Can Oakland Protect Chinatown and Eastlake?

Some fear a Laney ballpark will fuel displacement, but the city thinks it can rein in the forces of speculation.

Laney College might be the A’s’ preferred site for a new ballpark, but for many Oakland residents who live in the area, it’s the least-preferred option.

Li Ya Chen lives near Laney and thinks a ballpark would “disrupt normal life” with noise, drunken fans, and increased traffic. But her biggest worry is how rents could rise more than they already have, and properties, including existing affordable housing, could be bought up, demolished, and replaced with expensive homes or parking garages in a speculative rush to profit in proximity to the stadium.

Chen lives in a five-unit building protected by rent control and works as an in-home care worker. Like many in the area, she’s already extremely rent burdened, paying half her income a month on housing. But being able to walk to the doctor’s office, buy groceries, and speak Chinese with merchants and neighbors makes Chinatown a special place for her. It’s why she chose to live in this part of Oakland when she moved to the United States in 2005.

If the ballpark gets built, she believes a “huge wave” of more affluent English-speaking fans and new residents would arrive and cause Chinatown to disappear.

Councilmember Abel Guillen, whose district encompasses Chinatown and Eastlake, has heard from a lot of residents like Chen. Guillen told the Express that half of his constituents who have contacted him about the A’s’ plan don’t support the Laney location. And most of the other half, the supporters, want more information about possible negative impacts, he said.

In a letter released the day after the A’s’ September announcement, Guillen wrote that he’s worried the proposal “will lead to speculation in the residential and commercial markets in the surrounding neighborhoods and contribute to exorbitant rent hikes, which might displace already struggling residents and small businesses.”

As a result, he asked the Oakland Planning Commission to devise a menu of “interim development controls” that would limit harmful speculation. Planning department staffers are proposing that the city create a special zone of roughly 120 blocks around Laney that would be protected by an emergency ordinance limiting demolitions, banning new parking facilities, making it more difficult to convert apartments into condos, and requiring all large projects, specifically new hotels, to obtain conditional use permits, which require public hearings.

Developers would have to send notices to both property owners and tenants who live near their projects so that everyone can weigh in about impacts. Currently, only property owners get such city notices. And the mailings would arrive in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Spanish, in addition to English, which is the current default.

Furthermore, community organizations are asking the city to implement stronger tenant protections in the surrounding area, something Guillen said he supports. But a plan hasn’t been devised yet.

Would this be enough to limit speculation and protect the existing community?

“Somebody’s almost surely going to lose,” said Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore who studies stadium projects. Coates said the ballpark would “certainly” change the character of the surrounding neighborhood, including its demographics. But he also said it’s hard to predict if existing residents will be displaced or whether they will simply see the neighborhood change around them.
“The question of whether it will be a gentrifying force isn’t really about the stadium so much as what developers do in the surrounding areas, and what the stadium developer has the right to do in the neighborhood,” Coates explained.

In other words, what matters most is how the city allows the surrounding area to be redeveloped going forward. Eric Van Holm, another researcher at the University of Arizona who studies stadiums, echoed this conclusion. “If you’re a landowner near this project you will benefit substantially,” he said.

But both experts say the ballpark’s potential effects on housing will be complicated and difficult to predict.

Van Holm said renters have good reason to fear the stadium, but at the same time, rent increases around other newly developed sports complexes “generally move slowly.” At the same time, if local rents do go up because of the ballpark, it could make market-rate housing projects on nearby empty land more feasible. This new supply could dampen local price increases, said Van Holm.

But clouding these local economic dynamics is the broader problem: “Oakland rents are already increasing dramatically across the city,” said Van Holm. “So, the question is, how much more can they increase because of the stadium proposal?”

“Possibly, you’re going to price out of the market the low-income people who live in the neighborhood,” said Coates.

However, at last week’s planning commission meeting, commissioners almost didn’t approve the interim development controls Guillen wants for the neighborhood.

“It’s important to understand what’s already in the pipeline,” said Commissioner Jonathan Fearn, who opposed the regulations. “People have already invested time and money,” he said about developers whose projects could be impacted by the temporary restrictions.

But Strategic Planning Manager Ed Manasse said the planning department studied all of the projects currently in the development pipeline in the area that would be affected by the interim controls and said no existing project would face any greater hurdles to gain approval. The controls would only limit new applications made after the A’s’ announcement.

Even so, the Jobs and Housing Coalition sent a letter to the commissioners blasting the proposed ordinance as a “potential three-year moratorium on development in the area,” and asking that it not be implemented.

But Planning Commissioner Jahmese Myres, who supports the controls as a first step, said, “Time is of the essence here. The median income in this area is $17,000. Many of the residents speak little English and are over 75 years old.”

After some debate, the interim controls, with a few modifications, were approved by the commission and forwarded to the city council for consideration. The council could vote on them by Dec. 12.

But long-time affordable housing activists say the controls don’t go far enough to stop speculation that may already be underway. “We actually think it’s too weak,” Naomi Schiff of the Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt, told the commissioners about the interim controls. “We have to do something to forestall the danger of sudden relentless evictions followed by land banking for a ballpark that’s not at all a sure thing.”
Tenant activist James Vann submitted a letter to the commissioners calling for “blanket prohibitions” on the assembly of parcels by developers, demolition permits, and other activities in the area, in addition to temporary prohibitions on no-cause evictions, all rent increases, and transparency measures that would show who’s buying and selling real estate around the stadium site.

The one other major intervention that could soften the ballpark’s impact is whether the A’s agree to some kind of community benefits package. “Their interests are not financially aligned with the neighborhood and can’t be,” said Van Holm about the team’s owners. “But they can try to compromise and do something mutually beneficial.”

So far, the A’s have said they plan to build affordable housing and offer benefits for the neighborhood, but details are lacking.

Chen said she just doesn’t see a way that the ballpark and the existing community can coexist and wants the A’s to reconsider the Coliseum site. She also doubts the city’s interim development controls, as they’re currently drafted, will do enough to prevent a speculative frenzy.

“It feels like a political move to shut our voices out,” she said, “so the city can say they did something.”


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