Riaz Taplin, founder of Riaz Capital, speaks at Oakland Chamber of Commerce's press conference calling for the city to reopen City Hall and address crime occurring in downtown. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oakland Chamber of Commerce and several other business groups aren’t happy with the way Oakland government is being run.

The powerful business group demanded Wednesday that Oakland’s elected officials reopen City Hall and other city-owned buildings, hold City Council meetings in person, and take other steps to increase police presence downtown.

The chamber also wants Oakland to divert parking meter revenues to the city’s business improvement districts to pay for more security, and for Oakland to enact its encampment management policy, which bans camping by homeless people in most parts of the city.

Chamber officials and business leaders from other groups, including the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and the Oakland BID Alliance, which represents the city’s various business improvement districts, said they believe that reopening public-facing city departments and increasing security downtown will revitalize the city’s core, where many businesses have struggled due to the pandemic. 

“We’re focusing on downtown because it is the heart of Oakland, and businesses here have suffered,” Zachary Wasserman, chair of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, said during a press conference Wednesday outside City Hall. 

Wasserman said businesses are “suffering from the crime that is rampant in our city,” and that the City Council has failed to take steps to help them. “They are not acting in the way we think they need to act,” he said. 

The city’s various departments have been operating virtually since early 2020 when the pandemic shutdown led to remote work and closed offices. Some business people are upset that city locations where permits are obtained for things like construction and events are still shuttered.

Riaz Taplin, the founder of the real estate development firm Riaz Capital, said at Tuesday’s press conference the city should reopen its departments because it is more efficient for businesses to work with city staff in person.

Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas told The Oaklandside she has already announced plans to start hybrid meetings—where the public can participate in person or virtually—beginning next year. She also wants council meetings to start later in the day to encourage more participation. 

“City staff need additional time to work out meeting schedules and logistics, as this change would also apply to our boards and commissions,” Bas said. “We welcome input from the public.”

But public meetings and reopening city offices are just two of the complaints the business groups have. Dhruv Patel, chairman of Visit Oakland, a tourism-promoting nonprofit, said that improved safety would be a huge economic boost to the city, as most of Oakland’s largest hotels are located downtown. 

The Chamber of Commerce and business improvement districts want the city to divert revenue from public parking to fund more BID security patrols. The downtown area currently has three BIDs—The Uptown & Downtown improvement districts and the Chinatown Improvement Council. All three employ ambassadors using their own budgets, which are funded by special assessments that property owners pay.

Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Business Improvement District, said that more street ambassadors employed by the city’s various business improvement districts would make the streets safer. “We ask that revenue generated through parking measures be shared with BIDs,” Hauser said, “and we need the city’s partnership in these critical and shared goals.

“As improvement districts, we deliver services that are responsive to community needs. Merchants, visitors, and residents are all asking for more presence of our amazing safety ambassadors,” Hauser said.   

The business groups are also asking the city to hire 900 police officers. OPD currently employs about 680 officers, while the City Council has set aside enough funding to pay for 752. 

“It’s really the commitment to continue and expand the police academies, and a much more aggressive recruitment effort,” said Wasserman. 

OPD has never had 900 officers. The department’s high point of employment was 2009 when it had 830 officers. City officials estimate that adding 150 officers to reach 830 again would cost $24 million for six additional police academies plus $37 million anually to pay their salaries and benefits.

A passerby named Lara asked the speakers whether they’ve considered how an increase in policing would affect historically impacted communities that have had negative experiences with OPD. “We’ve heard and the council has heard from some of those marginalized communities who do want more police, but more police without continued attention to reforms just won’t do it,” said Wasserman.

Angela Tsay, CEO of Oaklandish, who attended the press conference said her employees have been accosted, sometimes on a weekly basis, while working downtown over the past few years. 

“We care the most for the safety of our employees and we don’t want them to have to carry mace behind the counter,” Tsay said. 

Tsay favors increased security patrols and the hiring of more police officers, but she wants beat officers who introduce themselves to downtown’s business owners and residents and interact with the community rather than police who are focused solely on enforcement. 

“We want the police to be for the community,” Tsay said.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.