Oakland Sticks to Backward Thinking

Instead of addressing climate change and dealing with the affordability crisis, the city's leaders remain stuck in the 20th century.

Oakland’s elected officials have long viewed themselves as progressive and forward-thinking. But when it comes to creating transit-friendly neighborhoods, building affordable housing, and protecting the environment, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the city’s leaders are way behind the curve.

As Express senior writer Sam Levin explained in a recent series of in-depth articles, Oakland is still stuck in the 20th century when it comes to transportation and the city’s longstanding love affair with the automobile. Oakland has almost no money for affordable housing, and the city should be doing all it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but instead, it’s still mandating that developers promote car culture, requiring them to spend huge amounts of money on constructing large parking garages — that often end up sitting partially empty — right next to BART stations.

In fact, there are now several major developments in the city’s downtown/Uptown core that feature an extreme oversupply of parking and very limited affordable housing. Two of them are large housing developments that will feature parking spots for basically every housing unit being built, while the other projects feature three new city-owned parking garages. The total amount of new public parking in the area? About seven hundred spaces (see “Building Downtown Oakland for Cars,” 9/2).

Moreover, the amount of money being spent to accommodate cars is extraordinary: Some transit activists estimate that it costs developers $50,000 to build a single parking space. That translates into a total of $35 million for new public parking in Oakland’s urban center, which is already served by BART and AC Transit, and which transit activists rightly note should be a bike- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood — not one in which the car remains king.

Oakland, in short, is still engaged in backward thinking — especially unfortunate when the city is suffering an affordability crisis. Developers typically pass on the costs of parking to all residents of a building, regardless if they own a car or not, thereby ensuring that the new housing slated for downtown will be pricier than necessary. Moreover, Oakland is already the sixth most expensive city in the nation when it comes to rent prices. According to a new report from real estate site Zumper, the median price of a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland reached $2,030 last month. And thanks to the city’s outdated parking policies, those prices will likely soar even higher. Plus, Oakland’s parking policies not only will worsen traffic in downtown because they’ll attract more car owners, but they’ll discourage those who have no interest in owning a car and would prefer to live a greener lifestyle.

“For most people, the reason they want to live in Uptown is because they don’t own a car,” Jean Long, of the transit group TransForm, told Levin. “They are thinking, ‘I can take BART to San Francisco for work. I can walk to restaurants and bars.’ You want to encourage pedestrian activity and biking. But when you build parking, you induce driving.”

Local transit activists also correctly point out that if Oakland’s leaders were truly forward-thinking, they would jettison parking requirements for new housing built along and next to transit corridors. Instead of mandating a minimum number of parking spaces, Oakland should establish a maximum amount of parking — say 0.5 spaces per unit — along transit corridors in order to discourage car ownership.

Oakland also is way behind the times when it comes to financing affordable housing. The city not only has no requirement that developers include affordable units in condo developments (known as inclusionary zoning), it also has yet to enact an impact fee on apartment buildings to pay for affordable housing elsewhere. Berkeley, by contrast, has had an impact fee for years — it’s currently $20,000 per unit. That is, developers must pay $20,000 into Berkeley’s affordable housing fund for every market-rate unit they build in the city’s downtown. As Express staff writer Darwin BondGraham notes in the current issue, even Emeryville, which for years embraced market-rate-only development, now has an impact fee of $20,500 per unit (see “A Sea Change in Emeryville,” page 7).

Oakland? It’s still studying whether impact fees are a good idea while developers are jumping over each other for the chance to build market-rate housing in the city. Likewise, even though the courts have upheld the legality of inclusionary zoning rules, Oakland’s leaders have shown no interest in establishing such rules here, despite the fact that inclusionary zoning would help to keep the city affordable.

There’s also a lot more that Oakland could be doing to cope with the affordability crisis — which is arguably the single most important issue in the region. The city’s leaders, for example, could be lobbying the California Legislature to amend state law so that Oakland can extend its rent control rules to newer buildings. And Oakland’s elected officials could be pushing Governor Jerry Brown to create new funding mechanisms for affordable housing. But instead of promoting such forward-thinking, progressive ideas, Oakland City Hall remains stuck in the past.

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