Neither fish nor fowl, somewhere between a community meeting and a pep rally.…

On Tuesday July 31, developer David O’Keefe and his lobbyists, Carlos Plazola and Laura Blair, hosted a gathering at the Veterans Memorial Building, along with San Francisco real estate consultant Joe O’Donoghue (see “Sidebar: Who is Joe O’Donoghue?”). (See “It’s Back: The 42-story high rise that would erase Schilling Garden.”) Their 42-story building is called the “Emerald Views” project.

A discrepancy in announced start times meant that people arrived in waves at 6:30 and 7:30. Mr. Plazola, formerly aide to City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, now real-estate investor and development consultant, said the staggered start was intentional, but it raised the level of suspicion. Some had received fancy printed invitations, others emails, some just heard through the grapevine. A couple of union members held photocopied fliers in Spanish.

Carlos and Laura (formerly of the Neighborhood Law Corps within the City Attorney’s office) gave friendly, rambling introductions, cautioned repeatedly against getting riled up, and invited people to consume refreshments. An awkward intro consisted of Mr. Plazola’s handing the microphone only to people he recognized, so the format did not reveal much about the attendees.

Developer O’Keeffe gave an informal self-introduction, and the mike went to the loquacious Mr. O’Donoghue, whose remarks were distinguished more by quantity than by pith. Allusions to immigrant status and humble roots were meant to provide an earnest backstory to this grand scheme for a 42-story protrusion into East Bay skies. (Perhaps the name “Emerald Views” refers to the origins of some of the developers.) Mr. O’Donoghue has been a powerful Bay Area businessperson for long enough that his up-from-adversity tales, while deeply felt, are not fresh news. Partner Roy Guinnane was not in evidence during the meeting, though some thought they saw him afterwards.

Architect Ian Birchall presented renderings and explained the proposal for the 42-story condo tower. He compared it to other tall buildings, such as the Bank of America building and TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco.

The building would rise on the site of the historic Schilling Garden, and would be visible from all around the lake, and further. The property is one building over from the lake’s shore and adjoins two historic, much lower, apartment buildings (the Regillus, 200 Lakeside, and Bechtel, 244 Lakeside, buildings).

The Bechtel family and other residents of 244 Lakeside used the historic garden for weddings, parties, and social events. It would be obliterated, with some fragments preserved and moved into other bits of landscaping. The Schilling Garden was open to the public until 1911 or 1912, when access was limited. However it was opened and used for civic events off and on after that, including during the Jerry Brown administration. Many community members would like to see it become a public park as an annex to Snow Park, which adjoins it on the west. In a monumental misstep, last year some city staffers turned down an opportunity for the city to acquire the land, without consulting the city council before rejecting it. (See, from September 2006, “40-story skyscraper planned at Lake. Would destroy historic Schilling Garden” and “Overflow crowd favors keeping Schilling Garden.”)

Part of the audience had been recruited by the developers and seemed to have been coached in what to say or ask. These included some friendly Fruitvale residents and a few of the construction workers who frequently turn out to support any job-generating project. This group sounded a general theme of approval of vertical development. They asserted that the development would be a benefit to the whole town.

A sizable group of neighbors attended—many of them long involved in lake-related and neighborhood affairs. These represented a spectrum of views, but there were a great many who were appalled by the prospect of a 42-story building springing up so close to the lake. Doing a rough census, it seemed that these folks outnumbered proponents, but there was no conclusive count. Issues included height near the lake, how the planned project seems to fly in the face of general opinion that heights should step down toward Lake Merritt, the loss of views toward and from Lakeside Park, impacts on a green space that is seen from above by many nearby residents, and questions about environmental, aesthetic, and socioeconomic impacts.

A common theme voiced by project supporters was that downtown is dead and therefore needs tall buildings to be more lively. A few felt that retail on 19th Street should extend further toward the lake (the project includes a coffee shop), and that Snow Park should be reconfigured as a much more structured park. Other residents pointed out that the neighborhood is under enormous development pressure and that planning should preserve its economic range, liveability, historic resources, and diversity. A number of people advocated for moving the project to a less sensitive site, closer to public transit and further from the lake edge, towards Broadway.

The developers presented a planned redesign of the public Snow Park—replacing its informal open spaces with organized paths and planted beds—although there has been no general discussion in public about the best use for this park. Snow Park was spared from high-rise hotel development in the late 60s, a move led by former city councilperson John Sutter (now president of the board of the East Bay Regional Parks District). While there is certainly potential for improvement, some felt that it would amount to privatization to redesign it as an amenity adjoining the proposed new building and dependent upon it for funding.

The meeting format, fairly tightly controlled, did not allow for big numbers of comments nor for extended discussion (unless you were named Joe). “Comment cards” provided a mechanism for the conveners to choose questions to answer.

In a bizarre moment, responding to a question about community benefits, consultant O’Donoghue talked about establishing a boxing gym (did I hear correctly that it was intended for young children, or did I conflate two of his remarks?) in East Oakland. He also made vague promises to improve the lake, reduce crime, go after drug dealers, and other worthy objectives. I did not hear a coherent plan that was related to the project. The developers’ ideas about “community benefits” revealed an incomprehension of long-standing discussions in Oakland about community-benefit packages and what the city really should be requesting of its developers.

The pervasive feeling of condescension to the Oakland community was hard to dispel. A number of community members felt that the meeting structure was not the sort of thing that Oakland needs as part of its predevelopment process. It did not seem respectful—not of the recruited supporters, nor of the invited neighbors, and not of the city as a whole—to assume that this kind of meeting would be meaningful. It was more a charade than a charrette, and more a display of rhetoric than a reasoned discussion.

Somewhat better processes (though varied in outcome by whether anyone noticed the results) were undertaken with both the Oak to Ninth project and the 16th Street Station project. In each case, some community meetings were convened by impartial facilitators, rather than by lobbyists for the project. A serious attempt at reaching out to stakeholders was matched with a reasonable discussion structure. While highly imperfect, at least the full range of opinions was recorded, and the meetings were not turned into advocacy events to support the projects under discussion.

It is time to review this “preapplication” or “predevelopment” process with Mayor Dellums, the City Administrator, and Planning Division. It should be restructured so that it is not simply a mechanism for developer persuasion, to be used as proof of “support” from a lopsided selection of community “representatives.” This is a process that requires some guidelines in order to be a useful step. It could provide a forum for achieving community consensus and better urban planning. Otherwise it should be jettisoned in favor of going straight to a full-on environmental-review discussion, complete with Planning Commission workshops, and held prior to and separate from project approvals.