Back in December, the Oakland City Council voted unanimously to approve the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan, effectively inviting developers to make proposals for new projects around the Lake Merritt BART station and moving along the conversation on how to keep all of Oakland affordable in the process.
Located near Chinatown, downtown, Jack London Square, and Laney Community College, the Lake Merritt BART station should be a lively hub for students, workers, and residents.
Yet the area around the station is just the opposite. Lacking good sidewalks and intersections for pedestrians, the neighborhood is nearly vacant at night and is full of quiet buildings and half-empty parking lots during the day.
With the adoption of the new Station Area Plan, all that could change. Thanks to years of meetings, comment letters, and conversations with local residents and stakeholders including Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Asian Health Services (AHS), and East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), the final Plan puts forth a vision of a thriving center for both community members and commuters.
Some of the great elements in the Plan include:
- Increased safety for people who walk and bike, such as:
- New bike lanes on all major streets and wider sidewalks.
- An effort to study turning existing one-way streets into two-way.
- Improved bike, pedestrian, and transit access to the Lake Merritt BART station.
- Policies to make housing more affordable for residents, including:
- Not lumping a parking fee in with rent for new developments, and reducing expensive parking requirements that could act as barriers for affordable housing projects.
- Creating a new requirement for any new buildings constructed over 175 feet in the planning area to provide a deeper level of community benefits (like affordable housing) in exchange for approval through “conditional use” permits.
- Reduced pollution and dangerous car traffic:
- Allowing money that would traditionally have been spent on new project parking construction to instead be used to ensure that residents have better transportation choices.
- Measures that will make the neighborhood more welcoming and vibrant:
- Exploring the creation of a Parking Benefits District in Chinatown which could create new revenues for community amenities
- Preservation of important cultural places and open space, like Madison Square Park.
- Celebration and enhancement of the community’s Chinese heritage, and the preservation and restoration of a number of historic buildings.
You can find a more comprehensive explanation of all of the Plan’s benefits in the City of Oakland’s report.
The next step: preventing displacement and keeping Lake Merritt affordable
With great public transportation service already in place with BART, this area is poised to bring new growth and investment to Oakland. And while this plan represents the City’s necessary first step towards welcoming new development into an existing community, it doesn’t necessarily mean that current residents will benefit from the changes to come. Rising rents that come as a result of quick growth can drive out residents who are long established in the neighborhood.
TransForm is very concerned about this indirect displacement.
That’s why we worked with local partners (including the organizations mentioned above) to bring residents deeply into the planning process. Together we shaped a plan that better meets the needs of people who already live near the Lake Merritt BART station. We also won the City’s commitment to adopt a policy to win funding for affordable housing from any new development in the City of Oakland by December 2015.
That’s why we will continue our partnership with The Great Communities Collaborative in 2015 to advocate for a robust affordable housing impact fee policy. This policy will be crucial in helping current residents remain in their communities even as new development increases property values and raises rents in the region. It is important that a city-wide affordable housing impact fee be adopted as soon as possible, so that new growth allowed by these plans minimizes indirect displacement pressures on current residents. While we support the positive aspects of new growth, we are also very keenly aware of how new buildings drive-up neighboring real estate values, which could result in pricing current, lower-income residents out of the neighborhood via corresponding increased rents.
An example of how urgent a policy is needed on the books is the arrival of a new tall, mixed-use building project proposed for 12th Street and Lake Merritt Boulevard. Please join us at the community meeting to learn more about the project on January 20, 6:30-8:00 p.m. at La Escuelita elementary school cafeteria (1050 2nd Avenue).
The adoption of the Lake Merritt BART Station Area Plan can be seen as a blueprint for truly inclusive planning. Yet even though the planning process is over, more work remains to secure affordable housing and help keep Oakland’s most vulnerable communities intact.
As the City of Oakland continues to develop traditionally neglected neighborhoods throughout the town, the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan has the potential to be a shining example of planning done right. But we can’t celebrate new investments in our city if we don’t also protect our neighbors. It’s TransForm’s vision that we can – and should – do both.