Parking structure in the foreground, official-looking building in the background
A shuttered parking garage by City Hall is the latest site that some city officials want to turn into affordable housing. Credit: Amir Aziz

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An old parking garage right behind Oakland City Hall could become a fully affordable housing development if two city officials have their way.

Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Carroll Fife want the city to seek proposals from developers to tear down the city-owned Clay Street Garage, a structure that’s been closed since 2016 because of seismic hazards, and replace it with 100% affordable housing.

On Tuesday, the Community and Economic Development Committee of the council, which includes Fife, voted to pursue the redevelopment, but they accepted a recommendation from staff to first declare the site “surplus land.” 

That surplus-land declaration would trigger a state law that requires the city to prioritize low-income housing for the site. It also gives staff some wiggle room to consider proposals that are not 100% affordable. However, the recommendation passed by the committee, which still needs to come before the full City Council for a vote later this spring, states the 100% affordable figure as a “goal.” In compliance with zoning rules, the ground floor would be shops.

City staff have warned that such a project could be too costly because the city would likely need to help pay for the demolition of the three-story garage, a job that might cost as much as $4 million. Market-rate developers would be better positioned to cover that large cost, staff said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

The Clay Street garage is the second city property Kaplan and Fife have prioritized for redevelopment into affordable housing this year. Last month they recommended seeking developers interested in tearing down the Oakland Police Department headquarters to build housing on the Broadway lot. That proposal was approved by the council.

Kaplan told The Oaklandside that the city needs to aggressively pursue affordable housing projects in order to meet targets set by regional authorities.

“We know there’s an incredible affordable housing shortage,” she said. “One of the biggest tools we have as the city to instigate affordable development is through the use of lands that we own.”

Oakland hasn’t built even half of the low-income homes it was allocated by the Association of Bay Area Governments several years ago, and the city was just told it needs to plan for several thousand more in coming years.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Kaplan said the garage site is a logical place to start.

“It is on public transit, and it is near jobs and services,” she said. “This is an opportunity to make sure it isn’t just abandoned, negative space in our community.” 

This is not the first time the city has considered redeveloping 1414 Clay St.

In 2018, the city commissioned a study looking at the potential of developing a hotel or office building at the site. City staff ultimately recommended an office building, in keeping with the immediate surroundings.

At the time, Kaplan questioned why housing was not explored.

“I was surprised to see housing not even mentioned…given the magnitude of our housing crisis,” she said at a 2018 Public Works Committee meeting. A proposal for the site never reached the full City Council at the time. 

City staff said the high value of the land and the high cost of demolishing the garage could make it a non-ideal site for fully affordable development. The demolition price would “strain the City’s limited resources available to support affordable housing elsewhere,” wrote Alexa Jeffress, director of Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department, in a recent report.

Public land at center of development debate 

The City Council voted to seek proposals for redeveloping the police headquarters in downtown Oakland. OPD would move to East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Kaplan, redeveloping the Clay Street Garage as affordable housing would exemplify the “principle of ‘public land for public good,’” she said in an interview.

It’s a message that a group of councilmembers have rallied around for several years, sometimes using the phrase to take aim at what they view as a lack of urgency among staff, or a prioritization of for-profit development. 

In 2018, Kaplan co-authored a resolution calling for a public lands policy, which would have spelled out how Oakland makes decisions around leasing or selling its property. The city began, but never completed, the process of writing such an ordinance. Meanwhile, what to do with individual city-owned parcels has continued to come up for discussion and debate on a case-by-case basis.  

Kapland and Fife’s proposal to replace the dilapidated Police Administration Building with a mixed-use development calls for 600 housing units, a third of which would be affordable, and shops. The City Council voted in February to begin seeking proposals, and to work towards moving the police offices to East Oakland.

A couple weeks later, the council squashed a controversial, years-in-the-making project at a city-owned lot on E. 12th Street, across from Lake Merritt. The council and city administration had granted developers UrbanCore and EBALDC numerous extensions over the years to pull together finances for the approved housing towers, where 30% of the units would be priced for low-income residents. The city was slated to sell the land to the developers.

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who pushed successfully for a temporary homeless shelter at the site last year, has long joined neighborhood activists in urging the city to retain ownership of the lot and build a project with more affordable units.

Jeffress told the council that her team is planning to present recommendations about what to do with 14 city-owned properties, including the garage, sometime in June. 

The recommendation will “consider available resources, including staff capacity to manage the dispositions and affordable housing funding, as well as site constraints and feasibility for development, to ensure the city is most effectively creating affordable housing on its properties,” she wrote.

Kaplan told The Oaklandside that moving ahead with the Clay Street project now is not just practically logical, but symbolically smart, too. She mentioned the “not in my backyard” refrain used by some people who purport to embrace affordable housing, but oppose projects in their neighborhoods.

The city could prove it’s not a NIMBY, she said: “This particular parcel is literally our backyard as city government. It’s right out the window of my city office.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.