When Oakland’s 2014 mayoral candidates were asked to name their favorite local building Monday night, Bryan Parker chose the Tribune Building. He envisioned himself perched on its top late at night, he said, where he’d watch over the safety and well-being of Oakland’s residents.
Six of the candidates sat in front of a packed auditorium at Monday night’s Mayoral Candidate Forum on Oakland’s Built Environment to discuss the impact of design on the lives of Oakland residents. The event was organized by the American Institute of Architects East Bay Chapter to “address issues of travel, public safety, growth and development and technology,” President of AIA East Bay Chapter Jermiah Tolbert said, “all from the lens of architecture and city planning.”
After Parker articulated his superhero vision, he warned that the idea was not realistic. Unfortunately, Oakland is a “tale of two cities,” Parker said, where neighborhoods are separated by gaps in wealth. “One part of our city has a lot, and another part, where we’ve systematically underinvested for decades, has vast amounts of poverty,” Parker said.
Mayor Jean Quan, on the other hand, described herself as “the first mayor who’s tried to be mayor of the whole city.” Quan worked in every neighborhood of the city, she said, to fight food deserts and build infrastructure. “We didn’t just look at the downtown,” Quan said, “We also looked at Foothill Square, where we opened the first grocery store in decades and the first banks since 1968.”
Despite Quan’s efforts, the mayoral candidates reminded their audience, poverty still divides Oakland. 70% of Oakland’s children qualify for a free lunch, candidate Dan Siegel said, “which means that this many people live in poverty.” Siegel said he wants to reduce poverty by raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour so that those who work full-time, as he sees it, will not require government-subsidized rental housing.
The candidates also addressed concerns about Oakland’s changing demography. Parker advocated for “a bigger Oakland, not a different one.” He advised against going down the path that Brooklyn and San Francisco did: “They got big, they got new, they got completely different overnight. “ Parker said. When Oakland grows, Parker said, “we need to make sure that we’re still uniquely Oakland” by maintaining the diversity of the city.
“Oakland is in the midst of shifting demographics,” said Tolbert, who facilitated the forum. “How can Oakland engage longtime residents to keep them integrated and relevant to Oakland’s growth initiatives?” Tolbert asked. “What role does city planning have in public safety and business development?”
In less than fifteen years, the African American population in Oakland has decreased from 42 percent to 29 percent, Siegel said. “Gentrification is changing the ethnic make up of the city,” he said, and argued for stronger laws to protect tenants from being evicted from their homes. “Diversity is one of our brand elements,” said Siegel. “When we are bigger, we need to make sure that we’re still uniquely Oakland.”
Candidate Libby Schaaf agreed that maintaining Oakland’s diversity is important. “Oakland cannot afford to sell its soul for growth, Schaaf said. “Its soul is way too beautiful.”
Quan suggested that the key to maintaining Oakland’s diversity is affordable housing. With scores of distinct neighborhoods, said Quan, Oakland is more diverse than surrounding cities. Oakland’s remaining affordable housing is its “secret sauce,” Quan said.
Maintaining diversity was not the only concern regarding Oakland’s economic expansion. Candidate Joe Tuman said he believes it’s important to support existing businesses before implementing a plan for growth.
In areas of Oakland, Tuman said, repeating a line he has used often in campaigning, “people don’t shop after dark, because of prostitution and sex trafficking.” The city needs to provide basic services such as regular police control and streetlights, Tuman said, before expanding business development plans. “Livability in Oakland certainly starts with safety,,” Tuman said. “People aren’t going to invest money if they don’t feel safe.”
Tuman’s favorite building is the Kaiser Convention Center — a beautiful, grand building, with many structural issues, that Tuman said is just like Oakland itself. If Oakland can fix the Kaiser Convention Center, Tuman said, the building could harness huge amounts of income for Oakland. Tuman suggested that the city develop the building into a hotel in order to leverage the 14% room rate tax.
The Kaiser Convention Center is also candidate Rebecca Kaplan’s favorite building, she said, adding that Oakland should support existing local businesses while attracting more development. This can be done by streamlining the permit process and cutting down on City Hall red tape, she said. “We don’t have to have a fight,” Kaplan said. “Make new buildings, but keep the old–one is silver and the other gold.”
The Paramount Theater is Schaaf’s favorite building. When Schaaf was young, her mother volunteered there as a docent, she said, and Schaaf used to amuse herself by dancing on stage while her mother led tours. The Paramount Theater is like Oakland, Schaaf said–“full of special stories; full of culture and vitality and waiting for discovery.” It does not look that special from the outside, she said. “But wow this is a place full of vitality,” Schaaf said. “With nooks and crannies throughout.”