From the January-February 2017 issue of The Movement newsletter of the Community BAMBD

And About Those Hidden Community Benefits From Carmel Partners

June 27, 2017

The last time we were all sitting around together, we were talking about the hidden community benefits package that was negotiated for the development of the old Downtown Merchants Parking Garage property in downtown Oakland. Carmel Partners developers are proposing building a massive commercial and residential high-rise on the spot on Franklin Street between 14th and 13th, and in the course of getting city approval, ceded some benefits to a coalition of community groups in order to ease—or grease, if you prefer that term—the approval process through.

But before we get into the details of the benefits coming out of the Carmel Partners project, we need a word about community benefits packages for development projects in general, in order to put our discussion in perspective. There are actually two types of community benefits in development projects, with two distinctly different legal frameworks and two different ways they should operate.

The first we’ll call “mitigations,” just for the sake of this discussion. These are the community benefits from a development that are legally required, and are negotiated primarily by representatives of a government entity like a City Council or the State of California. These can be California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements, for one example, or public art displays that are required under Oakland’s Public Art Ordinance.

Because these community benefits mitigations are required by law, the law that requires them also requires that their terms and details be released to the public once they are agreed to.

The second type of community benefits are those that are negotiated between developers and non-governmental organizations. They can be called by many names, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll call them by something neutral and non-judgmental: “amenities.” These can be granted simply because the respective developers want to be good citizens or neighbors (don’t laugh; it happens), or in order to prevent the organizations from opposing the development. Because these community benefits amenities are negotiated between private parties and are not covered by law, disclosure of their terms are generally not required by law.

It’s the latter “amenities” type of community benefits that we’re talking about that was hidden somewhere inside the details of the proposed development of the old Merchants Parking Garage in downtown Oakland.

Right now, the quicker students who always sit in the front of the class will be raising hands and asking, “if there’s no law that makes you disclose these ‘amenities’ community benefits packages between developers and non-governmental organizations, what’s the problem with keeping them hidden?” The answer to that, of course, is that what one ought to do is that the same thing as what one is required to do by law. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Anyways, preliminaries aside, sometime in 2016 or thereabouts, two Oakland organizations—the Oakland Chinatown Coalition (OCC) and what we might call the “community wing” of the Black Arts Movement and Business District (Community BAMBD)—entered into an alliance to negotiate community benefits from downtown Oakland development projects.

According to them, they’ve had some success.

In its 2016 End-Of-The-Year email message sent out to various members of the public, the Community BAMBD reported that “BAMBD representatives negotiated over 2.2 million in community benefits with $750,000 going directly to BAMBD.” There were no further details of which development those community benefits came from (or, more especially, where those benefits went to), although BAMBD representatives have said that they negotiated “amenities” packages with such developers as Wood Partners and Bay Development in a coalition with the OCC.

I don’t know much about the OCC, other than the fact that Lailan Huen—daughter of former Oakland mayor Jean Quan—is one of its leaders. But I do know a little bit about the Community BAMBD.

The Community BAMBD has a somewhat complicated history that is familiar to regular readers of this column. BAMBD was the original name of the Black cultural arts and business district created by Oakland District Three Councilmember Lynette McElhaney and ratified by a resolution of the Oakland City Council in January of 2016. But long before the Council ratified the district, a group of Black Oakland cultural arts activists who had worked with Ms. McElhaney’s office to create the district broke with Ms. McElhaney and formed an independent community organization under the BAMBD name.

The original leader and spokesperson for the Community BAMBD used to be Oakland playwright and poet Marvin X Jackmon. However, in recent weeks, that role has been taken over by Ayodele Nzinga, director of the Lower Bottoms Playaz Black theater group. Another leader and spokesperson for the Community BAMBD is Black Oakland photographer and journalist Eric Arnold, who acts as communications director for several local organizations. Information released to the public by the Community BAMBD almost always contains the name of one or more of these three leaders. When I tried to get more information about the leadership or the makeup of any governing board for the Community BAMBD, both Ms. Nzinga and Mr. Arnold failed to answer several email queries on the subject.

Meanwhile, Councilmember McElhaney’s office has taken to calling the official city-sanctioned BAMBD by a couple of different names—the Oakland Black Cultural Arts and Business District and the Soul of Oakland Cultural Arts and Business District—although the Councilmember has not yet brought any name change to the Oakland City Council for official action.

Told you it was confusing.

In any event, one of the downtown developments with which the Oakland Chinatown Coalition/Community BAMBD coalition was negotiating was the proposed Carmel Partners high-rise development of the old Downtown Merchants Parking Garage property we talked about at the beginning of this commentary.

Downtown Merchants Parking Garage

We know that the negotiations between Carmel Partners and the Community BAMBD took place from the Community BAMBD itself and the Chinatown Coalition themselves, who were not at all secretive about the fact that those negotiations were taking place.

An article entitled “BAMBD Seeks Investment Partnership With Carmel Developers” in the January-February 2017 issue of The Movement, Community BAMBD’s news outlet, read that “[w]hen BAMBD planner Marvin X asked if Carmel would consider BAMBD as an investment partner for a low income housing component to their project, the developers said absolutely they would consider such a proposal, along with other adjustments to their design plans.”

And last April, Huen posted on Facebook that “long-time neighborhood stakeholders from Chinatown and the Black Arts Movement Business District ... have been organizing around [Carmel Partners’] 634-unit project site at 14th & Franklin for anti-displacement mitigation for 7 months.”

During those negotiations, Community BAMBD leaders were actively discouraging other members of Oakland’s downtown community from entering into their own negotiations with Carmel Partners.

And earlier this spring, Community BAMBD leaders began telling selected members of Oakland’s downtown arts and business community that the negotiations had ended and some “community benefits” had been won.

What those “community benefits” actually are, however, remains something of a mystery, at least to the general public.

Community BAMBD leaders have been telling some Black arts and business leaders that the among the benefits involved was an Asian American/African-American-themed mural to be erected outside the new Carmel Partners building, as well as some cash payments that the Community BAMBD have reportedly already begun to disperse.

And in late April, while saying that they were “not yet at liberty to discuss the specifics” of the Carmel Partners agreement, the Community Coalition for Equitable Development, which calls itself “the main advocacy organization for both Oakland Chinatown Coalition and the Community BAMBD,” did release the following information about the negotiation results: “Last week’s approval of yet another downtown development project [1314 Franklin]—-this one a massive, 634-unit tower—actually signifies a win-win-win for developers, labor unions, and community advocates who have been pushing hard for equitable development and consideration of displacement impacts over and above the city’s impact fees, which do not address direct mitigation in the neighborhoods where development is happening. After months of negotiation, and a delayed vote by the Planning Commission to allow for more time, the Community Coalition for Equitable Development resolved a number of key issues with the developer, including on-site affordable housing, local hire, displacement mitigation, cultural retail, small business support, open space concerns, and the use of public art fees.”

I tried to find out the exact nature of those amenities won from Carmel Partners from Ms. Nzinga and Mr. Arnold, but both of them failed to answer several email queries about those community benefits. After my third query to Ms. Nzinga, she replied, “Sir, I can't grant your interview at this time due to scheduling restraints. Please consult public records concerning the details of the agreement with Carmel Partners.  I can offer nothing outside of what is offered there.”

Since I hadn’t asked for an interview, but only for information, and since there appears to be no “public records” of any community benefits agreement between the OCC/Community BAMBD coalition and Carmel Partners over the Merchants Parking Garage property, I guess that was Ms. Nzinga’s equivalent of blowing me off.

Following the publication of this column, I received the following in reply from Mr. Arnold:

“I'm just seeing this email now, because this is not my primary email and i don't check it often. I'm responding to you because you have called me out publicly, and quite unfairly. However, your reports so far have been entirely lacking in journalistic credibility, and any actual reporting, and have in fact been littered with factual inaccuracies, fabricated events and details which never happened, and an inability to even get the names right of Community Coalition for Equitable Development (not Chinatown Coalition for Equitable Development) and Community Rejuvenation Project (not Community Rehabilitation Project), which makes it impossible to take you seriously. Sorry to have to break this to you.

“I see no need to give you any information which is not publicly available already, because what you have reported so far has been slanderous, inaccurate, and apparently a work of fiction. You have bungled so many details, and gone out on a limb without any facts backing you up, that it is safe to say, you have ZERO credibility at this point.


“Speaking on behalf of CCED, BAMBD CDC, CRP, and myself, I/we would not consent to give you an interview or any further details about anything, until you recant and retract the falsehoods and inaccuracies you have already written, of which there are many.”

Huen, at least, was a little more forthcoming. sometime earlier this spring when I ran into her at a local play, she told me that details of the community benefits package obtained from Carmel Partners could not be released “unless all parties to the agreement agreed to do so.”

That was confirmed earlier this month when investigative reporter Robert Gammon, now of Oakland Magazine, reported that “a coalition led by Huen negotiated a community benefits package with developer Carmel Partners, which plans to build 40-story, 634-unit apartment high-rise at 1314 Franklin St. Huen and [Eric] Arnold [of the Community BAMBD] said they signed a nondisclosure agreement with Carmel Partners that prohibited them from revealing the contents of the pact, although Huen said they’ve been working to get the details released.” (“Backroom BenefitsOakland Magazine June 5, 2017)

In his article, Mr. Gammon was able to tease out a few more details about the OCC/Community BAMBD “community benefits” package.

“Huen also said their coalition is creating an open process for distributing community benefits funds and that they try to prevent conflicts of interest or the appearance of them,” Gammon wrote. ‘We have actively asked for people who have asked money for themselves to get off the coalition,’ she said.

“But there’s been at least one exception,” Mr. Gammon went on to explain. “[T]he Black Arts Movement Business District. The organization’s executive director, Ayodele Nzinga, has been involved in negotiations that have financially benefitted the district.

“In an interview, Nzinga defended her involvement in negotiating developer payouts. ‘I’d like to be involved in this era of prosperity,’ she said. ‘If no one is going to advocate for us, then we need to advocate for ourselves.’

“In April,” Mr. Gammon continued, “the Black Arts Movement Business District’s monthly newspaper, for which Nzinga is a senior writer, featured a full-page ad, thanking developer Carmel Partners ‘for your continued support.’”

All of which brings us back to the original issue that began this discussion. As we said, there is no law requiring that any community benefits “amenities” negotiated with Carmel Partners developers by the OCC/Community BAMBD coalition be released to the public.

But especially considering that the Community BAMBD is by their own admission a direct recipient of some of those amenities, details of those benefits and how they are being disbursed should be released to the public.

I might—and I stress the word might—feel differently if the recipient group of the Carmel Partners amenities was Ms. Nzinga’s Lower Bottoms Playaz or, say, the Community Rejuvenation Project muralists, for which Mr. Arnold acts as a spokesperson. These two groups have a track record of accomplishment, and so don’t have to prove each time around that they are worthy of community support. On the other hand, however, the Community BAMBD itself—as distinct from the leaders and members and organizations who may be a part of it—has yet to demonstrate such a record of accomplishment of its own.

It’s time, therefore, for the hidden Carmel Partners community benefits package to become unhidden. There have been too many side deals and back deals and backroom deals going on in Oakland for me, anyway, to feel comfortable about such things continuing to be done in the dark.

[Note: This article has been changed from the original to correct the names of the Oakland Chinatown Coalition and the Community Rejuvenation Project as well as to include a responce from Eric Arnold.]


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