Last month our chapter hosted an Oakland Mayoral Candidates Forum on The Future of Oakland’s Built Environment. This was the first time we have held a mayoral debate in at least fourteen years. The candidates that participated were the incumbent Mayor Jean Quan, Joe Tuman, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, Dan Siegel, Councilmember Libby Schaaf and Bryan Parker. While prior debates during this election have focused heavily on issues of public safety, education, the city’s changing economy, this particular forum addressed how the health of our built environment directly affects these crucial aspects of the daily lives of Oakland citizens.
As an Oakland resident, I was particularly excited to moderate this discussion. I initially warmed up the candidates with an underhand pitch by inquiring about the candidates’ favorite building in Oakland, Jean Quan chose SOM’s Cathedral of Christ the Light, Kaplan and Tuman both selected the all-but-abandoned Kaiser Convention Center, Siegel chose City Hall, Schaaf selected the Paramount Theater, and Bryan Parker chose the Tribune Building as his favorite.
However, the focus of our forum was not to highlight the pre-established landmark structures in the Oakland, and during the next stage of our discussion I started throwing fast balls. I challenged the candidates to put forth their short-term and long-term visions for the city, as Oakland is currently in the midst of a demographic shift due to high cost of living in surrounding cities. The building and permitting department historically has been seen as a bottleneck in the development process. I was curious to know: what process improvements would these candidates push for in order to meet the rising demand for housing?
The consensus among most of the candidates is the city’s need to provide affordable housing for Oakland’s existing residents. Mayor Quan stated that providing affordable housing is essential to preserving Oakland’s diversity. Siegel suggested an increase of the city’s minimum wage from eight dollars an hour to fifteen dollars to reduce the community’s need for government-subsidized rental housing. “Gentrification is changing the ethnic makeup of the city… [and] diversity is one of our brand elements,” he remarked. Siegal also suggested that new laws that protect existing tenants from eviction need to be set in place. Schaaf echoed this statement, noting that “Oakland cannot afford to sell its soul for growth.”
My second question related to the absence of a cohesive set of development policies for Downtown and the Jack London District, Development decisions are currently made on a project-by-project basis. “As mayor,” I asked, “what ways would you advocate for the General Plan to be updated?” Quan asserted that during her previous terms she has fought to preserve the city’s infrastructure while also boosting the development of neighborhood needs such as grocery stores and financial institutions. Tuman and Kaplan both emphasized the need to protect existing businesses before focusing on future developments. “Make new buildings.” Kaplan proposed, “But keep the old–one is silver and the other gold.”
There was a good turnout of about 150 people, made up of chapter and non-chapter members, real estate developers and other interested members of the public. I thought the candidates all gave quite astute responses…some more than others, of course. I hope that this forum with the East Bay Chapter will begin a continued dialogue between AIA East Bay and the future Oakland mayor.
November 5, 2014: Congratulations Libby Schaaf!