Oakland Delays 416 Units in Chinatown

Oakland Delays 416 Units in Chinatown

Last night, the Oakland Planning Commission delayed their decision on two 7-story mixed-use developments bordering Downtown Oakland and Chinatown. One building at 301 12th Street would replace a warehouse and public lot with 339 residential units and ground-floor retail on the entire block. The other, at 285 12th Street, would put 77 units above ground-floor commercial space on what is currently a parking lot. 

Though the warehouse is currently occupied by a charter school, occupants had received notice in 2013 that the property owner was interested in selling. Oakland Charter Middle and High School extended their lease until 2019, with the provision that they would receive 18 months’ notice before a sale. It was only after that notice was provided last year that the developer, W12, LLC, began the entitlement process.

After significant pushback from local advocate Leilan Huen, daughter of former mayor Jean Quan, Commissioner Jahmese Myres made a motion to continue the item to a special meeting on August 17. Teachers and parents from the school also spoke of their concerns that relocation would be extremely difficult.

The Block By Block Organizing Network, represented by Huen, approached developers with a proposed Community Benefits Agreement, joined by groups such as AYPAL, APEN, Family Bridges, and the Chinese Community United Methodist Church. The Agreement seeks to reserve some of the units for permanently Below Market Rate affordable housing, citing private talks between EBALDC, a nonprofit housing developer, and Martin Development Group, the firm responsible for W12, to sell the parcel at 285 12th Street to EBALDC for subsidized units.

Bilingual street signs in Oakland's Chinatown

Bilingual street signs in Oakland's Chinatown

Staff and supporters at the meeting countered that W12 was already meeting its required contribution to affordable housing by paying $2.29 million in Oakland’s newly approved impact fees.

Justin Osler, a principal for Martin Development, told the East Bay Express that negotiations between them and EBALDC were private. The Planning Commission also noted that Community Benefits Agreements are private agreements between neighbors and developers, unenforceable by city staff.

In response to demands, however, Osler reported that the Martin Group would be reserving retail space for a local coffee shop, with rents fixed at 20% below market rate.

“Outside of our [impact] fees, our new residents will eat, drink and shop in Chinatown and the surrounding businesses, an important source of new patrons for the neighborhood," Osler wrote. “We reached out to a broader group of stakeholders in Chinatown. The group that Lailan represents has called themselves a coalition, but they represent themselves mostly,” he added.

At the planning commission hearing, Huen spoke and answered questions for nearly 10 minutes, presenting her case against the developer. At one point, Commissioner Patillo had to ask her to remain on topic. Osler, in turn, complained that even if the project were approved, Huen’s group would likely file an appeal.

If his concerns are valid, this means more delays for several other projects in the area. Several months ago, she suggested she would do so for a project at 226 13th Street, citing concerns that new wealthier residents would drive up commercial rents and displace longtime retailers. Earlier in the year, Huen’s group withdrew an appeal for another residential project at 125 14th Street after the developer offered additional hundreds of thousands of dollars in community benefits.

Commissioner Myres seemed to endorse this negotiation tactic. “I think we can push developers,” she said, to the point of nearly abandoning a project, “and we haven’t done that here tonight.” Onlookers both in the room and on Twitter criticized her remarks as encouraging prodcedural extortion. Myres initially suggested continuing the item to a meeting later in the year, but noting that she would be out of town, agreed to reschedule it for the special meeting on the 17th. 

Supporters of the Community Benefits Agreement argued that a two-week delay would not be enough for EBALDC to negotiate with the Martin Group. “I don’t believe that,” Myres said, responding to concerns that a longer delay could make the development infeasible. Huen stated a preference for three years’ delay.

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