Op-Ed: A Call to Overhaul Oakland’s Planning Department

Pamela Drake

Pamela Drake

By Pamela Drake


A diverse coalition of Oakland residents, artists and small business people has been demanding a change in the way the city Planning Department does business with developers whose giant projects severely impact established neighborhoods. 


I have been privileged to be a minor player in this coalition and have been impressed with their research and thoughtful approach.


After six months of negotiations around the Wood Partners 262-unit project, which will transform an entire city block, coalition members made a plea, one they have repeatedly been making at city meetings.


City Council, Mayor and city planning staff would do well to listen if they wish to move projects along smoothly. Here is a summary of some of the coalition’s demands:


1) It’s time to demand diversity in Planning Commission appointments.


Neighborhood, professional and economic, not to mention ethnic, racial and gender diversity, should be considered. A number of commissioners must come from areas heavily impacted by ongoing gentrification. Philadelphia requires community advocate seats—too many of our commissioners stand to profit from development in a potential conflict of interest.


2) The new Director of Planning should be able to demonstrate a wide knowledge of Oakland’s neighborhoods as well as implement innovative equitable and participatory policies, like Seattle, Philadelphia, and the Twin Cities.


3) A participatory process requires that all residents, small businesses, and agencies, including tenants be noticed at least SIX months before a decision, allowing for sufficient community engagement.


4) As in Seattle and Philadelphia’s models, the city could contract with trained Neighborhood Planning Liaisons, who live in impacted areas, to outreach to residents and local businesses about new developments, and to support mediation of community needs with the developer and city planners. Let’s Lift up the Community Planning Leaders Institute model.


5) In recognition that recently enacted impact fees do not constitute a full response to the actual impacts, develop an Equitable Development scorecard, as the Twin Cities are doing, to publicly score a proposed project’s contributions to the city’s equity goals for local hire, community engagement, affordable and family housing, prior to Planning Commission consideration.


6) Provide incentives for Inclusionary Housing with a goal of at least 20 percent affordable units through tax reduction for a set number of years as they have in Seattle producing over 5,000 affordable units, or other financial incentive that developers will can use.


7) We need to target the impact fees and the Public Art Ordinance in a smart and thoughtful way that is focused on equity, getting resources to the most vulnerable neighborhoods.


Pamela Drake is a leader in the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club and the Block by Block Organizing Network.

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