Activists Take Over Oakland City Council Meeting, Prevent Vote on High-Rise Project

Activists shut down May 5 Oakland City Council meeting to protest development of a market-rate tower near Lake Merritt. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Activists opposed to a proposed market-rate apartment tower near Lake Merritt took over an Oakland City Council meeting Tuesday night, preventing a vote that would have allowed the city to sell the public land to a developer.

As the council was preparing to start its regular meeting, roughly 40 protesters moved into the council's atrium, locking arms and dropping a banner that said, "The People's City Council." The group used the large council video screen to project its own image, which included a picture with the hashtag #SaveE12St.

"Housing is a human right! We will not give up the fight!" the group chanted.

For Monica Garcia, who lives near the proposed development at 12th Street and Second Avenue, the project represents a major test in affordable housing for Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has said Oakland needs to build housing for all income levels to meet the growing demand. And many residents feel that the rental-apartment project is another step toward pricing out residents who already call Oakland home.

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“We need investment in Oaklanders for the people who have been here," said Garcia. "We don’t need to invest in these sky-high luxury condos for folks that Oakland is hoping to attract from somewhere else.”

At stake is a nearly 1-acre slab of public land, which residents like Garcia argue should be used for affordable housing instead of the 24-story market-rate apartment project, which would add 298 units to the city's housing stock. UrbanCore Development's Michael Johnson contends that adding the units "will take demand pressure off the city's tight rental market," according to the East Bay Express.

Johnson has worked on affordable housing projects in Oakland before, but some of his publicly funded projects have exceeded their costs and ended up "costing taxpayers millions," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

UrbanCore has been negotiating the agreement with the city for more than two years. As a member of the City Council, Schaaf voted in favor of allowing the plan to proceed. In an interview with KQED this week, the mayor said she still supports the project, "particularly because we've added significant community benefits."

Among those benefits: a quarter of the $5.1 million sale proceeds would go into the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“We are committed to building more affordable housing," said Schaaf. "But we need housing at every income level to address the affordability crisis that we have in Oakland.”

In an email, Johnson said at least one market study shows there is strong demand for more high-rise rental housing in Oakland.

“If we are going to pay the city market value for the land, which they requested, then it is not feasible to add affordable units to the project unit mix,” he said.

Schaaf said that there are currently 903 affordable housing units in the pipeline, which are spread out across five of the seven council districts.

As part of the agreement, UrbanCore must also try to hire at least 25 percent of its builders from the local community and fund a study "to create a Business Improvement District or Community Benefits District" in the area. The total list of community benefits added to the city deal totals $500,000 in monetary contributions.

But that's still not enough for many residents, said Amy Vanderwarker, spokeswoman for Eastlake United for Justice, one of the groups that participated in the Tuesday night rally. While she said she appreciates the city's effort to add more community benefits, "We don't think they're actual community benefits because community benefits have to be actually negotiated with the community."

Vanderwarker said the group has been in communication with City Council members, including Abel Guillen, whose District 2 is where the project would be located. And she acknowledged that he's in a tight spot, having been supported by the Eastlake United for Justice group during his campaign, yet inheriting this proposal from his predecessor.

Several council members will likely think hard about this project, said District 5 Councilman Noel Gallo, who stood by with his peers for more than an hour while demonstrators spoke through a bullhorn and chanted intermittently.

Vanderwarker said Eastlake United for Justice will "definitely continue to mobilize for City Council meetings." However, her group did not organize the protest that took over the City Council meeting, so she could not speak to whether future meetings will reach that level of activity.

The council, after being called into recess, adjourned before hearing any items. On Thursday, agenda items will move through the council's Rules Committee, which will determine the scheduling of those items, said Oakland City Clerk LaTonda Simmons.