Community Voices Fill City Hall, Luxury Apartment Building Blocked
Jun 4, 2015
Guillen’s proposal collapses as Brooks, Kalb and Gallo refuse to support it
By Ken Epstein
Before Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the proposal to sell a city parcel to build a luxury apartment tower at Lake Merritt seemed like a done deal. But in the face of determined and passionate opposition of a coalition of community members, the deal disintegrated.
Opponents rallied in front of City Hall, and 91 people turned in speaker cards, almost all to speak against the sale of the one-acre parcel to Urban Core Development and its financial partner UDR.
The debate lasted from about 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
The crowd of opponents was barred from entering the council chambers. But the low rumble of their chants, “Housing Is a Human Right,” reverberated through the closed door, a constant presence in the room.
Speaker after speaker demanded that the council open the upstairs gallery, which had been closed for this meeting.
The council had set up overflow rooms to watch the proceedings on television, and individuals who had signed speaker cards were allowed to enter the chambers when their names were called.
The closing of the gallery was one of a number of security measures taken by the council Tuesday evening, including locking all but one of the entrances to City Hall and increasing police presence, after opponents shut down the council’s meeting May 5 to block the previous attempt to approve the sale of the public property.
Finally after hours of public speakers, Councilmember Abel Guillen made the motion to approve the deal, citing the community benefits he had negotiated with the developer during the past month, including a pledge of 30 units of “moderately” priced units in the 298-unit building.
But the five votes he needed were not there.
Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan had left the meeting earlier, saying she had to recuse herself because of a campaign contribution.
That meant that only seven of the council’s eight members would be voting on the motion.
Councilmember Dan Kalb said he could not support the motion because the city may have violated the California Surplus Land Act, a contention of the protesters and their legal representatives at California Public Advocates.
Councilmember Noel Gallo said that he supported the use of public land public for public good and had opposed the sale of school district property to private developers when he was on the school board.
“I was not for selling public land at the school district, and I will not be for it at City Hall,” he said.
“Lake Merritt is a jewel, but it is a jewel for all of us, not just for a select group that can afford it,” said Gallo.
Gallo also demanded that the city attorney advise the council on whether the property sale was in violation of the California Surplus Land Act. But the city attorney’s representative refused to comment.
“If you don’t respond, you don’t give me a whole lot of direction,” Gallo said, adding he had no other choice but to vote no on the proposal.
Councilmember Desley Brooks raised concerns that Urban Core Development owned only 2.5 percent of the proposed project, while the national real estate corporation UDR owned 97.5 percent.
She also said she was “disappointed” in the community benefits, which did not address the seriousness of the affordable housing crisis in Oakland.
She said that when she originally considered supporting the proposal, she had believed “there was going to be a substantive community benefits package, not just a skateboard park, graffiti abatement and (a donation) to Children’s Fairyland.”
The 30 moderately priced units were in fact not moderate or affordable to people who live in Oakland, she said. “I am deeply troubled.”
Finally, Guillen withdrew his motion. Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington and Larry Reid did not speak on the motion, and Lynette McElhaney had supported it.
“I can count” the votes, Guillen said.
The future of the project is now up in the air. Brooks made a motion, which passed unanimously, to come back to the next council meeting with a new proposal based on improved community benefits.
Speaking to Guillen, Brooks said, “I hope you can sit down with the community and the developer to see what you can work out.”