Community group speaks out against billboards in Oakland Army base deal

A backlit billboard along I-580, near the Bay Bridge.

A backlit billboard along I-580, near the Bay Bridge.

A new community group is gearing up to protest billboards slated for West Oakland as part of the Army base redevelopment deal approved by City Council in June. The group’s founders say the billboards would degrade the community, while the developer and city officials argue that roadside ads will be an important source of revenue for the project.

“We were alarmed and shocked to learn about the billboards,” said Leslie Pritchett, who helped start Make Oakland Beautiful, a group formed in opposition to the boards. “The sweetheart deal avoided all public process,” she wrote in a press release with co-founder Karen Hester.

Five billboards have been approved for construction on city property, and four more are being considered for port-owned land. Two billboards along the south edge of the Bay Bridge, east of the toll plaza, will be 20 feet high and 60 feet wide. The seven other proposed billboards would be installed along I-880, between Grand Avenue and 12th Street in West Oakland.

The proposal from Foster Interstate Media, Inc., contracted to install and operate the boards, plans for two or three LED, or digital, billboards. The rest would be traditional billboards with backlights, to make advertisements visible in the dark. Foster Interstate will sell space to advertisers, and the city gets a cut. The exact amount the city receives will vary depending on revenue generated, but is estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million annually, assistant city administrator Fred Blackwell said in an e-mail.

“I feel betrayed by City Council around this issue,” said Hester, who lives in North Oakland and helps organize community events like Bites Off Broadway and Rockridge Out and About festivals. One of her main complaints is that Oakland residents were not made explicitly aware of the billboards during negotiations between the city and the developer, California Capital Investment Group.

Hester and Pritchett will hold the first meeting of Make Oakland Beautiful on Thursday, August 23, from 7-9 pm, at 322 45th St., the Temescal Creek cohousing in North Oakland. The pair is mustering support to oppose the billboards and has called for meetings with various city officials about the issue before the deal moves into the next phase.

The $1 billion Oakland Army base deal is a development project to create a warehouse, trade and logistics center for the Port of Oakland on the former Army base in West Oakland. The base has been closed for 13 years, and the city has seen numerous failed proposals for the 366 acres, located next to the port and the Bay Bridge off-ramps.

On June 19, the City Council voted 7-0 to approve the current proposal, with councilmember Desley Brooks, District 6, abstaining. The project is expected to begin in 2013, but the billboards could be installed ahead of time to start generating revenue.

Under the terms of the agreement, revenue from billboard advertisements is to be split between Foster Interstate, CCIG, and the city. The billboard company would get 60 percent. Out of the remaining 40 percent, the city would receive three-quarters and the developer a fourth.

“The city has done a good job negotiating a good deal for itself, to ensure it is getting fairly compensated for its land,” said Patrick Cashman, Oakland’s Army base project manager.

The Army base project to revitalize the port also includes plans to establish a job center, training and apprenticeship program for Oakland residents. This is to be a training location for construction workers, longshoremen and other port-related positions—-to ensure, according to the plans, that locals are ready to fill the thousands of jobs generated by the Army base development deal.

There is nothing in writing concerning the city’s share of billboard revenues, but the intent of city officials is to use some billboard revenues it receives to fund a job center, said Cashman.

“The most important aspect of the project is jobs,” he said. “We are revitalizing what used to be an active army port into a 21st century port.” The project would add almost 5,000 jobs, he said, and increase the capacity of the Port of Oakland.

But Hester argues that the city and Oakland residents are not receiving a good deal in exchange for what they are giving up. She and Pritchett said more information is needed about how the billboard deal is structured, the cost of the job center, and how exactly the revenues will be used.

“The administration is working out the specifics around the way the billboards are rolled out in order to make sure it funds important components of the project, like the jobs center,” said Jason Overman, communications director for Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan. The billboard revenue is “an important way to fund crucial community benefits,” he said.

Hester said detailed information about the project was buried in 900 pages of documentation, and that she first heard about the billboards anecdotally, at a meeting for the Gateway Park working group, a coalition of nine regional agencies, including representatives from the city and the port, which is developing a waterfront park at the eastern foot of the new Bay Bridge.

Pritchett said there was no public process to have billboards approved and included as part of the port expansion deal. “Billboards with potentially a 66-year lease had no public scrutiny,” she said.

But Phil Tagami, managing general partner for the California Capital Investment Group, said billboards have been part of the proposal from the beginning. “It was an open and competitive process,” he said in an interview last week, and his company was selected out of 13 developers for the project. Documents from the environmental study and staff reports have been available to the public since late May, and included the billboards as part of the development plan, he said.

Aside from the lack of transparency surrounding the billboard deal, Pritchett and Hester also characterized the planned billboards as “a visual assault,” in the words of Pritchett, who is co-director of Friends of the Gateway, a group working on an arts-focused program for public space at the Bay Bridge.

The lights from existing billboards can be seen from the top of the hills in Oakland, said Hester, and she added that light pollution from the added boards would be “extraordinary.” Lights are used to illuminate traditional billboards at night, and the LED billboards use bright, digital images that change multiple times a minute.

Pritchett said she worries that drivers will be distracted on the bridge by additional flashy advertisements. “We will have a brand new, multibillion dollar bridge, and drivers will be greeted with ultra bright billboards,” she said. “Think about the message that sends, in how people perceive Oakland and the East Bay.”

But the Port of Oakland is already one of the brightest spots in the Bay Area, and there is a lot to the Army base project aside from billboards, Tagami said. The revenue from the advertisements is important to fund the job center and make the project a success, he said.

Tagami has experience using billboards for development purposes. He helped organize deals between the city, under former Mayor Jerry Brown, and the Port in 2005 and 2007, to install billboards on port property and generate revenue to support the Oakland School for the Arts, a charter school in the downtown Fox Theater. The billboard revenue helped finance restoration of the historic theater and fund program costs for the school.

“There is no evil to a billboard,” especially one that provides revenue to the city, Tagami said. The benefit of the charter school to the community would not be possible without the revenues from the pair of billboards near the Bay Bridge toll plaza, he said.

But Hester said that “the precedent should never have been set” with these billboards. The existing 20 by 60 foot boards have digital displays, with rotating advertisements about every five seconds, and she said she does not want to see any more in West Oakland.

Over 140 people so far have signed an online petition against the Army base billboards, Hester said, and she is considering the possibility of a legal challenge.

More information is available about the Army base development on the project website.

7 Comments

  1. copykate

    “But Hester argues that the city and Oakland residents are not receiving a good deal in exchange for what they are giving up.” It isn’t at all clear to me what Hester thinks is being sacrificed. The land in question is currently wasteland and too toxic to farm. Heaven knows the city needs the money! It kind of sounds like the billboards will be blocking her nice view, since she complains that they can be seen from the hills.

  2. Valerie Winemiller

    We have become way too accepting of the intrusion of the commercial into our public commons (with the lion’s share of benefits to private individuals).

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