The 13th Street Commons project shows the extraordinary power of Business Improvement District organizations to shape, and police, public space. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
Updated Friday, 12: 30 p.m.
In May, Oakland City Council approved a plan to dramatically transform 13th Street immediately east of Broadway. Four lanes will become one, with furniture and landscaping extending the block’s sidewalk into the street to make a sprawling plaza dotted with parklets. Programming, such as live music and yoga, will then “activate” the newly-dubbed “13th Street Commons.”
But what looks like an ambitious public infrastructure project led by the City of Oakland was in fact sponsored and proposed by the Downtown Oakland Association (DOA), a consortium of area landlords and realtors, and it will be patrolled by the organization’s private security guards. The association expects the three-year pilot project to break ground by the end of the year.
The Downtown Oakland Association is subsidized by taxpayers, but it operates independently of city government; councilmembers approved the street-wide overhaul without public discussion. Now its plaza stands to benefit association leadership while threatening some small businesses. And for a “Pavement to Parks” initiative professing to improve the commons, association documents show a seemingly counter-intuitive goal: “Reduce loitering.”
The association’s description of the incoming parklets being “for merchants and cafes to use for seating” would seem to contradict the city’s requirement that parklets “remain publicly accessible” and include signs to this effect. But according to an Oakland public information officer, the 13th Street Commons project is not part of the city's official parklet program and not subject to its rules.
“A park that reduces loitering—how ironic,” said Paul Boden of Western Regional Advocacy Project, which sponsored a recent UC Berkeley study exploring how Business Improvement District (BID) organizations including the DOA criminalize homelessness. “It’s about removing the homeless and poor from what the downtown BID wants to be a mall hallway.”
The Downtown Oakland Association argues the plaza is needed to deter crime, and some small businesses agree. Critics, however, see a ploy to discourage the homeless and young people who’ve long congregated near Oakland City Center. Regardless the project shows the extraordinary power of the association and other Business Improvement District organizations to shape and police public space with little oversight, even to annex a right-of-way.
‘Homeless Exclusion Districts’
The Downtown Oakland Association, like dozens of other organizations contracted with municipalities to run Business Improvement Districts in the Bay Area, is funded by property tax levies on real-estate within its boundaries. The city collects the funds on behalf of the BID, including on government-owned property such as Oakland City Hall. Oakland’s budget earmarks more than $260,000 annually for BIDs, a sizable public subsidy for organizations generally led by wealthy property owners.
The Downtown Oakland Association describes its role as marketing and maintaining the district to improve property values, and it organizes events such as live music at Latham Square Plaza. But the association’s most recent annual report shows the bulk of its $1.2 million budget in 2017 went to “security ambassadors” via a contract with Nashville company Block by Block. The private security guards, coordinating with Oakland police, have tasks including providing hospitality, buffing graffiti and “removal of transients,” according to association documents.
In a recent example of this work, an association safety report from March boasts of its “biggest victory for 2019 thus far”—serving a three year restraining order to prohibit Melvin Jones, a homeless man, from entering Franklin Square. Jones’ behavior during mental health crises prompted a large proportion of the district's calls for service. The restraining order seems to undermine the DOA's claim that its security guards connect homeless people with services.
“We are uncertain where Melvin will end up,” reads the report, before worrying aloud that he will return: “Will it be in the district?”
The 2018 UC Berkeley study “Homeless Exclusion Districts” surveyed 189 BID organizations in 69 California cities, including Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, and found they impose an “additional form of policing, surveillance and harassment” on unsheltered people. The organizations’ policing practices, the study argues, is increasingly based on homeless people’s status rather than behavior.
Despite their nonprofit designation, which limits lobbying activities, the study also found BIDs actively advocate for anti-homeless laws. For example, they have expended significant resources supporting ordinances that prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks, which have been criticized for being selectively enforced against the homeless.
Boden of Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of homeless advocacy organizations, said the 13th Street Commons project is a troubling expansion of the Downtown Oakland Association’s territory that connects to a trend of BIDs encompassing city parks. Last year City Council voted to expand the renamed Downtown Oakland Community Benefit District, boosting the DOA's annual budget to $2 million.
“Who else can close a street and call it a park that discourages loitering?” Boden said. “This is public money, public space, but it benefits private property owners, mostly big corporations.”
Steve Snider, executive director of the Downtown Oakland Association, called the UC Berkeley study "flawed." He said the 13th Street Commons will deter what he called worsening downtown crime that authorities are unable to address without help, arguing it will also improve nearby Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall.
“The way to do it is to encourage more hanging out, but with positive things and not all of the prostitution and drug-dealing,” he said. Referring to a January shooting at 13th & Broadway, Snider claimed downtown employers such as Clorox have threatened to leave due to violence. (A Clorox spokesperson denied this: "We are committed to Oakland.") “It’s not advisable to walk by at night,” Snider said. “People avoid getting off BART at 12th Street.”
‘Targeted for Removal’
On the afternoons and evenings this reporter visited recently, the people at 13th & Broadway appeared to be homeless or waiting for the bus. Once, a handful of people were shooting dice.
On one corner is an office building recently acquired by Goldman Sachs. Burger King and Goodwill stand shuttered across the street; a Goodwill spokesperson said the businesses’ leases were recently terminated. A cashier next door at Buongiorno Gourmet Express said the sandwich shop is now on a month to month lease.
The plaza is a boon to Downtown Oakland Association leadership. Marketing materials for Burger King and Goodwill’s former units prominently feature the 13th Street Commons; they’re listed by Jamie Flaherty-Evans, a Colliers International realtor who sits on the association’s board. Similarly the plaza sits between the 12th St. BART entrance and an incoming residential tower by Carmel Partners, a developer represented on the DOA board by executive Greg Pasquali.
The plaza project also stands to directly benefit Snider, the DOA executive director, because the event programming, he told KQED, will be handled by his own company, Oakland Venue Management. Snider’s company is the Downtown Oakland Association’s second largest contractor (after Block by Block), receiving more than $1 million since 2012, federal tax records show.
When City Council approved the 13th Street Commons, the staff report claimed “100 percent” of the block's merchants, property owners, employers and community members support the project. Some businesses on the block welcome the change—Greg Archer of Archer Bicycles called Burger King a “crime magnet,” and Melissa Axelrod of Mockingbird is excited by the possibility of outdoor seating—but others are concerned it will hasten more establishments’ displacement.
Justin Carder opened E.M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore across the street from Tribune Tower in 2013. The adjoining storefronts were empty, but the neighborhood wasn’t. “People hanging out on the corner have always come in to use the bathroom,” Carder said. “We’re down with that.” Over time, Good Mother Gallery opened next door and Unity, a queer skateboarding collective, moved into the loft above the bookshop. Now, it’s not unusual for Wolfman to host a poetry reading while an art show opens at Good Mother, filling the sidewalks.
Carder believes the 13th Street Commons is part of sanitizing the area between BART and the Carmel development. People made the block their own when it was perceived as derelict, and now they’re “targeted for removal,” Carder said. “And they have no voice in this process.” Behind the DOA’s vision of a 13th St. free of loitering is an assumption, he believes, that anyone who isn’t a customer is a criminal. “That’s a really shortsighted idea of what makes cities great.”
Carder said he wasn’t consulted about 13th Street Commons, and he’s concerned about the programming disrupting readings at Wolfman, an important local literary hub. He’s also worried about what it means for his store’s longevity overall. “Our landlord has been firm about keeping our leases month to month,” Carder said. “Now I feel like our future is on even shakier footing.”
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.