Friends in High Places

Why are the patrons of an East Oakland boxing gym so supportive of a 42-story condo near Lake Merritt?

By 6 p.m., Hearing Room 1 was packed. Every seat was taken, and people vied for wall space in the dimly lit room. Seated in the middle of the crowd were about a half dozen children — an unusual sight on a school night at the normally tedious Oakland Planning Commission.

The crowd had come for the second agenda item, and after an hour of droning about other matters it finally came: A hearing to define the scope of a draft environmental report the city will prepare for a proposed 42-story condominium near Lake Merritt. Speaker after speaker touted the project, arguing that “Oakland needs more development,” or “I support it because it will create jobs,” or “It will be good for East Oakland.”

After an hour of comments unrelated to what the meeting was supposed to be about, the planning commissioners were getting testy. “Chair Boxer has already said this three times,” Commissioner Michael Colbruno said. “You are actually doing a disservice to everybody and wasting people’s time by going on and saying you’re pro or con. Personally, you’re annoying me as a commissioner, if you’re going to go on and on about the future of Oakland.” He reminded the audience to speak to elements the city should consider in its environmental report. Opponents and neighbors whispered that the process had been stacked against them.

But supporters were not deterred. As people lined up along one wall to approach the microphone, three youngsters inched toward the front. They had been bused in by the East Oakland Boxing Association.

David, a teen with braided hair, came down from the gym. “To hear all these people come up here and talk about the area that they stays in and how beautiful and how this building’s gonna mess it up without thinking about how it’s gonna benefit the other parts of Oakland — that was depressing.”

Next came Brian, who looked about eight years old. “I’m from the Boxing Association. I am learning about civics,” he said, reading from a card. “I believe in … ” — then he paused and struggled to pronounce the next word, which may have been growth — “… to help me and my friends in our garden.”

Finally, a little girl approached the podium, which just cleared her chin. “I’m Wendy from the boxing gym,” she read carefully from her card. “Oakland needs all the resources it can get, including the taxes it will bring to the city, and from the taxes we will have more things for the kids.”

Why had so many people come out to sit or stand through a dreary planning commission hearing to speak in favor of a luxury high-rise far from where they live?

A hint of an answer came from Carlos Plazola, the former chief of staff to City Council Chairman Ignacio de la Fuente, who is now a lobbyist for the developer. Plazola, who said in a subsequent interview that his job is “community outreach,” had clearly done his work, as supporters greatly outnumbered opponents. He gently reprimanded the commissioners that “it’s incumbent upon you to hear people whether or not you think it’s relevant to the discussion.”

And so they continued. A young blond woman with an Irish brogue who lives adjacent to the building site said she wanted more activity in the area at night. In fact, an unusually large number of Irish people turned out, including Joe O’Donoghue, the power-broker who long headed San Francisco’s influential Residential Builders Association, and says he is a mentor and consultant to David O’Keeffe, the project’s developer.

After the numbing procession of speakers ended, Antonio Maceo May, a resident from the Regillius building adjacent to the garden, accused the developer of “stage-managing” the hearing. In a subsequent phone interview, Planning Commission Chairman Doug Boxer concurred. “It’s clear they had a coordinated campaign to speak in favor of the project,” Boxer said.

But what of this boxing gym in East Oakland? Neighborhood residents had already heard O’Donoghue make promises about the gym at a July 31 community meeting. “He began talking about some boxing gym and I didn’t even know what he was talking about,” said preservationist Naomi Schiff.

The East Oakland Boxing Association, located on 98th Avenue, provides after-school enrichment programs for area children ages six through twenty. Boxing is mainly a hook to lure street youth into the facility. Association Chairman Frank Rose said in an interview that Plazola had introduced him to O’Donoghue and that he and the Irishman had become close friends. “We hit it off,” Rose said. “He was brought up poor, and I was too.”

Asked if O’Donoghue had agreed to rebuild his facility, Rose said, “Joe knows a lot of contractors in San Francisco … who might do pro-bono work for us.” Could one of those contractors be O’Keeffe? An informed source, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said O’Donoghue had promised gym officials that O’Keeffe would rebuild the facility if the condos are approved.

O’Donoghue later denied that there was a “quid pro quo” of fixing the gym in exchange for support of the condo tower by the gym’s East Oakland patrons. But when asked more questions about why residents of East Oakland would care so much about a luxury development far from where they live, O’Donoghue became hostile and declined to comment further. He and other project supporters — including developer O’Keeffe, lobbyist Plazola, and Rose of the boxing gym — subsequently complained about this reporter in an apparent effort to suppress publication of this story.

Some opponents of the development expressed concern about the connection with the gym. “I see it as cynical manipulation of community groups,” complained Schiff. “It’s not a disinterested donation, and it’s not a fair way to affect the process.” Maceo, who is African American, said he figures O’Keeffe is “trying to demonstrate his sensitivity to the underserved black people in a depressed part of the city. I think he’s playing a race card in reverse.”

Since the planning commission meeting was only the first of many meetings about this project, there could be a lot more tedious nights in the works for some residents of East Oakland.

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