A rag-tag group of artists and small businesses on Oakland’s Fifth Avenue waterfront has battled the powerful Port of Oakland to a standstill and possibly struck a fatal blow against a harebrained scheme to bring an International Expo center to the Oakland waterfront. Back in March of this year folks in Oakland’s Fifth Ave. waterfront found their neighborhood the subject of a front page article in the Oakland Tribune, complete with artist’s conception type drawing of a new grand plan for the waterfront–only the buildings that house their studios and businesses weren’t there.
The neighborhood is located in the middle of roughly five miles of waterfront known as the Oakland Estuary (from the foot of MLK to the airport) that has been changing with the advent of containerized shipping and the collapse of Oakland’s industrial base. Planning efforts for the area began in 1993 when the League of Women Voters published a paper calling for a coordinated planning effort, stressing the need for increased connection with the nearby flatlands neighborhoods and constructive reuses for abandoned waterfront land. In 1996 the Port and the city jointly hired the ROMA group of San Francisco to develop a comprehensive plan for the area. The thirty-one member Citizen Advisory Committee for the planning process contained no one from the neighborhood. The first draft of the Estuary Plan literally wiped the neighborhood off the map.
The Fifth Ave. waterfront is home to about 100 artists and small arts and crafts related businesses, many of whom have been on that street for fifteen years or longer. The area is a bright spot of authentic urban fabric in the midst of an otherwise neglected stretch of waterfront. Painters and sculptors co-exist with a steel fabricator and a foundry, and self-employed picture framers, architects, and musical instrument makers ply their trades. The larger enterprises on the street frequently provide flexible, well paying industrial arts jobs to the artists in the area. There is an elaborate network of tool and resource sharing, and lots of hanging out on the street and courtyards.
Artists and small business owners are notoriously difficult to organize and only a few folks on Fifth Ave. had any community organizing or political experience, but the neighborhood quickly pulled together a co-ordinated lobbying and publicity effort. A loose neighborhood organization The Fifth Ave. Waterfront Alliance was formed and weekly community meetings were held where strategies were developed and tasks divided. The group had meetings with city council members, members of the community advisory committee, and grass-roots activists from other neighborhoods, making sure it had someone present at every public agency meeting that might have something to do with the future of their neighborhood. The East Bay Express ran a sympathetic, if somewhat rambling and romanticized feature article on the street and its denizens. Maybe the Port and its planners thought the neighborhood would be an easy mark because it looks kind of run down–there are no streetlights or sidewalks, and some of the buildings lean noticeably, but in mid-May they got a big surprise–a dozen neighborhood activists showed up at a workshop for the Citizen Advisory Committee and presented an eighty page document detailing their own vision for the area. Port officials were dumbfounded. The group had done its homework, and advisory committee members overwhelmingly supported the neighborhood’s right to exist. Either feeling the heat, or else just seeing reason, the Port and its planners went back to the drawing board and in August presented a new proposal that not only preserved the neighborhood but made it the pattern for future development in the area.
But Fifth Avenue isn’t safe yet. Stalking the planning process all along has been a pie in the sky scheme to bring an international exposition to Oakland for the millennium. And what have the con-men hustling this bill of goods identified as the preferred site for this turkey? You guessed it. Nevermind that the land involved was private property and not for sale, or that forty-odd trains a day roll through the area, sometimes blocking street access for up to fifteen minutes at a time, or that the event probably will not receive the sanction of the Bureau of International Expositions, making it little more than a trade fare.
The relationship between the expo and the planning effort is complex and suspicious. The Port’s first draft for the area called for a huge tract of open space, supposedly for a public park and civic celebration space, but revealed deep in the fine print as a potential site for condos or a corporate campus. The expo was touted as a once in a lifetime, gotta act now deal for the city and a way to get some of the infrastructure installed for the supposed open space. The Port hoped that enthusiasm for the expo would speed the approval of their plan before it could be examined too closely; approval of the plan would have provided the legal and political grounds for taking the land from its owners by condemnation or eminent domain. The Port directors, mostly from the business community and permanent government of Oakland have been very cagey in their actual dealings with the expo promoters, and much more so than the City council, even though they both approved the joint financing of a $162,000 feasibility study. Given the weakness of the promoters’ proposal, (both San Francisco and Sacramento have turned them down already) it is possible that the Port never had any real interest or confidence in the expo proposal but was cynically using it to speed authorization for a land grab. Although the Port now seems to favor leaving the Fifth Ave. community in place and the promoters say they now favor the soon to be vacant Oakland Army Base (putting them in conflict with West Oakland activists with other plans for the site) the Fifth Ave. neighbors have produced (for about $500 in printing costs) an inch thick Infeasability Study and distributed it to the City Council, the Port Commissioners, and the news media. Keep your eyes on this one. In the words of one time city council candidate, perennial gadfly, and Oakland high school teacher Hugh Bassette, If it looks like an ice rink and walks like an ice rink…
Port of Oakland
The core of the 5th Avenue neighborhood is some of the last privately held land on Oakland’s waterfront. While it is not the intention of this writer to praise landlords, it is clear that so far in this area the singular vision of the two private landowners has fostered a spontaneous, creative and accessible environment, while all the Port of Oakland has been able to manage is dreary commercial tracts, locked down piers and the half empty and all plastic retail strip at Jack London Square.
The Port of Oakland derives its powers from both the city charter and state law. Though technically a city department, it functions as an autonomous government-within-a-government with just about total control of Oakland’s waterfront and airport, including all permitting and zoning authority and the powers of condemnation and eminent domain. Its accountability to the city government and the people of Oakland is limited and indirect– its directors are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council, and outside of presenting its budget to the council in June of each year there is no formal review of its policies or activities.