Whither the 10K plan? 

As the local economy cools, perhaps it's time to ask...

The lively protest in front of the new Gap store kitty-corner from City Hall -- to date the most prominent visual symbol of downtown Oakland's revitalization in action -- brought out a motley assortment of activists: Gray Panthers, Just Cause Coalition members, anti-sweatshop activists, and environmentalists. Waving fists of crumpled paper money, the protesters gamely bounced through a choreographed routine to "Just Can't Get Enough," Depeche Mode's new-wave hit turned Gap jingle. The gracefulness of the dance was somewhat hampered by the fact that its participants were wearing bulky cardboard boxes with white letters painted on each side of the cube. When they faced forwards, the letters spelled out "Save redwoods." (The Fisher family, which owns Gap Inc., also owns 350 square miles of redwood forest in Mendocino County.) When everyone jumped ninety degrees and wiggled their right sides, the cubes read "Boycott Gap." When they jumped back and wiggled their left, the cubes spelled out "No sweatshops."

Behind the dancers, people held up signs with nearly dissertation-length slogans like: "Brown's 10K plan robs from the poor and gives to the rich. When big corporations move in, only big investors win." Another one, neatly bullet-pointed, demanded "small, local, socially responsible businesses," "diversity in our community," and "a thriving local economy." Protest organizer Mary Bull was passing around a bullhorn, inviting people to speak their minds about all things Gap, and nobody seemed to mind when the Depeche Mode CD started skipping for the umpteenth time, or when a passing homeless man somehow got tangled up in the dance.

Too bad it was a Saturday. Save for a few anxious-looking Gap employees huddled behind the mannequins, and a small clump of passersby shanghaied on their way to the bus stop, the downtown area was empty.

The fact that City Center, and much of the rest of downtown Oakland, is vacant on the weekends -- and evenings, and in fact quite a bit of the rest of the time -- was the impetus behind Jerry Brown's alternately revered and reviled "10K Project," which aimed to move 10,000 new, mostly upscale residents into seven downtown neighborhoods and provide them with a bevy of new shops, clubs, and restaurants. It has become a selling point for the city's redevelopment arm, a rallying cry for civic boosters, and the civic plan that anti-gentrification activists love to hate. There have been endless debates over who will benefit from the project and whether it will, along with rising rents and eviction rates, contribute to pushing low-income residents out of the city. But now that the dot-com boom has come and gone, perhaps it's time to ask whether those shops, apartments, and 10,000 new people will ever materialize.

According to Patrick Lane, the city's 10K project manager, so far 411 new units have been completed and another 919 are under construction. (Most of the former are located at The Landing, a relatively posh, 282-unit development at Jack London Square, where rents start at $1,490 a month. Opened in January, the project is now at about 75 percent occupancy.) Another 1,508 units are in various stages of the planning process, and 822 units are in the pre-application stage. According to Lane, developers proposing an additional 1,529 units are in the "just talking" phase of negotiations. With an average occupancy of 1.7 people per unit, that comes out to about 9,600 new downtown residents -- if everything actually gets built.

As the Bay Area rental market cools, that's becoming a big "if." "Who knows what the market will be in a year?" says Lane. "Some of these projects won't start for a year. If they don't have planning approval, they haven't even started on the drawings." Even for projects that have already broken ground, construction can be extremely slow -- the Essex apartment building, still in the works along the shores of Lake Merritt, was a muddy pit for so long that city staffers nicknamed it "Das Hole." No doubt developers in the preliminary stages of negotiation will be closely watching the sales and rental performance of the first of these 10K projects before they break ground themselves.

To add it all up: with only 411 units complete, the 10K plan to date has brought only about 700 new residents in the downtown. It's hardly a yuppie invasion. But then, nobody's ever really put an end date on when the living space for those 10,000 people is supposed to be finished. Although many expected it to more or less coincide with Brown's first term, the original report on the feasibility of the 10K plan, prepared by Berkeley-based firm Bay Area Economics (BAE) and presented in March 1999, refers to a five-year time frame. However, the report came with a significant caution that seems to have gone largely ignored. Comparing Oakland's 10,000-resident goal with similar downtown development schemes in Cincinnati, Denver, Portland, and Seattle, BAE found that in each of these cities, growth was much slower than that envisioned by the 10K project. In other words, even its earliest stages, the city's own experts predicted that getting thousands of people to move downtown right away would be an uphill battle. Were they right?

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