On the corner of East 12th Avenue and 1st Street in the Eastlake neighborhood, there is a vacant lot blanketed in blue-grey shale, fenced in rickety chain-link, with piles of dirt and piping unceremoniously heaped throughout the enclosure. For the neighbors, the fate of this seemingly forgettable public parcel has been the latest skirmish on the frontlines of gentrification.
After the City of Oakland considered selling the land to Urban Core, a private developer that proposed building a tower of market-rate housing, members of Eastlake United for Justice, the broader citizens’ group of the East 12th Coalition, and legal professionals from Public Advocates launched a campaign to stop the sale.
The city agreed to halt negotiations in July and solicited the public for other proposals on how to develop the land. In August, the office of James Golde, the city’s real estate manager, issued a call asking for community input during a 60-day period, stating: “The City will consider any viable proposals during the notice period.”
That period ended on Monday, as the East 12th Coalition unveiled their own proposal, the culmination of a “Wishlist” event in August that gathered over 200 community members to brainstorm what kind of building they wanted to see built. “This is not a final proposal—it becomes a firm proposal, unfortunately, when there is economic backing behind it. Everything is achievable, physically, from a construction-design perspective. A building that responds to the community can and should be built here,” said Eric Saijo, one of the lead architects who helped compile the Wishlist event’s creative output.
The mood at the unveiling was jovial. As the evening sun dipped behind City Hall, a vast bank of fog lumbered across the skyline towards Berkeley, scattering and softening the sunset glow. When Saijo pulled the green felt cover from the proposal sketch on the parcel’s perimeter on Monday, he revealed plans for a six-story building with commercial space on the bottom floor. The residential units above varied between single bedroom and three-bedroom apartments, with 98 slated as affordable housing. Space around the building was charted for public use, with a community micro-farm, edible garden and open landscape that connects with the walkway along the Lake Merritt channel.
Instead of a tall steel and concrete tower, the proposed housing would be built duplex-style on a platform with wood framing and concrete. The ground floor is designed for commercial space that could support retailers. “Retail space needs to be for local people, for small enterprises, that allows them to get a foothold,” said Saijo, “It should not be a fortress … It should facilitate movement through it.”
The proposal was submitted to Golde and Patrick Lane, the city’s project manager for the parcel, who will be reviewing the proposals with his staff. The proposal is advisory, not binding.
In an emailed statement, Golde’s office said that proposals were also submitted by other interested parties, including PLACE Development, the Oakland Unified School District, BRIDGE Housing Corporation, and a partnership between UrbanCore Development and East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation.
Lane, who manages projects in North and West Oakland and has been attending planning meetings regarding the East 12th parcel, and Michele Byrd, who manages housing and development, did not return requests for comment. Councilmember Abel Guillen, whose district includes the East 12th parcel, declined to comment on the Wishlist event and East 12th proposals.
Community members began disputing Urban Core’s proposal as early as March, and in May, 75 citizens protested a city council meeting discussing the sale of the land.
David Zisser, a lawyer for Public Advocates, reminded the crowd at the East 12th Wishlist unveiling on Monday that their main argument against Urban Core’s proposal had been a state law, The Surplus Lands Act, which stipulates that public land sold to private developers for residential construction must include a minimum of 15 percent affordable housing,
“We’ve been fighting tooth and nail to have the city follow the state law and their own responsibilities,” said Dunya Alwan, who lives in the neighborhood on the eastern shores of Lake Merritt and is a planner for Eastlake United for Justice. “We don’t want to be in an adversarial relationship with the city; we want to be in a partnership.”
Part of that effort was the Wishlist event, which was held on a sunny day in August. Over 200 people scrawled hundreds of ideas on index cards, hoping to mold the empty public lot into their dream development, replete with public space, gardens, shops and affordable housing. “We wanted to be able to offer something positive and visionary,” said Katie Loncke, a coordinator for the East 12th Coalition. The event was “all volunteer-driven, all out of our own passion to see this thing go in a more positive direction.”
Loncke recounted the atmosphere at the event, the sound of music, the donated food, and the clamor of children inside a bouncy castle. After several spoken word and musical performances, everyone congregated in the Imagine and Design tent. Here, community members jotted down their ideas for the lot.
“People light up when you just ask them, “What would you like to see? What do you wish for?’” said Loncke. She relished recalling one of the ideas that caught her attention: “There were some beautiful ideas on how to draw on some of the legacy of local communities on the land. Part of the parcel abuts a channel leading from Lake Merritt out to the bay—there is a tradition among Vietnamese boatpeople of being able to construct seaworthy vessels out of natural materials. What if there could be education focused on those skills?” Loncke imagined newly built heritage boats floating alongside recreational kayakers out on the lake.
The tent was also a forum where people discussed what an ideal community looks like. Participants talked about what they love about Oakland, how many bedrooms they have, how much they pay per bedroom, how many they need, what makes good housing, and how to integrate community services and business opportunities into housing. Everyone then drew their visions for the empty lot and how to divide it, which yielded over 30 designs, suggesting everything from an indoor public pool, fruit trees and meeting spaces, a health clinic, a place to lend tools or take classes, an affordable grocery, and a late-night bakery.
On Monday, with the unveiling of their group’s proposal over, community members began to leave the lot, where the architectural sketch still stood. Beside it, a gold shovel leaned against the chain-link. Alwan lingered, chatting with friends and colleagues. “We’re doing something that’s proactive,” she said. “If we hadn’t have had the fight we wouldn’t have had the possibility. Rabble-rousers get a lot of flak, but sometimes if you don’t rabble-rouse, you don’t open up a window for what you want.”