I was working on my recap of last week’s big Mayoral debate, and when I got to the lightning round question about eminent domain, I got partway through writing it and realized I had written enough for a whole post. And then someone brought it up out of nowhere for a second time in the comments, so I decided it was actually pretty post-worthy.
So. Eminent domain is a touchy subject. And it’s a particularly touchy subject in West Oakland, where there is a long history, still fresh in the minds of many residents, of eminent domain being used aggresively and for reasons that…well, let’s just say that in retrospect, most people agree it did not end up being a good thing for the area or for the people who lived there.
Existing eminent domain rules in West Oakland
Okay, here are some things you should know. (I am trying to put this as simply as possible, so forgive me if some of the nuances are lost. We can discuss those in the comments.)
- In California, you can use eminent domain in Redevelopment Areas.
- When you set up a Redevelopment Area, you make a Redevelopment Plan.
- In the Redevelopment Plan, you get to decide whether or not this Redevelopment Area will have the power of eminent domain.
- The West Oakland Redevelopment Area was established in 2003.
- In the West Oakland Redevelopment Area, eminent domain is allowed by the West Oakland Redevelopment Plan (PDF).
- The Redevelopment Plan for West Oakland allows for eminent domain to be used only under cetain conditions (PDF). Briefly, those conditions are:
- The property is located in the Clawson/MMcClymonds/Bunche subarea of the West Oakland Redevelopment Area. (There are a total of three subareas.)
- The property is commercial, not residential.
- The whole project the property is being acquired for does not exceed three acres total.
- The property is located along one of four streets that have been designated as commercial corridors: West Grand, Mandela, San Pablo, and Market. The corridors are marked on this map (PDF).
Got all that? Good.
Proposed changes to West Oakland eminent domain rules
So now, the City wants to amend the West Oakland Redevelopment Plan (PDF) to modify the aforementioned eminent domain rules.
Why would they do that? Well, as explained in a recent San Francisco Business Times article:
Eager to attract a grocery store to West Oakland, the city redevelopment agency is preparing to broaden its eminent domain rules so it could acquire the final piece of a five-acre parcel desired by Foods Co.
The retailer has approached three property owners along West Grand Avenue between Filbert and Market streets. Two have agreed to sell but one, who controls just under an acre, is asking for more than Foods Co. has been willing to pay.
So, what changes exactly is the Redevelopment Agency asking for? Read the staff report (PDF) for the full story. Again, I’ll put it as simply as I can:
- Change the total size of a project that eminent domain can be used for to 5 acres rather than 3 acres. However, you would still only be able to use eminent domain to acquire 3 acres of the land to be used in the project.
- Add to the areas designated as commercial corridors that eminent domain would be allowed to include spaces at 24th and Filbert and Myrtle Street between 24th and West Grand.
That’s all. It would not change the rules about not being able to use eminent domain on residential property.
If you’re having a hard time envisioning the areas discussed, perhaps these maps will help. Click on them for a bigger version.
This map shows in green where in West Oakland eminent domain is currently allowed to be used on commercial property.
This map shows in yellow the new locations where eminent domain would be allowed if the amendment passed. Again, it would only be allowed to be used on commercial property, as laid out in the West Oakland Redevelopment Plan (PDF) on pages 7-9.
So, this proposal to amend the plan was brought to the West Oakland Project Area Committee in July. They voted on whether to approve the amendment (PDF), but the vote tied (5 yes, 5 no, 2 abstentions). Now the proposal is being brought to the City Council. The City Council is able to overrule the WOPAC and change the plan without their approval, but this will require a 2/3 vote.
The reason for this is because the Redevelopment Agency is trying to get a grocery store to locate in West Oakland. The national grocery chain Foods Co. wants to open a store in West Oakland. You probably read about the two stores they are opening in East Oakland. Foods Co. has found a site to locate a 70,000sf store in West Oakland, but had to acquire several properties to put together the land. One property owner in the area has not been willing to sell to Foods Co.
In order to aid Foods Co. in their quest to acquire the property, the Redevelopment Agency wants to amend the plan so they would have the power of eminent domain if they should ultimately need it. This isn’t a vote on whether to use eminent domain on the property now — that would have to be voted on separately later. I mean, obviously if the amendment to the Redevelopment Plan passes and the property owner remains obstinate and it does come to the point where they need to use that tool, then they’re going to. I’m just pointing out that we’re not actually there yet.
Anyway, the public hearing on the issue is scheduled for the City Council meeting on Tuesday, October 5th (PDF).
Proposed eminent domain rule changes at CED
So before items come to the City Council for a vote, almost everything goes through a hearing at one of the Council’s committees. And so, on September 14th, the proposed changes to the West Oakland Redevelopment Plan were heard by the Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee (PDF). If you are so inclined, you can watch video of the whole discussion below.
So. There were a number of speakers at the meeting. Several were adamantly opposed to amending the Redevelopment Plan. These people were all just totally against the use of eminent domain at all for anything.
I sympathize with that. I understand why a lot of people flip out the instant they hear the phrase “eminent domain.” That’s valid.
But the thing will all these people who came and spoke against it is that none of them seemed to understand what the proposal was at all. I mean, they all kept using this slippery slope type argument and saying that if you start allowing it for one thing, then as soon as it’s established eminent domain is allowed in West Oakland at all, the City is going to start gobbling up people’s houses. But, of course, they don’t appear to realize that it is already allowed.
The people who spoke in favor of the amendment, including District 3 (West Oakland) Councilmember Nancy Nadel, basicaly all said that yes, we know the history of eminent domain in West Oakland, and we’re cautious about using this as a tool, but the fact is that West Oakland really needs a grocery store and this is what it’s going to take to do it.
When she spoke, Nancy Nadel also mentioned that bringing in a grocery store was part of her platform when she first ran for Council in 1996, so it’s really important to her that we get one. Ha.
Anyway, the Committee elected not to delay the public hearing, as had been requested by some of the anti-eminent domain speakers.
They didn’t talk about it for very long. Jane Brunner asked a couple of questions, and after listening to the exact same explanation for the third time in half an hour suddenly acted like the fact that there is already language about eminent domain in the existing Redevelopment Plan was complete news to her, and I guess she decided that trying to wrap her mind around all that would like, make her head explode or something, so she concluded by saying that she’ll just do whatever Nancy Nadel wants because she knows how much Nancy hates eminent domain, so if even she is willing to use it in this case, it must be necessary. I don’t know where the hell she came up with that idea. Nancy Nadel is constantly talking in Council meetings about how she wants to seize people’s property. They’ll be talking about the budget or whatever, and she’ll contribute nothing for most of the meeting, and then chime in and be like “I wish we could use eminent domain to take all these properties as punishment for being vacant for more than six months. That would solve our retail problem!” Or something similarly crazy. Well, anyway. I’m getting a little off topic.
Pat Kernighan essentially said that she would support it, but that they sure as hell better turn out a massive amount of people at the Council meeting to cry about how bad they want a grocery store. Normally, I’m not much of a fan of Pat Kernighan’s do-whatever-looks-most-popular approach to governance, but in this case, I kind of agree with her. This is such an emotionally charged issue, you need to be able to demonstrate that you’ve got strong community support.
Should the Council amend the plan as requested?
I think so.
I mean, it’s a tough question. Some people just hate eminent domain and don’t think it should ever be used for anything, or maybe only for a road or whatever, and I respect that. It’s legitimate. And if you’re against all eminent domain, then of course you’re going to be against it in this case.
But the fact is that the question of whether this Redevelopment Area would allow eminent domain was really hotly debated and decided already. The people who are against using eminent domain in all case lost that debate. And it’s not like we’re talking about some ancient history from like 40 years ago or something. We’re talking about 2003. And after a lot of heated discussion and passionate debate, we made a decision that we would allow for the use of eminent domain in a specific area, and also only on non-residential properties. Now they want to change the language to allow for something that, from my perspective, is very clearly in the spirit of the way the rule was written, but outside the letter of it. I think that’s fair.
And really, it is an issue that there’s nowhere to buy groceries in West Oakland.
I was house sitting out there for like a week not too long ago, and I gotta say, the lack of places to buy groceries makes cooking out there a serious pain in the ass. I walked down to that Mandela Foods Co-Op one day, but the store was empty and they did not have any food. I mean, the loose lettuce was like, starting to cross the border between wilting and liquified, then avocados were so rock hard I honestly don’t know how you could have eaten them even if you wanted to, the tomatoes did not even smell like anything. They didn’t have any bread or meat that day, although they assured me that this was an anomaly. I mean, it’s nice they sell Clover Stornetta milk, and if it was on my normal way home I would probably stop in for a quart or something from time to time, but the fact it that this is simply not sufficient to meet people’s food shopping needs. I ended up taking BART to San Francisco and buying my groceries at that store in the bottom of the Bloomingdale’s mall. Which, BTW, was better priced than Mandela Foods.
Another day, I had nothing in the fridge and it was during this big heat wave and just the whole prospect of the ordeal of going to the store was just too much for me to handle. Forced to make do with what I could buy at the neighborhood convenience store, I ended up having a dinner of a couple of bottles of Anchor Steam, a bag of microwave popcorn, and canned peaches. Yum!
Anyway. I don’t mean to make light of the situation with my little stories. The fact is that the lack of access to groceries in West Oakland is a public health issue.
Where the Mayoral candidates stand
So, during the “lightning round” of questions at last week’s Mayoral debate, the candidates were all asked whether they supported the use of eminent domain to get a grocery store in West Oakland and instructed to answer either yes, no, or undecided.
Don Perata, Jean Quan, Rebecca Kaplan, Don Macleay, Larry Lionel Young, Marcie Hodge, and Greg Harland all said yes.
Arnie Fields said no, because “This is America.” And Joe Tuman, who, just like with most issues, clearly had absolutely no idea that this controversy is going on, had to ask to hear the question again. Then he said that he absolutely wouldn’t support it.
One more thing
So I complained a little bit earlier in the post about how the people speaking against the amendment were all uninformed and whatever. And that is true. But I don’t think it’s their fault at all that they’re clueless. It’s the City’s.
The City did a predictably wretched job of letting people living in the impacted area know what was going on. You know, they send out their required legal notice and act like that’s some kind achievement. What did they expect to happen? I mean, a bunch of people open their mailboxes and all they’re going to see is a date and the words “eminent domain” which of course is going to scare the shit out of them.
And then people want to try to figure out what’s going on and maybe they try to read this staff report that’s all in bureaucratese, and they’re scared and confused and probably feel like someone is trying to trick them or something, because hey, that’s usually they reason people are not forthcoming with clear information. Who can blame them for flipping out?
I mean, I’m sure that no matter how good a job of outreach the City did to inform people, you would still end up with several people vigorously opposing the amendment. There’s nothing you can do about that. Some people just hate eminent domain. But that’s not an excuse to act like it’s not worth it to invite comment from everybody else.