What follows is a critique of the West Oakland Specific Plan – WOSP – which the city of Oakland hopes will help in “developing” West Oakland and is attempting to pass in the coming weeks. We offer this critique and brief thoughts on strategy in order to support the ongoing work of combatting displacement and gentrification that has been hitting the Bay Area for a long time. Please add comments, questions, and critiques in the comment section in the spirit of deepening our collective discussion of anti-displacement analysis and strategy.
Snapshot of the State and Capital in the Bay Area
If the Bay Area’s economy was compared to every other national economy in the world, it would be the 19th largest. The Bay has the highest GDP per capita in the entire United States, and even outpaces London and Singapore. It captures 40% of the entire flow of venture capital in the US (p11), which constitutes a higher amount of capital than that captured during the dot.com boom. While the Bay accounts for only 2.4% of the total jobs in the US, it has 12% of the computer & electronics manufacturing, 10.3% of software development, and 8.3% of internet related jobs (p13.) Seven of the top 10 social media companies are here – Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Linkedin, Zynga, and Yelp. In short, the Bay is home to one of the highest concentrations of capital in the world and mapping out the composition of capital is key for us to situate ourselves as we continue to engage in class combat. (Footnote #1)
The regional state is well aware of its place within the world economy. Over the past years, city politicians from the greater Bay Area have come together to generate a 30 year strategy about how to restructure the region’s housing, employment, and transportation structures. Plan Bay Area (PBA) was developed by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to carry out the tasks of determining how the state can support and facilitate the accumulation of capital throughout the region. In order to grease the wheels of the local capitalist economy, the PBA aims to redevelop housing and transit throughout the Bay; New units are set to be built, new transportation “hubs” developed, and both of these projects are to be coordinated across single cities and the bay area as a whole.
PBA aims to align the various metropolitan areas of the Bay in their development of housing to match projected increases in employment. Internet, computer and electronics manufacturing, along with professional, scientific and technical services are accounting for some of the largest contributors to job creation here. PBA states that between early 2011 and late 2013 the Bay Area added more than 200,000 jobs, an increase of 7.5 percent that is well above the state’s average of 4.5%. PBA is projecting that this area will continue to outpace the rest of California and the US in its share of job growth due to the heavy concentration of tech related industries which forms part of the economic base of Bay Area political economy. (Footnote#2)
West Oakland Specific Plan – One Part of Capital/State’s Total Plan
We find ourselves in a city that’s clearly at the crosshairs of the system’s plans for intentional development and displacement: highly concentrated capital in the Bay Area and projections of millions of jobs being created in the next 10 years; a strategic plan by city politicians across the Bay to house these new high wage workers within its multiple cities; and the ongoing displacement of low wage workers and unemployed people. This is the situation Oakland Mayor Jean Quan references when she states that she’s seeking to bring in 10,000 new residents to Oakland while saying nothing about keeping long term residents and working class people in Oakland.
The city of Oakland has developed a number of “Specific Plans” for the Coliseum, Lake Merritt and West Oakland in order to smoothly facilitate and attract investment by retail and tech companies, develop new housing units, and restructure the local transportation systems. The West Oakland Specific Plan, WOSP (really Jean Quan?!), is one local example of the city’s plan for carrying out this program of urban capitalist development (footnote #3).
The West Oakland Specific Plan is the City of Oakland’s plan to help developers and incoming high wage populations (both different types of gentrifiers – see footnote #4) speed up the accumulation of capital in Oakland. It essentially acts as a one stop shop for financial and retail capitalists to invest in West Oakland without having to go through the “nuisance” of making Environmental Impact Reports – EIRs – or dealing with zoning regulations. Instead of having new developments require zoning, and environmental impact regulations, the WOSP does it all for them and therefore saves money for the developers, retail chains, and financial interests seeking to build in and make massive profits in West Oakland. It is the state facilitating the accumulation of capital and dispossessing long term, and historically black, residents in the process by bringing in new investment that will increase property values while doing nothing to keep rents for existing residents from going up.
The WOSP highlights four “Opportunity Sites” as the specific areas of West Oakland to be developed. The Four areas are the Mandela/West Grand area, the San Pablo corridor, the area around the BART station on 7th Street and the area next to the Port of Oakland around 3rd Street. These “Opportunity Sites” are determined to be the specific places where transit, new housing, light industrial and retail outlets will be developed.
In order to “revitalize” these areas, the architects of WOSP have identified various barriers to development such as “graffiti,” “homeless encampments,” “crime of all types,” and “blight.” In the eyes of the architects of WOSP, once the barriers to development are gone there will be a flourishing of “new growth.”
What does this growth look like? A glance at the video accompanying the presentation of the WOSP to the Oakland Planning Commission featured the familiar architecture and spatial layout of Emeryville mixed in with your typical Whole Foods store. The development that’s presented is about attracting an influx of capital investment – retail, industrial, and high wage residents – and transforming West Oakland into a center of commerce for a new set of residents. New growth is about raising property values and attracting new residents and businesses, not improving the situations of those who already live there.
But the planners who put WOSP together would disagree. They are quick to point out that they have “Chapter 9,” a section of the report that addresses equity and social justice issues. This is where they explicitly state that they hope to mitigate the “impact of neighborhood change and displacement on longstanding residents and businesses” (WOSP 9-1.) However, what one finds in Chapter 9 is little more than an inventory of existing city agencies and non-profit organizations that provide services to working class people. Rather than focusing on the needs of long-term and working class residents, WOSP is re-writing the rules for developers and financial capital to ease their access the city by re-writing the zoning regulations and providing them with a pre-packaged Environmental Impact Report. All that’s provided to working class people and renters in West Oakland is a list of the declining base of social service programs that already exist.
Strategic Orientations for Fighting WOSP
We seek the defeat of the WOSP in all its forms. Given the multiple challenges facing West Oakland, the burgeoning national and international debates around the hyper-gentrification of the Bay Area, and the ways in which the West Oakland Specific Plan is being promoted, we recognize the urgent need for a radical critique and effective action against gentrification and displacement. However, given these circumstances, we also recognize that simply being “anti-development” is not the most effective strategy, nor is it adequate to addressing the structural and conjunctural problems in West Oakland that have both shaped adverse conditions for local residents and made it a ripe ground for gentrification.
Our orientation towards this struggle is built around the following core strategic goals:
Reframing the Discussion About Development: We want to re-frame the discussion about gentrification and improvements to neighborhoods. The city and investors want to convince us that they know what’s best for West Oakland, and that they can make the type of improvements that residents really want. The truth is that West Oakland has been devastated by decades of economic and racial exclusion – for instance, the creation of the West Oakland BART station destroyed 7th Street as a center of culture, black owned businesses, and centralized location for community interaction; the 980 freeway cut off West Oakland from downtown so that white city officials could distance themselves from black “blighted” neighborhoods in the 1970s; the creation of the Post Office on 7th street bulldozed three blocks of residential housing with no relocation support for residents.
Residents have real desires and needs for their community to be better served, and “no improvement” is not a viable option as an alternative to gentrification. However, though we do want improvements, we don’t want the type of “improvements” that the city and its developer allies seek to impose on us. The development plans of the city and capitalist real estate developers are NOT the way to create safer, more vibrant, and economically dynamic neighborhoods. (Footnote #5)
Gentrification as a Question of Power: Many people in West Oakland want development, so the question isn’t so much do we want improvements or not. The question should be: who gets to benefit and make use of the developments? Is it going to be long term black, latino residents and working class people, or middle class, often white, newcomers who landlords and developers cater to in order to accumulate high rents. Long term residents want development like well serviced and fully funded schools and parks, fixed roads, improved plumbing, clean air, and access to affordable healthy foods, while developers want development that looks like biotech campuses, an increased police presence, and cafes that sell expensive coffee. Some of the questions we seek to put out there are: On whose terms will urban development proceed? Who decides what is implemented and where? Who benefits from urban development?
Community Control over Community Development: If gentrification and urban development is an issue of power, therefore, we argue that the only way towards a positive outcome in West Oakland is for the people themselves to take control of the redevelopment process. ‘Community input’ in an otherwise top-down, technocratic planning process has proven to be a useless endeavor – mere lip service to inclusivity and equity. The real needs of the poor, black and brown and working-class communities in West Oakland have either been ignored, or worse, twisted and used to justify the aggressive neoliberal development strategies put forward by WOSP. By invoking the classic Black Panther slogan of ‘community control,’ we are also recognizing the need for a strategy that is locally rooted in Oakland’s Black proletarian constituency and its historical memory of struggle; one that emphasizes and prioritizes the material needs and political empowerment of the most oppressed sectors of urban society. (Footnote #6)
Our on-the-ground strategy is to mobilize activists and community members on two fronts:
Kill the WOSP: We seek to build a strong, vocal force of opposition to the West Oakland Specific Plan by staging interventions at all city planning meetings, developing and presenting a clear and coherent critique of the Plan at every point in the approval process. The mass displacement and “hyper-gentrification” of San Francisco has given us the opportunity to show what this new mode of urban development looks like, and why it must be stopped: “West Oakland Will NOT Be the Next San Francisco!” The immediate goal is to defeat or delay the final vote on WOSP’s Draft Plan and EIR. We’ve approached this goal thus far by organizing small, but vocal, interventions at the presentation of the WOSP to the city Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission.
A People’s Plan for West Oakland: As an alternative to capitalist visions of urban development, we plan to deeply engage communities in organization and dialogue towards articulating their own vision of the kind of city they want to live and work in. Inspired by urban struggles across the world, we are attempting to facilitate the organization and empowerment of residents to create urban space themselves; to foster the imagination and social power capable of asserting the power to shape the city according to the needs, wants, and rhythms of their everyday lives. This is a longer-term community planning process that will hopefully be realized in a radical, innovative, and concrete strategy for West Oakland’s redevelopment. (Footnote #6)
#1: All statistics and information in this paragraph drawn from the “Bay Area Job Growth to 2040” document prepared for the Association of Bay Area Governments – http://www.onebayarea.org/pdf/3-9-12/CCSCE_Bay_Area_Job_Growth_to_2040.pdf
#2: All information about Plan Bay Area taken from their “Draft Forecast of Jobs, Population, and Housing” document – http://onebayarea.org/pdf/Draft_Plan_Bay_Area/Draft_PBA_Forecast_of_Jobs_Population_and_Housing.pdf
#3: By “urban capitalist development” we refer to the ways in which city policies and programs are directed toward the benefit of businesses that engage in retail, financial, and real-estate growth. Cities in the Bay Area are strategic sites for businesses to invest in because higher wage workers are moving here in order to work at tech companies in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. This facilitates the creation of a base of consumers who buy expensive commodities (coffee, clothes, condos, cupcakes, etc) and pay higher rents. All of this helps businesses in the city generate flows of money, which then provides the city with a higher sales tax and residential tax base, hence the “urban” in capitalist development. The city deals with its declining budget from the state by welcoming wealthier residents, rather than fighting banks, ports, developers and corporations for higher tax rates that could fund services for working class people.
#4: By “gentrifiers” we refer to three groups: a.) the capitalist developers who flip houses, redevelop properties, build condos, and rent/sell their properties to high waged workers and wealthy people; b.) the state bureaucrats such as city planners and other planning agents who produce documents such as WOSP in order to attract capital to the city, as well as passing racist laws and zoning regulations; and c.) the individuals whose high wages allow them to pay higher rents and in an overall sense benefit from redevelopment projects such as these. This third group, the individual gentrifiers, is controversial because it is argued that these people do not accumulate capital in the same way that private developers do. While this is true, we still refer to them as gentrifiers because of the problematic role that they play once they move into a neighborhood. Some issues associated with high wage workers moving into neighborhoods such as West Oakland involve calling and collaborating with the police on a more frequent basis than long-term residents and organizing private security firms to patrol neighborhoods. Additionally, many of these “individual” gentrifiers also are/become petty-bourgeois business owners of high priced organic food shops, cafes, and clothing boutiques. We recognize the challenge of using gentrifier as a term because it encompasses such a wide range of people and lacks specificity, while also seeing the value of its accessibility. Throughout this essay we’ve attempted to refer to specific groups, but we still retain use of gentrifier term because of its wide use.
#5: We completely acknowledge that there are many different sets of people who compose any community. Our understanding of the needs and desires of residents comes from our experiences working alongside long-term residents, organizing around housing issues, working with young people in the community, and researching the WOSP and its background alongside people whose lives are directly affected by the plan. Putting forward the “needs” of West Oakland as a whole is an ongoing project that many are already engaged in and that we seek to support.
#6: When we say “community control” and “people’s plan” we refer to processes where working class and black/brown residents, unemployed people, and youth put out their visions of how the community should be changed. Historically, terms like “community” and “the people” have been used in ways that obscure and diminish class differences within a given set of people, and have also been used in ways that facilitate capitalist divisions. This has meant that proletarian goals and objectives have been subsumed into middle class and capitalist projects – aka, populism. However, we choose to use these terms because they also signify bottom-up, working class and unemployed people’s power and agency as opposed to top-down state, developer plans for reorganizing the city.