February 27, 2013

There was something pointedly left out of our recent celebration of the re-opening of the connection between Lake Merritt and the Lake Merritt Channel, making it possible for the first time in a hundred years to travel by water from the eastern tip of the lake all the way down into the estuary and, if you want, into the bay and out into the ocean and the world beyond.

Highlighted in the celebrations was the fact that the waterway opening—and the massive improvements along the western edge of the lake that accompanied it—were made possible by the passage by Oakland voters in 2002 of Measure DD (Lake Merritt Channel Draft Environmental Impact Report.

But what was missing in the celebratory narrative was the so-often-ignored story of how a handful of Oakland groups and individuals successfully fought off fierce attempts over the past several years to privatize the lands on both sides of the Channel, keeping the waterway open to the public in the way that voters intended when we agreed to close to $200 million in bond money for the DD projects.

When Oakland voters passed Measure DD in 2002, we had every reason to believe that the Lake Merritt Channel improvements were intended to enhance public access to—and not private profit from—the channel. The text of Measure DD incorporated the texts of the Lake Merritt and Estuary Policy plans that referred to Lake Merritt as a “a park for all of Oakland” and called for “a system of open spaces and shoreline access [for the estuary area] that provides recreational use opportunities, environmental enhancement, interpretive experiences, visual amenities, and significant gathering places.” In addition, at the time of the passage of Measure DD, four major, operating public facilities had significant lands along the shores of the channel east of 880: the Oakland Unified School District headquarters and five adjacent school properties, the Peralta Community College District headquarters, Laney College, and the City of Oakland’s Kaiser Convention Center Arena and Auditorium.

Within months after Measure DD passed, however, each of these public entities came under significant pressure or outright attack to be sold and converted from public spaces to private lands.

The Peralta Board of Trustees contracted with an Oakland developer to come up with a plan to develop the Peralta Administration Building and some of the Laney College lands for commercial uses.

The Kaiser Auditorium was closed by Oakland City Council and shopped around, unsuccessfully, to developers.  

The Oakland Unified School District was taken over by the State of California when it was forced to take a state loan following a disastrous financial setback. “Mysteriously” included in the takeover legislation was a provision that changed state law to “allow” the district to sell off land and property to pay back the state loan. Once he had his hands on Oakland’s school district, State Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell tried to do just that, signing a preliminary contract with an east coast developer to build a condominium complex where the administration building and five adjacent schools now stand. (“Muddying Oakland’s Waters,” my writings on the abortive attempt to sell the OUSD Lake Merritt Channel property)

There is no evidence—and I don’t believe—that Measure DD was a cynical plot by its originators to finance improvements with public money and then sell the land to private enterprise. Instead, my best guess is that the developers—with assistance from compliant officeholders—were like vultures who waited in the bushes to pounce on a meal that had been paid for by the public and intended for public consumption.

Had the developers and commercial interests won out, a narrow strip of public lands would have survived along the Lake Merritt Channel, but they would have been overshadowed by high-rise, high-price condominiums, hotels, office buildings, and other commercial establishments on either side, creating a pay-to-play situation to be able to fully enjoy one of Oakland’s great natural waterway treasures.

But the developers and commercial interests did not win out in the fight to keep the area surrounding the Lake Merritt Channel public. A broad coalition made up of Laney College faculty and newly-elected Trustees defeated the sell-off-the-Peralta-and-Laney-lands idea. An even broader coalition of OUSD parents and education activists and Oakland city officials forced Superintendent O’Connell to abandon his plans to commercialize the OUSD Lake Merritt Channel-area lands, and eventually Oakland won back control over its school district and the property-sale crisis passed.

The Kaiser Auditorium was saved by dumb luck. With a tanked economy at the time the city was shopping it around, no commercial deal was ever reached, and the auditorium remains empty, but still in Oakland’s hands.

In March of 2005, at a time when the pressure was greatest to commercialize the adjacent Merritt Channel lands, I wrote in a column for the old Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper: “If you stood on the East 8th Street bridge over the channel in late 2002 and looked east towards the hills, you would have seen a long run of public-owned land all the way to the lake itself, from Peralta and Laney at its western end, past the back of the Second Street Oakland Unified School District headquarters on the right, and then the Convention Center on the left, and it would have been easy to imagine a gorgeous public park running all along that path, funded entirely by Oaklanders for the use of all Oaklanders, the first opening of a major Oakland waterway in living memory.  Hard to hold onto that vision now, in the light of recent events.” (“Looking Through The Lens Of The Lake Merritt Channel” UnderCurrents column by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, Berkeley Daily Planet, March 11, 2005)

Fortunately, because of pressure from a select group of citizens and public officials, the view along the Lake Merritt Channel is considerably better today, and available for all Oakland citizens and visitors. We ought to acknowledge and celebrate that fact, as well. This is not the last time we’ll have to fight this type of battle in Oakland.