October 6, 2014 Housing Action Coalition
We can all agree that housing production is a regional problem. Wanting to look outside our backyard, last week the SF Housing Action Coalition invited Oakland’s Director of Planning and Building, Rachel Flynn, to learn about Oakland’s approach to housing and land use policy.
In the last 10 years, Oakland’s population has grown by 15,000 residents, yet the city has only added 3,000 housing units, not keeping up with the demand. This is not uncommon for most cities around the Bay Area.
Oakland’s planning team counted 3,000 vacant lots and created 5-area plans with over-the-counter approval, no inclusionary requirement and a much-reduced climate of neighborhood pushback (read: no discretionary review), no parking minimums or maximums and no CEQA appeals for infill projects built within area plans. Sounds pretty attractive from here!
Oakland’s policy focus has shifted to building housing as close as possible to their transit infrastructure. Oakland boasts more BART stations than any other city in the Bay Area and wants to focus mixed-use, transit-oriented development at these nodes. Ms. Flynn noted that Oakland has suffered from years of “retail leakage,” and the city leaders badly want new strategies to keep revenue dollars within city limits. The Oakland-Valdez Plan emphasizes a retail enhancement strategy to make Auto Row section of Broadway into a major retail destination. The Coliseum City Plan will essentially “create a city out of nothing” where city officials hope to have a sports and entertainment complex with two new stadiums for the Raiders and As, in addition to large amounts of retail and new hotels. Ms. Flynn called this 20 year plan, “really ambitious” and hopes that agreements can be reached with the professional sports teams who will anchor the plan.
As far as housing, Oakland has 7,500 units currently in the pipeline, much of it overflow from San Francisco. Signature Development’s Brooklyn Basin project is breaking ground this year, bringing 3,100 new homes to Oakland’s waterfront and connecting it with Jack London Square. The West Oakland Plan Area is getting interest from Holliday Development, who built the Pacific Cannery Lofts with David Baker Architects, that opened in 2012. Orton Development, who has undertaken the historic renovation of Pier 70 in San Francisco, is also taking on the decrepit and long-vacant 16th Street Train Station. The revival of this architectural gem would hopefully encourage new development around it.
Of the 1,000-plus homes built between 2013-2014, almost 90 percent of them homes were already “affordable” under HUD’s income standards. A significant percentage of homes currently in the pipeline are similarly affordable, even at local market rates.
Ms. Flynn reported that there is a heated political debate taking place among Oakland’s leaders on whether (or when) to enact a local inclusionary housing ordinance. She believes that, at this stage of the economic cycle, it would be much more beneficial to the city to attract and build a robust development climate than add large fees to new housing. The last thing Oakland needs is to deter housing production, which she said an inclusionary ordinance risks doing. However, pressure from affordable housing advocates to extract more benefits from market-rate development is a potent political force locally. Oakland is currently studying the implementation of impact fees on transportation, affordable housing and capital improvements. This study will be brought to the city council next summer. In terms of mandating inclusionary housing, there is no plan of action as of yet. The last time such a measure was introduced eight years ago; then-Mayor Jerry Brown vetoed it.
When it comes to neighborhood opposition to development, Oakland sees less than San Francisco. Ms. Flynn attributes this to Oakland not having the choke points in their public process to delay projects that exist here. She also said that the Planning Commission has a strong track record of standing up for good development projects. Former Mayor Jerry Brown became widely known for his “10,000 Homes Plan”, an invitation to developers to build new market-rate housing in downtown Oakland.
Ms. Flynn’s talk extended beyond housing and mentioned several initiatives underway to improve transit, starting with a $125 million federal grant to create a bus rapid transit line along San Leandro Boulevard, improving the “last-mile” ridership to BART. She mentioned an ambitious plan to create a streetcar line that circumnavigates downtown as well as adding a BART station to Jack London Square.
So, with few fees, by-right permitting in planned areas, little community push-back and no CEQA appeals, why aren’t housing developers flocking to build in Oakland? Ms. Flynn bluntly said that development in San Francisco is far more lucrative, where the price-per-square-foot is almost twice as high as Oakland’s.
Only time will tell how great an impact Oakland can have in absorbing the spillover of San Francisco’s housing demand. However, it was the consensus of SFHAC’s members that under Rachel Flynn’s leadership, Oakland is pointed in the right direction and there are many things we could emulate.