Take Two Buses and Call Me in the Morning

In pursuit of an unrealistic and improbable retail fantasy, activists are opposing plans for tangible improvement in West Oakland.

Gentrification. People often throw that word around without really understanding what it means. Usually, it means the long process by which young middle-class professionals buy up homes in working-class neighborhoods and gradually drive up property values and rents so that indigenous residents are forced to move elsewhere. But to activists in West Oakland, gentrification is a drugstore.

Some people are laboring under the delusion that not having to spend two hours on the bus to shop at the nearest drugstore would be a good thing for West Oakland. These poor, deluded souls include officials with the Oakland Housing Authority and Bridge Housing, a nonprofit developer hired to build and lease a new housing and retail project at the corner of Mandela Parkway and 7th Street. The project is part of the grandiose Mandela Gateway “transit village,” a constellation of condos and storefronts designed to transform several blighted blocks around 7th Street into a thriving promenade. The transit village, they believe, is the best chance to begin replacing West Oakland’s liquor stores and decrepit factories with shops that provide area residents with cheap consumer staples and maybe even jobs.

After holding a series of public meetings about what the neighborhood needs, officials concluded that a chain pharmacy such as Walgreens could serve as their perfect anchor tenant. That’s when self-styled community activists began denouncing the proposal as gentrification. Ever since they learned that Bridge was trying to attract a drugstore, activists have jammed into public meetings and denounced the proposal. A few even argued that Bridge and the housing authority should offer the site to a theoretical African-American pharmaceutical collective. After all, they argued, Walgreens represented a sinister plot to undermine the health and dignity of West Oakland’s residents.

They needn’t have bothered. Walgreens had indeed agreed to look into opening a store at the site, and Bridge president Carol Galante figured the company would take one look at the numbers and get on board. Instead, it walked away from the proposal — and so did every other drugstore chain she contacted. They looked at the neighborhood’s income level and decided that it was still too low for them to make any money. “They haven’t been able to take what for them is a leap and a risk,” she says. “The numbers don’t work. They expressed concerns about what they called shrinkage, volume going out the back door. You can call it redlining, but that’s the business decision they made.”

When a company as supportive of urban development as Walgreens is unwilling to take a chance on a particular neighborhood, that suggests how far that neighborhood still has to go. Despite the dwindling crime rate and slow upward creep of property values, big retailers still see West Oakland as an impoverished ghetto. For all the noise about gentrification, West Oakland can’t even get itself a drugstore.

And make no mistake — there’s been a lot of noise. One of the most prominent critics is Dana Harvey, who decried the plan as an effort to “turn Oakland into South Emeryville.” According to Harvey, chain drugstores take profits out of a neighborhood, offer minimum-wage jobs that cost communities more than they’re worth, and cripple the self-esteem of low-income shoppers by monitoring them with security cameras. In fact, she says, Bridge and the Oakland Housing Authority are secretly planning to gentrify the neighborhood and make a killing in the process. “OHA and Bridge were determined to create a Pseudo-Emeryville at the foot of a community visioned Mandela Transit Village project,” Harvey wrote in a manifesto in November. “We believe that they in fact know that they will make a considerable profit on this space by enticing outside businesses, that cause social and economic degradation in the community.”

But as it happens, she has her own plans for the space. Harvey, who is codirector of the West Oakland Food Project Collaborative, has put together a plan to locate a consortium of small businesses and jewelry kiosks at the site, anchored by a grocery and pharmaceutical cooperative modeled on San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery and the old Berkeley Co-op. Although poor people are far more likely to eat fast food than slow food, Harvey thinks she can introduce a new generation of West Oaklanders to healthy produce and recirculate the profits back into the community through a partnership with local credit unions. She has secured the help of Rainbow Grocery, which has offered to train co-op members in food retail, and the People’s Grocery, a local nonprofit that grows fresh produce and sells it out of a van that cruises the streets of West Oakland.

Yet there’s at least one thing that Harvey doesn’t seem to have. She refuses to disclose how much investment capital she has on hand, but judging from all the subsidies she has demanded, it can’t be very much. When she wasn’t badmouthing the drugstore proposal, she was asking the Oakland Housing Authority to take control of the retail property away from Bridge and give it to her in perpetuity. In return, she promised to assume roughly $600,000 in construction debt. After housing authority officials shot down that plan, she submitted an offer in November to lease the space at a rate of thirty cents a square foot, considerably less than the two-dollars-a-square-foot asking price.

Harvey’s goal is certainly noble enough, and third-party observers claim that officials with Bridge and the housing authority strung her along for months rather than deal straight with her. So she is understandably frustrated. But campaigning to keep a desperately needed drugstore out of West Oakland just because it’s a chain speaks volumes about how well she knows the needs of her would-be customers. And since poor, inner-city residents aren’t exactly known for their devotion to healthy food, there are plenty of other reasons to be wary of her business plan. Finally, according to Galante, Harvey’s written proposal was unprofessional and incomplete. “We have to see a business operation that works — we have to see you can pay your operating expenses,” she says. “We just don’t have an analysis from Dana’s group, we don’t have something that even comes close. … We’ve asked for financial statements of the entity that’s going to operate and sign the lease. We’ve asked who is the entity that’s going to sign the lease, but I don’t know who that is.”

Harvey insists her proposal was perfectly fine, and that even if this operation seems risky, Bridge should subsidize it anyway. “Here is a golden opportunity to say we really want to invest in this community, we want to see true economic growth for the residents of West Oakland,” she says. “Why don’t we step outside the old model that says I want to see twenty years of business experience, I want to see proof that you can afford two dollars a square foot rent?”

Bridge officials are awaiting an updated application from Harvey, after which they say they will consider her proposal. But her demands seem clear enough: Instead of a drugstore, Bridge and the housing authority should give virtually free rent to a business whose failure would send yet another message that West Oakland can’t support retail, and thus guarantee that no anchor store would ever move into that site. It may be naive, unprofessional, and irresponsibly risky. But at least it’s not gentrification.

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