W12 Project Site

While the “W12” project site, which includes the entire Oakland block bound by Webster, 11th, Harrison and 12th Streets, along with the quarter-block parcel on the northwest corner of Harrison and 12th, was designated as a prime “Opportunity Site” for redevelopment within the City of Oakland’s Lake Merritt Station Area Plan, the site also falls within the borders of Oakland’s Chinatown.

And with plans for a 416-unit development to rise up to seven stories across the site having been drawn, a coalition of community‐based organizations, business and individuals have raised a number of red flags and are challenging the project as proposed.

W12 Rendering: 12th and Webster

In the words of the coalition in a letter to Oakland’s Planning Commission and staff:

Our neighborhood has been here since the 1870s, and we face a current crisis in the face of development pressures that threaten the history, culture and residents that have defined this area for over 130 years. While San Francisco Chinatown has zoning protections, Oakland Chinatown does not currently have protections to keep current properties from flipping to corporate development that could diminish and eventually erase our community.

Since we have seen other Chinatowns such as in DC disappear from the process of gentrification manifested through luxury housing and corporate retail development, we are concerned that this development could be part of the beginning of the disappearance of Oakland Chinatown. Taking a full block or more of Chinatown will have a huge impact on Chinatown’s boundaries, and impact the culture, identity and composition of the neighborhood. As it stands, this project will increase other high‐end development that could displace our small businesses, community organizations, and low‐income residents, and contribute to our neighborhood’s demise if it does not sufficiently meet the following concerns:

● The current plan to have 416 market‐rate units with no guaranteed affordable units could bring upwards of over 1,000 high‐income residents into our low‐income community that has an average median income of $25,000 per year. Other new development will add thousands more high‐income residents, increasing economic tension and displacement pressures.

● The over 25,000 square feet of retail space, if too expensive for Chinatown businesses and organizations, could bring non‐Chinatown businesses into the heart of our neighborhood, which could create a disruption in the coherence of the Chinatown landscape, and begin the process of shrinking our boundaries. High‐income tenants able to pay current market‐rates in Oakland are disproportionately white due to economic inequalities in this country, and these tenants will demand services and businesses that will demand higher prices unaffordable to our families and be able to pay higher commercial rents, which will create more displacement pressures on our mom and pop family‐run stores, many of which are just barely getting by on small profit margins.

● The current ground floor design shared with us does not show a lighting plan to provide sufficient brilliant lighting. Public safety and graffiti are current problems for Chinatown, partly due to the lack of lighting in the area.

● The current plan to hire a general contractor from San Carlos does not bode well for local hire and inclusion of Asian and minority contractors in Oakland. Not ensuring local diverse hire, living wages, high safety standards, or apprenticeship opportunities does not contribute to the city’s goals for economic equity and opportunity. Too many developers cut costs at the expense of workers and the profits of corporations, which can lead to unsafe conditions and low wages for workers that perpetuate economic inequality. CIWI internships are not a sustainable model of economic development as they only provide a short‐term experience of only 12 weeks, 20 hours per week, totaling 240 hours of experience at $19/hour with no benefits. CIWI interns have to be in college, while apprenticeships only require a GED, so there is a class difference in who gets to access those internships, and this usually does not include re‐entry residents who desperately need work in fields like construction for a stronger and safer community.

● The building designs completely disregard guidelines in the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan to include publicly accessible space in any development over half a block. In fact, this particular site was identified as an opportunity site for including open public space in the area plan, and yet no one discussed this in the process of development. Chinatown’s current open spaces are extremely over‐capacity, and our seniors and families desperately need more green space in a neighborhood with high levels of traffic and pollution.

● The current design is quite colorless and does not signal Chinatown at such a critical site and gateway to our neighborhood, and the ground floor does not currently provide a lot of visual interest.

● The plans to displace the schools on site may disrupt the learning of 720 Chinatown youth, which is an unacceptable outcome of the construction timeline.

As such, the coalition has been seeking to have a binding Community Benefits Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding signed by the development team (The Martin Group) in place prior to the City approving the project, “to ensure anti‐displacement mitigation and integration into the neighborhood [and] avoid an unnecessary appeal process.”

Elements of the desired agreement include the sale of the of the quarter-block parcel (285 12th Street) to a nonprofit developer, at a “reasonable price,” for the development of affordable senior and family housing and community space; that 40 percent of the proposed development’s retail space be provided at well below market rates (as low as $1 per square foot per year, including all services) for community use and the creation of “a collaborative cooperative small business incubation space” for community businesses; that the development’s lighting fixtures “be designed to signal Chinatown through a lantern‐like Chinese‐inspired design by a local or Asian Pacific American artist or manufacturer, and that they be provided at least every 20 feet along the sides of the ground floor facade to light up the sidewalks for pedestrians;” that a community workforce agreement includes local residents and contractors in the development of the building; that financial support for Chinatown’s crumbling public infrastructure, “including Lincoln and Madison Parks per the neighborhood’s open space goals, and the Chinatown Art, Preservation & Environment Committee’s projects to preserve and beautify Chinatown for the long‐term sustainability of the neighborhood and success of our small business and cultural district,” be provided; that a donation to Chinatown Chamber’s Small Business Support program be made; that Chinatown artists by commission or the project’s required Public Art; that sidewalk trees include ones that are familiar to Asian communities, and also visually signal Chinatown’s identity, such as cherry blossom and Gingko trees; that the schools on the site be allowed to stay in their building until June 9, 2017; that the agreement include a clause “that codifies the commitments in the event that the project is sold so that any new owner would have to honor the community agreement;” and that a committee of Chinatown stakeholders, architects and artists be allowed to work with the development team to refine the plans.

Having delayed their vote by two weeks, “to provide the [development team] and community members with more time to attempt to reach a compromise on outstanding issues of concern,” Oakland’s Planning Commission is slated to review the project tomorrow, August 17, with the Planning Department’s recommendation that the W12 development be approved as proposed.

27 thoughts on “Coalition Challenges Redevelopment of a Chinatown Block”
  1. If this isn’t displacing residents this is just clear cut NIMBYism. They just want to raise prices to cash out on their property.

  2. This is on the western edge of Chinatown (boundaries are soft, but usually considered between 880 and 12th). I’ve got VERY little sympathy for this diatribe.

    1. The building was for decades a Cochran and Celli (Chevrolet) dealership, which would seem to have very little to do with Chinatown; the latter expanded toward it, which is fine, but there seems to be a double standard at work here: it’s fine for areas to transition from Caucasian to some ethnic group, but if they begin to transition back, we’re told that an “historically” (whatever ethnic group) area is threatened. While I have sympathy for people wanting to keep their homes, if that argument (oh how terrible!! the whites are “being forced out”) had been used 50-60 years ago, it would have been quite properly denounced for what it was…racist.

      1. *Exactly* – as if this two-story mid-century space contributes somehow to the “since the 1870s” history of Chinatown. Ridiculous.

      2. There’s a difference between voluntarily moving to the suburbs, and wanting to stay in the city but being unable due to evictions/high rent. White flight was the former. They indeed weren’t forced out, they chose to leave, but you can’t say the same about, say, the Latin community in the Mission (I’m less familiar with Oakland’s Chinatown, but the argument being made is it’s a similar situation).

        1. In many cases that’s true. And certainly when the cause of the “flight” was nothing more than their prejudice toward their new neighbors, it’s logical to say the problem was of their own making. But in later years – say the mid-60’s onward – rising crime rates, deteriorating schools, etc. can be said to have “forced out” the residents just as much as the current residents are (allegedly) being “forced out”….ask a homeowner from Elmhurst or Golden Gate who moved out and find out just how voluntary it was.

          1. And ask yourself why crime rates rose and schools deteriorated? The earlier waves of white flight, driven by racial prejudice, destroyed center cities’ tax bases, and suburbanites resisted city annexation that would have restored the balance.

            Look, I’m totally against the NIMBYism, here and in the Mission. Blocking housing increases regionwide displacement, and I’ve yet to see evidence it slows it at the neighborhood level as these sorts of activists claim. But the analogy you’re making isn’t accurate. It’s wrong to claim “reverse racism” (I know you didn’t use that exact phrase, but you implied it and many people making similar arguments do) and equate economically-driven displacement with white flight.

  3. I’m sure that current building — which looks like an abandoned warehouse — is a cultural treasure that needs to be preserved

  4. I don’t get it because there is nothing on the existing block that is at all indicative of it even being in Chinatown. I think to most who past by this block serves as the border of Chinatown and downtown. The buildings are dull and non-descript, graffiti covers much of them, and only a parking lot and a charter school occupy the block, neither of which contribute to Chinatown culturally at all. I would think the business community there would be thrilled to have hundreds of new residents near by and to have an ugly block cleaned up. Also, this block is adjacent to East Bay MUD’s giant office building and close to many other office buildings. It is a great place for lots of housing. I am frustrated that the authors of this letter stand in the way of progress and much needed housing for the reasons they stated. There are lots of opportunities to improving Chinatown, like cleaning up many of the historical buildings that are clearly within its borders, etc. I think fears that Oakland’s Chinatown is going anywhere are not based at all in reality.

    1. Residents and business owners in Chinatown have shown interest in market rate housing, because they believe the concentration of subsidized housing has reduced the vitality of the community.

  5. The coalition of “activists” is led by Lialun Huen, ex-Mayor Jean Quan’s Ivy League educated daughter. Apparently the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Ms. Huen has apparently mistaken developer shakedowns for having an actual job.

    The “activists” had the gall at Planning Commission to state that the City’s new impact fee is just a starting point. This would be the first housing project in Oakland to actually be subject to the recently enact housing impact fee – the first ever such fee in Oakland. At the time the impact fee legislation was being negotiated, housing advocates’ position was that it would provide “certainty” to developers so that each project proposed in Oakland wouldn’t have to face a project-by-project community benefits negotiation.

    Apparently, that was all a crock. One might even call it a lie. Going forward, the real estate community would be best served putting its political dollars to work opposing any future impact fees or inclusionary zoning in Oakland, since its clear all that does is encourage outrageous demands by reactionary “activists”.

    1. Also funny that it’s in the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan, given that it’s at least 7 blocks from the Lake Merritt station, but only 3 blocks from the 12th Street station…

  6. The claim that “other Chinatowns such as in DC disappear[ed] from the process of gentrification manifested through luxury housing and corporate retail development” is an utter lie.

    I grew up in the DC area. DC’s Chinatown stopped being Chinese decades ago when that population voluntarily moved to the suburbs, long before anyone dreamt of building luxury housing in that then-decaying city.

  7. Is there any other region that takes neighbor complaints as seriously as the Bay Area? In every other city in America it seems like if you own the property and are zoning compliant you get to build a building. I still don’t understand how “stakeholders” have so much power. Cities change.

  8. The list of complaints reads like a smorgasbord of ways that the developer can buy the coalition’s favor.

    1. 1 – Provide BMR / low-income housing for (Chinese) locals.
      2 – Provide low-rent space to local (Chinese) businesses.
      3 – Provide brilliant lighting.
      4 – Hire a local (Chinese) contractor.
      5 – Provide a substantial swath of your site for the (Chinese) community.
      6 – Make it look Chinese.
      7 – Build a new school.

      Looks pretty straight forward to me…

  9. Interesting. For a change I findy myself on the side of the NIMBY’s. That is a rather well-penned, rational, and respectfully-toned protest letter.

  10. It was an auto dealership for decades. I’d be surprised if the charter school did any tests for pollutants. Also, much of the block is in indoor parking garage and there have not been many improvements over the years. I’d be reluctant to send my children there.

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