Oakland Coalition Calls for Planning Commission Accountability


Community members and activists from the Chinatown Coalition are calling for changes in how the City and Planning Commission make development decisions.


The group says all city development projects should be passed with signed benefit agreements between the community and developers, especially in historic and cultural districts like Chinatown. 


“We have organized a diverse coalition to change the process of how planning is done in our town… and to force developers to work with the neighborhoods they are coming into to make a profit off the highest rental rates in the country,” coalition organizer Lailan Huen said at City Council last Tuesday.


Huen, who works with the Block By Block Organizing Network, and other members of the coalition have organized this year around four proposed housing projects near Chinatown. They have spoken at numerous Planning Commission meetings, often asking for more time to negotiate with developers over more affordable units and other community benefits agreements.


At last week’s City Council meeting, Councilmember Abel Guillén pulled an agenda item about one of these projects: developer Wood Partners’ 262-unit market-rate housing project at 226 13th Street, which was approved in June and later appealed by the City Council.


Members of the coalition on Oct. 4 appeared before City Council, and during open forum launched their public campaign for more equitable development.


“We need to have broader, more robust community engagement projects for any development,” said Alvina Wong, lead community organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.


In addition to a longer time frame for deeper community engagement between developers and the community, Wong said the coalition is advocating for changes in the Planning Commission appointment process.


Currently, the mayor recommends people to be on the Planning Commission, and City Council has the power to approve those nominations. But Wong said this process is a roadblock to the collaborative and representative development processes that the coalition wants to see in the community.


“There are no provisions on how the community gets to engage or make recommendations (for planning commissioner appointments),” said Wong. “We also know there isn’t much racial diversity or work diversity on the Planning Commission.” Members of the coalition have already begun working with council members on how they can bring about some of their ideas.


On the one hand, council members want to see communities benefit from development coming in. However, unless there is a change to the city’s charter, there are few ways to adjust the appointment process, Wong said.


“We shouldn’t have to fight separately for each project. We should work to adopt policies, like the local jobs policy that we successfully advanced at the CED Committee this week, which apply more broadly,” said Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, who supports and has been working with the coalition.


The group is exploring other ideas, too, like finding ways for the Planning Commission to better represent different neighborhoods in Oakland.


“Many (planning) commissioners now are from the Rockridge area. They’re mostly white and work in the for-profit development sector,” Wong said.


The main concern, she said, is that historic neighborhoods like Chinatown, which don’t have explicit protections in Oakland, are given the time and resources they need to work with developers.


“This important coalition brings all issues to the table at once: displacement, real jobs for Oaklanders, and affordable home ownership,” Pamela Drake of the Block By Block Organizing Network said last Tuesday.


“We should not have to come here every time. We need the Planning Department to look at these issues broadly, and we need (City Council) to put that in place.”


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