March ’08) is still not on the market…)

  8. Max Allstadt

    It a shame they can’t get their act together. CityWalk is one of the most urban-friendly and architecturally pleasant designs anywhere downtown. I was looking forward to seeing something pretty on my morning bike ride, to make up for having to look at Jade. Ugh.

  9. dto510

    Joanna, thanks for the link. I’m adding “cocktail parties in yet-to-be-completed developments” to my list of superstitions. The LA Weekly article was eye-opening – I thought the EBX was anti-development!

    If Molasky has to surrender the property to Steve Wynn, maybe The Ellington will get some jazz.

  10. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    I forgot to mention that there was no real update on 14th & Jackson, although when I drove by last week it seemed that more of the shrink wrap had been pulled down. All we heard was that there had been water intrusion issues and that it was owned by the bank.

    On another note, I’m wondering if those of you who have been down to Jack London Square recently had any opinion on the palm trees in front of Scott’s and Miss Pearl’s? When I asked about the hump (raised area of palm trees), I was told that I was the first person to say anything the least bit negative. I don’t think it was negative asking about the hump, but I am curious if I’m the only one that isn’t impressed. Probably because I don’t think palm trees belong (is this Oakland or Palmland?) Also, I was mostly having a laugh at bad planning because I happen to know that it’s more about water tables than aesthetics. But of course they’d never admit to poor planning….

    And Miss Pearl’s sign is the cutest thing ever, but it faces in such a way that you can’t see it from Broadway or the waterfront. Too bad.


    p.s. – The Subway in the Sierra Condo building was robbed Wednesday night. Funny how a brief scene-of-the-crime shot made the 10pm news (KTVU), but it’s not anywhere online that I could find. Only stories about the arrest of 3 in various takeover robberies.

  11. justin

    I don’t know what the big deal is about, as I’ve had a number of developers say to my face that certainty is what they crave. If they were lying, then it’s on them, not me. It’s implicit in the logic of competition that you want to know what the rules are before you decide to join in.

    Additionally, a DDA is a contract, which is an agreement voluntarily entered into by two parties. A major benefit of a DDA, and perhaps the whole point, is to set rules and expectations out beforehand to avoid surprise changes that screw up everyone’s plans. Contracts have terms and terms should be enforced–don’t know what about that is incompatible with capitalism or free markets (indeed, I think that we can;t have either without contracts). If you can’t hang with the terms, don’t sign.

    And, dto510, you won the IZ discussion, unless there’s something I don’t know.

  12. Max Allstadt

    Justin, what you don’t know is that DTO is very very well informed on this topic. But on most every topic I’ve discussed with him, he’s an ultra pro-business guy, borderline libertarian. (Let the sparks fly DTO! come and get me!). Sometimes I agree with his libertarianism (smoking, cabarets, and freedom of fun in general). Other times I’m wildly opposed (there’s a lot of blanket “free market” rhetoric in that dude).

    One thing that we’re not hearing about IZ is that in the right form, it can be a useful tool for development. The way it was to be implemented in Oakland, it was problematic. Too broad, and too much burden on developers. The moderate line is that is is one tool of many. I agree.

    IZ could be used, for instance, in West Oakland. By offering developers the opportunity for a general plan amendment to build highrises, we might get them to promise that an appropriate portion of their developments be set aside for permanently affordable rentals and sales.

    I would be in favor of such a compromise. Particularly if the affordable units were randomly scattered throughout the developments. Even subsidized rentals would be OK in that context. Ultimately, I think surrounding poor people with non-poor people is a great way to make sure that the poor people do not fall into the kind of undesirable behaviors we see in public housing, for instance. We currently subsidize housing in situations which create large concentrations of poverty. We may be trying to move away from that, but it persists.

  13. justin

    I actually do know that dto510 is very well-informed on the topic, as I heard his extremely eloquent public comment at every meeting of the IZ Blue Ribbon Task Force, on which I sat. Don’t agree all the time, though.

    Since IZ is a dead letter, I think we can all agree on the need for higher densities downtown and more transit.

  14. Max Allstadt

    DTO, you know your stuff, but I think we differ a bit on just how much help the big guy should give the little guy. That’s about all I was saying.

  15. dan

    I can’t stand the palm trees. I fist saw the giant planter box at last Sunday’s Farmer’s Market. I was working up such a righteous head-of-steam that I walked by one of my best friends without even recognizing him.

    The trees form a wall between Miss Pearl’s and Scott’s blocking much of the water view. Where before the steps sloping down to the Estuary created a welcoming sense to Oakland with an unobstructed view through the gate up Braodaway, the planter box slopes the wrong direction creating a trough.

    It reminds me most of how they used the angular features of the Century City Mall in Conquest for the Planet of Apes to create a vision of a dystopian urban nightmare.

  16. Max Allstadt

    I agree with you Dan on the palms and I’ll up the ante and broaden the conversation…

    The actual square at Jack London is a bad 80s/90s post modern monstrosity. I loathe the architecture. At least the design. I believe a while back I suggested that that blue stucco hotel could be improved by a meteor strike.

    That said, the overall unfolding of pedestrian space is really good. We had a wise masterplanner, and wouldn’t you know, surprise surprise, it looks like the developers hired individual architects with faddish aesthetics. Some things never change.

    The new construction at either end, however, is super encouraging. It’ll be odd to have unattractive anachronisms sandwiched between new architecture, but it’s a start. I sincerely hope that we hit an economic growth spurt in the next two decades that warants leveling most of the rest of the square and replacing it with something befitting it’s purpose.

  17. len raphael

    if higher density/height than current zoning/genl plan is desirable, allowing that in exchange for say 5 to 10% IZ units just gives political cover to the city planners without making a dent in housing affordability. that’s my impression of how it’s done in berkeley.

    was brunner’s 20% IZ killed officially or just by Dellum’s inaction or the market cycle?

    MA, i guess you’re not persuaded by the various organized and anecdotal evidence that spreading poor dysfunctional people around, only results in diluting the problems.

    -len raphael

  18. V Smoothe Post author

    I’m not interested in getting into a debate about IZ on a post about something completely different, but Max, you should know that it is already state law that we have to grant density bonuses in exchange for the inclusion of below market rate housing.

  19. dto510

    Count this as another vote against palm trees. Can urbanists get together with the Heritage Alliance and ban these inappropriate flora once and for all?

  20. Born in Oakland

    Palm trees became popular in Oakland during the 1880′s to 1910 period as ornamental landscaping. A century later some of those small and exotic plants have become monster trees. The City has never done a very thoughtful job with their tree selections. Silk Oaks were one of the official street trees about 20 years ago and are even messier than palms. Too bad all the gorgeous elms became diseased and were removed in the 50′s.

  21. MoonSinger

    I learned on the delightful OHA tour of the “Borax Smith” estate, that one of the markers of the estate is a line of palm trees. Annalee Allen writes, “the palm trees are official Oakland city landmarks.”
    Tracking the steps of ‘Borax’

    I’ve wondered about the palm trees in Oakland since owning a “Sunny Side of the Bay” T-shirt that featured a stylized Oakland map with palm trees.

    V. Smoothe, I agree that holding developers to their contracts is a good precedent to set. It will make things easier for Oakland in future contracts.

  22. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    I still would like to see more oak trees than palm trees in Oakland.

    Anyway, one other thing I meant to comment on when I first read this post. V says (sorry, don’t know how to do italics):

    “I’m, well, pretty pro-development for the most part, and most of the arguments I hear from anti-growth types give me a huge headache and make me roll my eyes. But when they complain that they don’t trust the developers will keep this promise or that promise or that whatever condition of approval will actually be met…well, I see where they’re coming from. It’s pretty hard to argue against that when the City just lets a developer violate their DDA and stick the community with a big hunk of blight for a year (or in the case of 14th and Jackson, let properties sit shrink-wrapped for years). ”

    As one that has been labeled “anti-development”, I just wanted to say that this is exactly why I go to the planning commission meetings wanting the BEST for those developers that are coming into my neighborhood. I’m not at all a NIMBY. I’m all for having the best possible project, and no, I often don’t trust the developers (Sierra Condos, Allegro). Sometimes changes are made for the better at the Planning Commission and Design Review meetings, although I have to tell you that more often it feels the other way around. But even getting these changes in writing at that stage is no guarantee that you’ll get that project.

    Also, getting labeled inappropriately brings tension to the table. Ask Hal Ellis or Jim Falaschi if they can say my name without using it in vain. (they can’t) WHY?? Why can’t they listen to other ideas? Oh, that’s right, because they’re right and anyone that doesn’t agree with them is “anti-development”, “a NIMBY”, and “obviously knows nothing about devleopment”. It galls me that I still go to the construction meetings and get treated like crap. Last month it was because I poised a simple question about palm trees, and boom, “you’re the only one that hates them.” I never even said I hated them. I just asked why they weren’t planted at ground level.

    And wanting to keep the waterfront accessible to the masses and wanting to make it more beautiful also doesn’t make me anti-development. I think there are plenty of ways to make Oak to Ninth work, but as the current plan is, I just don’t think it’s the right way to go. But I’m labeled anti-development for not wanting Oak to Ninth as it currently stands. I think it needs more tall buildings (which those in the San Antonio area won’t like because it will block views) and more open space with more public parking. Oh, alright, I guess with the water tables as they are, going taller would be cost prohibitive.

    I actually wanted Forest City and some of the other developments to be taller. These six or eight story buildings aren’t tall enough. Nor are they very interesting, imho. ;)

    I kind of like the design that Peter Wang presented and I hope that it goes through, but do you honestly believe they would build it? When it comes to money, they’ll find a cheaper way to sort of keep the design theme, but I’d bet it would end up being more blocky — the cheaper way to build.