In Oakland, the League of Women Voters has a long history of interest in the waterfront, starting with our 1993 study. This summer, the League was part of a coalition advocating a referendum on a proposed development in the Oak-to-Ninth area of the Oakland waterfront.

Oak to Ninth. For 30 days this summer, that was all we seemed to hear all over Oakland. What was the referendum all about, who was involved, and why were all so passionate about this?

First, a bit of history:

In 1993, the League of Women Voters of Oakland published a benchmark study titled “The Waterfront: It touches the World. How does it touch Oakland?” This study laid the foundation for much of the region’s waterfront planning over the following decade, and it stimulated a new awareness of Oakland’s waterfront as a vital yet neglected resource. It led to the City’s adoption of the Estuary Policy Plan, the General Plan element for the waterfront. (Read more on the extensive public process that led to the adoption of the Estuary Policy Plan.)

The Estuary Policy Plan vision for the Oak-to-Ninth area is a major open space — the main place where the public would access the waterfront, both physically and visually. In addition, it says that a Specific Plan for the area should be done before development. A Specific Plan is a tool for the systematic implementation of the General Plan. A City — the elected officials, staff and the public — sit down together and decide what they would like done in a specific area. Developers are asked to propose projects that meet that vision. The Estuary Policy Plan gives big sweeping guidelines — sometimes even somewhat contradictory — for the area, and leaves the detailed planning to be done when the Specific Plan is done for the area.

On to the current project:

The Oak to Ninth area is owned by the Port of Oakland. In 2001, the Port Commissioners chose Harbor Partners (Signature Properties) as the developer for this area after a process that included the Port’s making a request for qualification (RFQ) with specific requirements. (The RFQ is available online.) In their response to the RFQ, Signature Properties explicitly said that they would do a Specific Plan for the area. Last year, Signature Properties began a process of public hearings for their proposed development. The process included an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) — but not a Specific Plan. The City staff report said that the EIR was ‘essentially equivalent’ to a Specific Plan.

There were public hearings on the Signature proposal at which public comments were taken. However, all this public comment was reactive to an existing plan, rather than the creative and constructive thought that a Specific Plan process would elicit. (More details on the history of the project….)

So why take the relatively unprecedented step of mounting a referendum against this project?

There are a number of significant problems that the League of Women Voters, as well as other groups and individuals, see with the proposed development:

1. The process used to develop the proposal

The entire project was devised backward. This goes back to the lack of a Specific Plan. In a good planning process, City officials, staff and the public sit down and decide what Oakland needs on the site, and then ask developers to come up with a project that meets that vision. In this case, the developer came forward with its own vision, and we who live in Oakland have had to respond to it. The proposal does not come anywhere near the only vision statement we have, the Estuary Policy Plan. An Environmental Impact Report is not equivalent to a Specific Plan.

2. Lack of open space, specifically a space large enough for public festivals:

In the Estuary Policy Plan, the Oak-to-Ninth area was to have provided significant public access to the waterfront, both physically and visually. It was to include a regional-sized open space, providing space for city festivals, and giving the public clear views of the waterfront. Signature’s current plan significantly reduces the amount of open space, eliminates any area that can be used for public festivals, and blocks many of the views of the waterfront. In order for the public to feel true ownership of any public space, we must be able to see it.