Over the past year, the news has been filled with stories and op-eds pondering the future of U.S. cities. Are we witnessing the end of a golden era for downtowns? Is the “urban doom loop” for real and, if so, just how bad could things get? Or is it all just being overblown

We can’t say with any certainty what the future holds, but it’s safe to say the pandemic upended how many people live, work, and enjoy their city centers, including in Oakland. COVID-19 made working from home the new normal. More than a third of employed people were still working primarily from home as of last June. Remote and hybrid work seems to be here to stay

Fewer people descending on downtown office buildings on weekdays means less revenue for the restaurants and retail shops that cater to them. It’s also caused budget crises for transit agencies due to big drops in ridership. Add heightened concerns about crime and homelessness to the worries of an economic downward spiral, and the narrative surrounding large cities can start to sound bleak.

Fairly or not, San Francisco has been held up by many as the embodiment of these concerns—a once thriving tech epicenter, now contending with corporate flight, vacant buildings, and addiction and mental health crises visibly playing out in some parts of the city’s downtown. 

Oakland has had to contend with similar challenges. But our downtown—and how people experience it—is uniquely shaped by Oakland’s history, the diverse communities that call it home, and local policy decisions that have guided its development in ways that differ from San Francisco, including in recent decades.

Read reporting from this project

When Oakland bet big on downtown housing

Unlike San Francisco, Oakland never became the next hub for big tech companies that some thought it might. Sure, there were starts and stops—remember Uber’s failed plan to build a headquarters in Oakland? But 25 years ago, the city of Oakland did go all in on a different kind of vision for downtown, one that centered on housing.

In 1999, Jerry Brown took office as mayor heralding a “rebirth” for Oakland. His vision included an ambitious plan to bring 10,000 new residents downtown within just a couple of years, by building new housing. At the time, downtown Oakland was a sleepy urban center, characterized by abandoned lots and a relative lack of entertainment options. Brown’s “10k Initiative” took longer than anticipated, but the mayor did succeed in creating over 6,000 new housing units downtown by roughly the middle of his second term.

In the process, Brown also recast himself politically as a Democrat who was more than willing to bend toward the center on matters of economic development—something that alienated the progressive left and advocates for Oakland’s historically Black and working-class neighborhoods, who accused the mayor of sacrificing community interests for the benefit of private developers. 

In the early 2000s, gentrification and displacement weren’t quite the concerns they would very soon become, as the tech sector boomed and younger and higher-earning workers flocked to cities like San Francisco and Oakland, driving up costs and putting strain on many longtime working and middle-class residents.

Eventually, over the terms of the next three mayors—Ronald Dellums, Jean Quan, and Libby Schaaf—Oakland was able to build over a dozen large apartment buildings downtown, with thousands of more units of housing. Restaurants and shops took over formerly empty storefronts. Bars and nightlife took off, as did street fairs like First Fridays.

But fears of gentrification and displacement were well-founded. While thousands of new residents moved to Oakland, the city’s homeless population also mushroomed, expanding by 47% from 2017 to 2019. Many longtime Black and brown residents were pushed out of the city by rising rents. And other social problems continued to vex the city, including high rates of gun violence and property crime.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Oakland was already in a state of flux and uncertainty. And no place in the city better encapsulated the seemingly contradictory forces of boom and bust, betterment and setbacks, than downtown.

25 years later, a new plan to shape downtown Oakland

While it hasn’t received nearly the publicity of Brown’s 10k Initiative 25 years ago, another sweeping vision for downtown Oakland could be on the cusp of getting approved by the city as early as next year.

Broadly speaking, the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan—one of nine neighborhood plans in various stages of development by the city—would define how private developers and local businesses can build and work downtown, while also establishing a vision, a set of guiding principles, priorities, and hopes for downtown’s neighborhoods. 

The 342-page draft plan has been in the works for over eight years and would provide developers, small business owners, residents, and community groups with guidelines and zoning regulations to determine things like the amount and types of housing that can be built, where businesses can set up shop, the creation of new cultural districts, strategies for pedestrian and vehicle mobility, the location of public green spaces, and more.

The downtown plan has the potential to impact how Oakland’s urban core evolves over the next 20 years. So we’ve decided to kick off our reporting on downtown with an overview of the draft plan that also places it in some historical context.

As we’ve seen, local governments can’t control everything—shifting and sometimes unforeseen forces like pandemics, the economy, and crime will continue to play a role in shaping the city and our experiences in it. But it can determine some things, like how we construct housing and other elements of our urban space. That’s why the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, and other documents like it, matter.

How we’ll be reporting with our partners

In the coming weeks, as major cities across the U.S. continue to grapple with big questions about how to reimagine themselves in a post-pandemic world, and as Oakland again readies itself to adopt sweeping rules for how and by whom downtown can be developed, we’ll be reporting stories in service to the question: Is downtown Oakland working? 

The answers we’ll find probably won’t be tidy, uniform, or conclusive, and that’s not our aim. What we do hope is to better understand how people are experiencing Oakland’s urban core right now—for better or worse—while also looking back at where downtown has been, and where it might be going. We’ll be talking to people who live downtown to hear what it’s like. Our team will take a close look at how restaurants, bars, and other locally owned shops are doing. We’ll report on how downtown’s transportation and transit systems have changed over time.

We won’t be doing this work alone. To help us paint a more complete picture, we’re partnering on the reporting with students from Oakland North, an online publication of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and we’ll be publishing their stories alongside those from Oaklandside reporters in the coming weeks.

We’ll also be working with Oakland Lowdown, an innovative “community studio for news and art” that opened shop a few years ago in a former liquor store at the foot of the Harrison Hotel on 14th Street downtown. Among other cool things, the Lowdown has published a zine with residents at the Harrison, worked with local high school students to collect oral histories and recreate them as a mural, and organized pop-up public art events prior to the 2020 election to ask residents what their first act would be if they were an elected official in Oakland.

For this project, we also want to get insights and ideas from anyone with a connection to downtown. We want to know what you’d change about downtown, and what you feel should be preserved. What’s your dream for downtown Oakland, and how does it align with the city’s?

Our partners at Oakland Lowdown and Oakland North are leading a series of in-person opportunities for you to share your thoughts with us. Drawing from themes of construction, local artist Chris Treggiari of the Oakland Lowdown is co-designing an interactive experience with students from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The first of their pop-up engagements is happening next Friday, Nov. 17, at the Old Oakland Farmer’s Market. We hope you’ll stop by to share your vision for downtown and learn more about how the neighborhood is changing.

And if there are things you’d like to see us report about downtown, you can let us know by writing to editors@oaklanside.org.

Illustration of downtown Oakland by Bea Hayward

Jacob Simas is the Community Journalism Director at Cityside and Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.