[See related story: “ 40-story skyscraper planned at Lake. Would destroy historic Schilling Garden.”]

A report on Schilling Garden, on 19th St.. next to Snow Park, drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Public Works Committee in Hearing Room 1 at City Hall today. As the room heated up, Brooke Levin (Public Works), Audree Jones-Taylor (Parks and Recreation), Frank Fanelli and William Wilkins (Real Estate) gave their versions of why last autumn they were unable to negotiate a successful donation of the land to the City of Oakland.

Under close questioning from chair Nancy Nadel, District 3 Council Member, it was evident that some of the financial calculations may have been based on wrong or partial information. Much of the Parks Department’s thinking was based on wedding-site economics. Public Works made some dubious assumptions about ADA compliance and restrooms. But the most troubling aspect was that without involvement of the city council, the staff members had no spur to bring in community members or nonprofit groups to help put together a deal. Yet such beyond-the-bureaucracy participants might have made a big difference in the outcome by coming up with outside sources of funding and creative approaches.

David O’Keeffe ultimately purchased the land and now proposes a 42-story building replacing the century-old garden, a remnant of the August Schilling estate. Councilmember Quan repeatedly expressed concern about the controversy that such height would draw. Mr. O’Keeffe spoke and was also represented by local attorney Zach Wasserman, Joe O'Donoghue, the controversial bard and chieftain of San Francisco’s Residential Builders Association, architect Ian Birdsall, fellow investor (and spouse) Kari O’Keeffe, and a couple of other companions. With a very few exceptions, most of the other attendees strongly supported preservation of the garden. One gentleman extolled the Eiffel Tower as a more worthy landmark. Another said that the garden was insignificant because similar plants could be purchased at local nurseries.

This writer brought along copies of an 1859 map showing a nineteenth-century Oakland Cemetery at the site. Gloria Peretti, president of the Merritt Lakesiders and a longtime neighborhood leader, described the historic role of private gardens in providing public recreation long before Oakland’s park system grew beyond the original four designated blocks. Mike Bowman, whose apartment overlooks the garden, expressed concern for its maintenance. Antonio May, also a Regillus resident, described how important the garden is for his across-the-street neighbors at the Lake Park residence. An impressively large group from the Lake Park came to the hearing, and some explained that the planned building would destroy the green views now enjoyed by residents with limited mobility. One brave person suggested updating the zoning around the lake to limit building heights, preserving general views.

The councilmembers discussed the policy gaps that led to such a large potential donation being turned down without their consultation. Councilmember Brooks called it a bad example, and expressed interest in a draft donation-handling policy for further discussion. Councilmember Chang described the scenario that even small gifts can bring the city large expenses, so going by a donation’s dollar value isn’t sufficient.

In response to committee questions, developer O’Keeffe said that he was open to further discussion, and would consider any offer or proposals. However, Planning Director Claudia Cappio said that environmental reviews are beginning as the first step of the project. As yet no EIR scoping date has been announced.

The speakers continued during the Open Forum time allocation, and Chris Pattillo of PGAdesign, a prominent local landscape architect, urged preserving the garden. Out in the atrium, as reporters clustered around the developers, many participants assured each other that they would continue to advocate preserving the Schilling Garden.