Posts Tagged ‘Oakland Happenings’


The new and improved Kaiser

November 21, 2008

Last night, Kaiser Permanente finally got their brand new Oakland hospital approved by the Oakland Planning Commission. (For more on the design review process, check out V Smoothe’s OakBook post on it.) It’s right down the street from us, so I figured it warranted a post and a little love after a looooong planning process. (The seven community workshops and four Planning Commission hearings began in September 2007—while they didn’t exactly integrate all of the neighborhood concerns into the plan, they did address some of the big ones, including lighting, Piedmont street frontage, ambulance paths, local businesses, and more. Yay.) The hospital is Phase 2 of the Oakland Medical Center rebuilding plan; Phase 1 is the big building currently under construction at the corner of Broadway and West MacArthur. Phase 3 will follow in a few years, and includes demolition of the existing hospital and a new office building on its site. (Kaiser has said this construction may not be possible immediately following demolition since the latter is on a tight time frame and money may not be lined up, but they have committed to creating a pocket park in the interim if construction of Phase 3 is delayed.)

Kaiser's new plan

Kaiser's new plan

When this project first went through design review in September, a lot of people were up in arms about the design of the building and its relation to the street. I’m not in love with the new design either, but it is an improvement—and it is a hospital, after all, which means form is constrained by function (or more specifically, by state and federal guidelines regulating said function). Generally, I think the new hospital will be good news for Westlake and Uptown, since it moves the main building a bit closer to us as an anchor for Auto Row businesses, but it’s still within spitting distance of the main Piedmont Avenue strip, so those businesses won’t lose out. (Side note: when I was in Babyalula on Lower Piedmont the other day, the owner mentioned that in spite of dire times, their sales are up 40 percent. Not sure if this is a result of the crazy number of babies in the ‘hood these days or of more people choosing Oakland-grown shops, but either way, good job guys!)

The new and improved Lower Piedmont

The new and improved Lower Piedmont

The approved building includes some interesting features, including:

  • A stormwater management system that reduces runoff and minimizes impervious surfaces;
  • Solar panels on both the hospital and the parking garage;
  • A PVC- and mercury-free environment (find out why this matters);
  • A Dolphin chemical-free water treatment system that distinguishes between potable and non-potable uses and treats accordingly; and
  • Recycled construction materials, including steel and concrete.

Kaiser also must provide some nice neighborhood benefits, including:

  • More pedestrian paths and crosswalks along Broadway, Piedmont, and West MacArthur;
  • New street trees along Lower Piedmont;
  • Funding for restoration of Glen Echo Creek (though I’m fuzzy on details here); and
  • Improvements to Mosswood Park, potentially including a new tot lot and new basketball courts (and the Labradane says he would also please like a dog path next to the Mosswood MSB, some decomposed granite in the big dog run, and a water fountain at Moosewood, his dog park of choice!)

Not to mention the very, very big benefit of reactivating Piedmont and Broadway below West MacArthur, which the current Kaiser campus does terribly with its walls of parking garages and offices. The one thing I’m worried about, oddly enough, is all the new residential parking zones proposed as part of the Kaiser expansion. I actually think residential parking zones are terrific—and I wish Westlake and Adams Point had them. But we don’t, and I’m a bit concerned that when every block in Temescal and Mosswood does and the hospital is that much closer to us, even more people will be coming to park on our block. And blocking our driveway. And running over our drainpipes even though the curb is red there. And keeping our neighbors without garages from being able to find street spots when they get home. *sigh*

Kaiser has also bandied about other ideas over the course of the development process, including outdoor physical activity classes and an expanded farmer’s market. (They have one now, but it’s tiny—can North Oakland really support a third large market to compete with Temescal and Grand Lake? Hard to say, but it would certainly be exciting if so! Maybe a mid-week market has potential, a la Berkeley’s Tuesday market.) So we’ll see what other fun things the new campus may bring.

Anyway, I imagine the construction process won’t be much fun, but hopefully the end result will be worth it. I can’t wait to see the wrecking balls take out the crappy 60s Kaiser buildings and the M/B Center—woohoo! It might even be worth becoming Kaiser members once the renovations are all done, since D. has that as an option at work. Not like we’re far from Alta Bates Summit and our current Pill Hill doctors, but still. Hmm….


How to earthquake-proof your home

November 20, 2008

It’s official: we just got our seismic retrofit rebate check in the mail, which means we’re 100 percent done with our earthquake retrofit! If you live in earthquake country, you’ve probably contemplated or undertaken a retrofit. Our city has a special program that provides a rebate to new homeowners who take on this project in the first year they own the house, so we decided to take advantage of that and jump right in. A year later—what a ride! Thought I’d take a minute to document the process for anyone thinking of going down this road. (Some of this info is Bay Area-specific, but much of it applies to any foundation-related project.)

**pictures forthcoming!**

Why retrofit?
Why not just buy earthquake insurance? We did all sorts of research on this. First, earthquake insurance is a scam (there, I said it!) Okay, not quite a scam, but basically the scenario in which you benefit from having insurance is a moderate quake that damages your house, but not many other houses near you. Then you get paid nicely. However, if lots of homes are damaged, you get paid less; if it’s the Big One, there’s a clause that says the state is not obligated to pay you anything at all, because they would be wiped out. So you’re basically insuring against that smallish quake. Thing is, that’s also the easiest kind of quake to prepare your home for structurally. The point of the retrofit is primarily to keep your house from sliding off of your foundation, and to keep the joists and the floorboards attached. For most houses, this means adding bolts, blocks, and plywood shearwalls to your existing foundation.

Hopefully our house will never look like this!

Hopefully our house will never look like this!

Prepare for your retrofit
First things first: get a permit. It’s not essential to get a permit for some projects, but foundation-related work is not in that category—and the permit may be cheaper than you think. (Ours cost $250, and getting it enabled us to qualify for a rebate that paid for a third of the project cost.) You can apply for the permit before you choose your contractor, or you can wait and have your contractor apply for it. We applied on our own and transferred it to our contractor after we hired him.

Figure out how to pay for your retrofit
With concern about the Big One growing across California, many communities now have programs to facilitate seismic retrofits. In Oakland, there’s a fixed fee of $250 for retrofit permits, and if you have a modest home on a flat lot, there are ready-made, pre-approved plans for you to use. (Sorry, Montclarions—the flatlanders win this round!) Other cities may have other types of incentives.

If you’re a new homeowner, find out if your community has a rebate program for seismic upgrades on newly-purchased homes. For instance, the cities of Oakland and Berkeley both have transfer tax rebate programs to encourage retrofits, and low-income homeowners may be eligible for federal funds. Also make sure you’re clear on the rules of the game. In Berkeley, for instance, your work must be completed within one year of the purchase date, whereas in Oakland, the clock starts ticking when your permit is approved, which can give you 20 months or more to finish the work. (Oakland does, however, have a strictly-enforced deadline for applying for the permit within the first 60 days of owning the home. From that point, you have 180 days to finalize your plan and get the permit approved or pay for extensions if needed.) Also consider whether the rebate amount is enough to offset the cost of any additional work required by the rebate program. (A contractor may recommend a partial retrofit, for example, which would cost a lot less than a full retrofit—but the rebate program might apply only to full retrofits.)

A retrofit costs a lot
A lot! At least, a lot more than we thought it would. In our area, retrofitting a small (1250 sq. ft.) bungalow in 2008 costs $6K-$14K, depending on who does the work and how they do it. You can reduce this cost somewhat if you can do the bolting and shearwalling yourself, but the materials themselves constitute a good chunk of that. (We were also uncomfortable doing the bolting given that you’re driving bolts directly into the foundation, though in retrospect I do wish we’d done the shearwalls ourselves.) Bear in mind that the process also generates an inordinate amount of dust, if that’s a concern.

Draw up some plans
Once you’re squared away on the cost and permit details, you’re ready to put a plan together. First, find out if your home qualifies for a ready-made retrofit plan. There are caveats to using these—they’re not perfect, and some contractors have mixed feelings on them—but using one will significantly reduce your costs, and will go a long way in protecting your home from a quake. For Bay Area folks, ABAG has a plan set for wood-framed homes that are two stories or less, have continuous concrete foundations and crawl spaces or basements, have no cripple walls over four feet high, and don’t have living space over garages.

If you don’t qualify—and we didn’t, since two of our cripple walls are six feet high—you’ll need to get a civil engineer to draw up plans for you. (In theory, there was supposed to be a “Plan Set B” that would address homes like ours, but as far as I know this has never been produced.) We actually had a lot of trouble finding a civil engineer who would charge by the hour. We knew our plans were pretty straightforward, since our house is on a relatively flat lot and met all the other Plan Set A requirements, but many of the recommended engineers would only charge flat (and exorbitantly high!) rates for a retrofit plan—or worse, they wouldn’t take our piddly little job at all. If you’re not on a hill or retrofitting a complex foundation, try calling independent engineers who work locally, rather than the big firms. Some retrofitting contractors even have engineers on staff (though in the East Bay this was surprisingly rare—all we needed was that seal for the City to say okay, but none of the firms who bid on our job had anyone to provide it!) In the end, the civil engineer we used charged for under four hours. (Talk to me after the next quake and we’ll see if they were four hours well spent—but both the contractor and the City agreed with the plan, even noting that it might be overkill on the safety front.)

Choose a contractor
Talk to a number of different contractors. Different firms have different ideas on how to approach retrofitting (and on how much to charge you!), and it’s helpful to hear what each has to say. I found it useful to get a couple of bids early on in the process as we were still working with the engineer; we ended up choosing one of those early contractors in part because he had contributed so much to the plan. In our case, we had an existing retrofit that had been done in the early 90s, so some things on that had to be fixed, while others could be left. (Fortunately, the previous owners pulled a permit for it—otherwise we would have been required to rip it all out to “show” what was underneath!) However, the science of retrofitting is evolving, and some of what had been done the first time around no longer seemed wise. (Ours had been done by a firm that had a particular style such that everyone who walks into our basement—from the contractors to the city inspectors to the termite guy—says “Oh, Company X has been here!”)

If your house requires engineered plans as ours did, consider spending more on the plans themselves and then having a general contractor do the physical work, rather than hiring a firm that specializes in retrofits. It’s not rocket science, and a good contractor will probably do just as good a job. If you’ve never taken on a construction project before, you’ll probably also want to make sure you have either a civil engineer or a contractor who will see you through the permitting process. That’s also not rocket science, but it can be tedious, and we found (on this and other projects) that it was much easier to work with the City when there was a professional they knew and trusted involved in the conversation.

Get the work done
Once you get started, the actual retrofitting process doesn’t take too long. Ours was done over a two-week period with some breaks in the middle, but I know people who’ve had their homes done in just a few days. As your retrofit is being done, check the work every now and then. In our case, the workers had already overdriven the nails in most of our shearwall before we noticed. Our primary contractor was well aware that overdriving nails was bad, but he was busy and not always on the job site. (To that end, if you can get a reliable primary contractor who is on the job site regularly or is doing the work herself, that’s even better.)

Can’t afford a full retrofit?
If a full retrofit isn’t in your budget—and quite honestly, it wouldn’t have been in ours without the transfer tax rebate in the mix—you can still take small steps to improve your home’s earthquake readiness:

  • Install a gas shut-off valve (ironically, this is super cheap relatively, but is the one thing we have yet to do!) They now make valves that will turn themselves off automatically in a quake, too.
  • Brace your water heater. Again, easy to do with a few dollars’ worth of supplies and a free afternoon.
  • Bolt into the wall any bookshelves or other furniture that could fall.
  • Have your chimney reinforced to avoid collapse (though this can also get pricey).
  • Make a family plan and an earthquake kit (and don’t forget dog food! Or, y’know, kid food, if you have one of those).

More Resources


New restaurants in the ‘hood

November 13, 2008

It’s bizarre, I know, but our neighborhood is positively crawling with new and about-to-open restaurants, in spite of the dire economic times. I’m making it a mission this winter to try all of the ones that are currently open, so we’ll see how that goes.

On Auto Row, we’ve now got (or are about to get):

They join Shashamane, Drunken Fish, and Z Cafe & Bar, which have been holding down the fort thus far. (Side note: with all the Uptown buzz and Kaiser Hospital under a state deadline to open the doors of its new location at Piedmont & Broadway by 2013, it’s probably a pretty opportune time to sign a long-term lease on one of those long-empty Auto Row storefronts….)

…and in Uptown proper, mostly still in development, we’ve got:

They join Luka’s and the old stand-bys Vo’s and Louisiana Fried Chicken, plus a few lunch spots. And a bazillion new apartments and condos in the Broadway Grand and Uptown developments.

Both of these neighborhoods are also part of the newly-approved Uptown/Lake Merritt Business District, which runs up Broadway all the way to 27th (and extends east to Harrison). The BID should hopefully help improve streetscape, safety, and other key aspects of the neighborhoods. It’s a tough economy out there, but so far the ‘hood seems to be holding its own. We’re going to make an effort to treat ourselves to dinner out in the neighborhood when we can to help these fledglings weather the storm.


Election Redux

November 6, 2008

So across Oakland on Election Night, there was dancing in the streets, with cars blowing horns well into the night and impromptu gatherings all across town. My office had a big post-election Obama bash yesterday afternoon complete with bubbly goodness and cakes. (Okay, technically it was a non-partisan “election celebration,” natch.)

Tuesday brought mostly good news for Oakland:

  • Berkeley voted down its anti-BRT measure that could have rippled our direction.
  • Voters across the state gave the nation’s first high-speed rail system the green light!
  • The regional parks and transit bonds passing with flying colors.

The proposed city taxes for police and schools failed, but both were laden with problems, so that’s neither particularly sad nor especially surprising. On the state level, the one big loss (or rather, one big bad win) was Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban. It’s now headed back to the California Supreme Court for what promises to be another long bout of appeals, so we’ll see where that leads. Otherwise, things shook out roughly as expected (if not as hoped).

The only big surprise for me was that Oakland’s Measure OO made it through. It’s a well-intentioned city measure that allocates millions to funding programs for children and youth. Unfortunately, because the proponents didn’t want to present it as a new tax in tough economic times, the measure instead called for getting the money by allocating 2.5 percent of Oakland’s total city revenues to the programs, which means to pay for it, the Council will have to axe $17+ million from other programs and services. Not good news for a city already strapped for cash. There’s still hope, though—it doesn’t take full effect till 2011-2012, which means we have a couple of election cycles to put a replacement ballot measure out that could identify an alternate funding source or another means of paying for these programs. I have a feeling many of the people voting for it didn’t think about the fact that they might lose library or parks or arts funding as a result.

On balance, though, there’s an optimism throughout the city that I haven’t seen in a long time. Like Americans across the country, everyone around here seems hopeful that better times lie ahead, and that President-elect Obama will be successful in steering the nation towards a strong future. Only time will tell, but it’s nice to go to sleep at night feeling good about tomorrow.


The City Dweller’s Guide to the Election: Part III (National)

November 3, 2008

Red states, blue states. Lavender and indigo. The country is awash in swathes of paint as we attempt to color code our politics. I live in a blue city in a blue county in a purple state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate in a generation, and isn’t likely to in this race, either. My county hasn’t gone red in more than fifty years. But is this a good thing for California’s cities? I wanted to unpack this, issue by issue, to see. I should preface this post by saying that I am an unabashed Obama supporter. But many of the reasons for this have to do with my personal politics and values, and not necessarily my Oakland issues. What do my city, my neighborhood, and the thousands like them across the country have to gain or lose on Tuesday? I looked at some of Oakland’s key issues to see. (The position overviews are somewhat abbreviated to capture the big ideas, and are based on the New York Times‘ assessment of each candidate’s positions based on candidate websites and campaign speeches. So make of that what you will.)

This is (still!) long, so here’s a menu:

Oakland is suffering dramatically from the foreclosure crisis, and the city desperately needs help to manage the impact on neighborhoods of having bank-owned homes sit empty. Affordable housing is also a huge issue throughout the Bay Area. We need teachers and janitors and police officers and nurses, but at the same time it’s so costly to live here, even in the current market, that the middle and working classes are still being priced out. The city needs federal and state involvement in housing and bank regulation to ensure that there are housing opportunities for everyone, and to fund innovative solutions to the foreclosure crisis to protect neighborhoods from blight and disinvestment. Predatory lending in the sub-prime market was a big issue here, as in other parts of California; we need strong legislation against this.

Obama would: Enact foreclosure moratorium; increase regulation; offer joint fed-state loan restructuring; offer mortgage credits for non-itemizers.

McCain would: Purchase and restructure mortgages; privatize Freddie and Fannie; create more transparency in process.

Advantage: Obama. This is mostly because I think regulation is the key here, and McCain has been a lukewarm supporter of federal regulation (as is traditional/appropriate for a Republican, since small federal government/free market principles are a tenet of Republicanism).

Again, another area where Oakland, like the rest of the country, is suffering. The East Bay has lost thousands of jobs in the last year, and California’s unemployment rate is currently at 7.7 percent, the highest in over a decade. So we need jobs, and specifically we need jobs for workers who may not have college degrees or advanced training. A great area to focus on are the “green-color” jobs—jobs in new green industries that Oakland residents and others in the region can be trained and prepared for. Small local businesses also need support to stay afloat, and they’re a crucial part of the Oakland economy. We’ve lost several large plants in recent years, and while the city is working to retain the few big industries it has left, there are acres of vacant formerly-industrial land in some areas (including most notably the old Army base, which is being planned as I write).

Obama would: Cut middle-class taxes but continue to tax higher income brackets; create jobs through infrastructure investment; provide federal aid to cities and states; extend unemployment benefits.

McCain would: Cut taxes across the board and extend Bush cuts, including capital gains; halve capital gains tax rates; cut corporate taxes; guarantee all savings accounts for six months; provide business tax deductions for capital expenses.

Both would: Suspend mandatory IRA withdrawals and taxes on unemployment benefits.

Advantage: Obama. My liberal values shine through here—I firmly believe that folks in higher income brackets should pay more taxes, because for low-income families, a tax represents a much greater sacrifice than it does for a high-income family. Moreover, our tax code and other policies have historically supported high income earners and helped them build wealth, so it only seems fair that the reverse can be in play as well. (However, I would much prefer a tax code that adequately captured cost of living, since that’s a very valid complaint of some of those high-income earners: $250K may be rich in Kansas, but it doesn’t go very far in Oakland. If legislators could devise a system that looked at living wages and cost of living and factored that into AGI, that would be my dream system.) I also believe those taxes should be used by the federal government as aid to states and cities to pay for infrastructure and services best managed/coordinated nationally (e.g., roads, schools, etc.).

This is a more subjective one, but generally I think that Oakland—and most cities—would benefit from a solid national health care system. Oakland is also home to four major hospitals and a sea of medical centers and clinics, so health care is a huge industry here. Better support for and good regulation of the industry are key to keeping costs down. Somewhat ironically, parts of Oakland (notably West Oakland and Deep East Oakland) struggle with huge health concerns, too: high childhood asthma rates, rampant diabetes, a number of diseases related to toxic environments (especially in the case of West Oakland, one of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods because of its proximity to the port, freeway system, and major truck and rail routes). Moving forward, we need to be much more cognizant of community health, from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the water we drink. I’m looking for an administration that will launch an effort to create healthy, sustainable communities across the country, but especially in our cities, where pollution and toxins are often highest.

Obama would: Require universal coverage for children; require employers to provide insurance or contribute to the cost, but exempt smallest businesses, and reimburse all employers for catastrophic health costs; provide subsidies for low-income people; create purchasing pool with choice of competing private plans and one public plan like Medicare; make plans portable from job to job; expand Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program; prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with health problems or charging them higher rates.

McCain would: Oppose mandate requiring everyone to obtain health insurance in order to give individuals free to choose their own health care; make plans portable from job to job and accessible across state lines; provide $2,500 tax credits for individuals and $5,000 for families to buy their own insurance; eliminate the tax deductibility of employer-sponsored health insurance; move to compensate medical providers based on the quality of their work; bring greater competition to drug markets by safe reimportation of drugs and streamlining the process for introducing generic drugs; offer federal assistance for states to create high-risk pools that would contract with insurers to cover consumers who have been rejected on the open market.

Advantage: Obama. Again, this comes back to the fact that I strongly, strongly believe in a national health care system, and I think it would be a terrific thing for cities, where there are dense concentrations of residents. If you don’t agree, McCain’s a better bet on this issue. But under our current system, America spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, and our system is far more flawed. We need wholesale reform, whether it’s public or private. I’d support a hybrid system that provides nationalized basic coverage but preserves some private choice over supplementary insurance, facilities, doctors, etc. to address concerns that care will degrade if everyone is eligible for it.

Like many parts of California, Oakland is striving to be a green city and has taken a number of steps in that direction, including the recent inception of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. While California has been proactive on enacting climate change legislation, including the recent SB 375, one of the first measures to connect climate change and energy policy to land use and transportation planning, we could use more help from the feds on this. We also need increased development of transit, alternative transportation modes, and federal standards that respect cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly communities. After eight years of an administration that refused to sign on to Kyoto and debated, at times, the causes and even existence of climate change, it will be refreshing to have Washington moving proactively on this front.

Obama would: Support taxing oil company windfall profits; support ethanol subsidies; oppose drilling in the Arctic and require oil companies to use existing lands before any new lands are made available; provide incentives to spur renewable energy development. [Obama initially opposed all domestic drilling, but has since said that he’s changed his mind and would allow some offshore drilling.]

McCain would: Oppose taxing oil company windfall profits; support expanding nuclear power; oppose ethanol subsidies; oppose drilling in the Arctic but expand drilling offshore; oppose tax subsidies as a means to spurring renewable energy development.

Advantage: Obama (but both represent big improvements over Bush). “Drill, baby, drill”?!? Are you for real? Actually, I think—hope—that either candidate will be a huge improvement over Bush on the energy front, and the fact that it was a big campaign issue on both sides of the aisle is promising. Honestly, my biggest fear on the McCain end is that he’ll drop dead and Palin will be running the country, which is scary for alternative energy. Yes, Alaska has some oil. But drilling there is a band-aid to the much larger issue of our reliance on oil, and when it runs out—which it will, and in our lifetimes—we’ll have no oil and a devastated landscape. Also, there is no reason to be providing incentives for oil extraction a la windfall tax breaks. Instead, that money should go into encouraging metro areas to build up their mass transportation systems and dense urban cores.

On density and cities: My favorite line from this campaign was from a Minnesota congresswoman explaining the liberal agenda: “They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs. That’s their vision for America.” Yup, exactly, sounds good to me! (Except that our bungalow, located at the heart of one of Oakland’s densest neighborhoods, gets miffed when she gets called a “tenement,” as do the lofts and the Victorians down the street.) Dense urban centers don’t always translate to high-rises or slums, as nay-sayers like to claim. Our neighborhood is a mix of Victorian and arts and crafts single-family homes with yards, historic fourplexes, mid-century apartment buildings, and brand-new condo buildings. We have, within a few blocks: two grocery stores, three churches, a synagogue, a lake with trails and a public boathouse, a creek, a museum, a senior center, one big park, a rec center, lots of little parks and tot lots, a dog park, a number of schools, two hospitals, art galleries, auto shops, a children’s storybook park, and coffee spots and restaurants galore. Several bus and train lines run through our neighborhood. The people who live here range from urban singles to families in their first homes to families with older children to empty nesters enjoying retirement to seniors on fixed incomes in assisted living facilities. We have some urban grit here and there, but we know our neighbors and feel safe. The “inner city” (and at less than a mile from city center, we’re as in as it gets) isn’t such a bad place to live! Cities aren’t for everyone, true—but we should be ensuring that those who do want to live in cities are able to do so with as minimal a footprint as possible.

I should note that I do have one big issue with Obama: ethanol subsidies. There are huge issues with the ethanol industry today, not the least of which is the notion of providing incentives for fuel rather than food in a nation where children in Oakland and other places across the country don’t have enough to eat. I’d like to see a reformed farm bill address the connections between food and fuel, deal with the corn lobby, and ensure that any new energy generation is both sustainable and ethical.

Oakland needs reinvestment in education across the board, from preschool programs to K-12 education to community colleges and trade schools. California is fortunate to have one of the nation’s strongest community college systems, but it’s faltering as funding dries up. We need regional, state, and federal funding to repair our aging schools, boost teacher salaries, and provide better early childhood education. We need loans and grants available to youth to encourage them to pursue higher education. We also need to get rid of No Child Left Behind once and for all. Yes, accountability and assessment are incredibly important. But for inner-city schools whose students may come from homes with a plethora of challenges, evaluation is not the be-all-end-all way to measure success. California schools are currently monitored to see if students meet state and federal proficiency standards. Proficiency is great, but we’re talking about school districts where kids may be moving from school to school; where they may enter the classroom performing well below grade level from day one; where they may miss big chunks of the school day for a multitude of reasons beyond the school’s control. We need to be evaluating more comprehensively to see where students started, what progress they’ve made, and what the factors in the progress or lack of progress were. Only then can we begin to make assertions about how successful a school or a teacher has been.

Obama would: Rewrite NCLB to offer more help to high-need schools and better fund and measure the program; negotiate pay performance programs with teachers, prioritize recruitment and offer professional development; spend $10 billion a year to expand early childhood education; increase federal funding for after-school programs; double federal spending on public charter schools while holding them accountable.

McCain would: Keep NCLB but change mode of measurement; offer bonus pay for teachers who raised achievement or worked in hard-to-staff schools; use federal money to support existing early childhood programs; allow parents to choose the school for their children; expand federal support for vouchers; promote online learning.

Both would:
Expand after-school programs.

Advantage: Obama.
NCLB has to go. Accountability is a good thing, but NCLB’s approach to achieving it has been devastating to our public schools, where teachers now “teach to the test” and often are forced to abandon the enrichment that could be exciting children to learn. And universal preschool is one of my big, big issues. We’ve had models for this for decades, and we still have kids entering kindergarten (and even first grade, in some states) with no exposure to education; they never make up that gap. After-school programs are another big concern, especially for Oakland, where many youth have nowhere to go after school, so I’m glad to see support for this from both candidates. I’m strongly opposed to vouchers, which in my view abandon and degrade our public schools. I still have some issues with Obama on education—for instance, I’m only a lukewarm supporter of charter schools (as a former teacher in one!) and I don’t think we’re ready for performance-based pay, though I certainly believe teachers should be much better paid and supported. Finally, we also need to expand support for higher education, something the candidates have only briefly touched on. The credit crisis has taken a huge toll on college students and their families this year; we need to make higher education, including community colleges and trade/vocational schools, much more accessible financially.

This is a biggie for Oakland in part because we have one of the country’s busiest container ports (only LA, Long Beach, and NYC are busier). The city has a giant challenge: preserve our active port and the many jobs it provides for residents, but at the same time reduce our reliance on foreign goods and enhance our local economy. The port is also a huge polluter, so we need to transition it to greener fuels and deal with the emissions of the thousands of trucks and trains that shuttle imported goods across the country. We need federal regulation of ports on this front, though. If Oakland tries to break new ground on its own, it risks losing container ships to other California ports. Ideally, we need federal or even continental strategies for greening the shipping industry. We need to balance our exports and imports so that we can stop sending empty containers back across the ocean, burning fossil fuel all the way. As a nation, we need to think carefully about what we trade and how. We should be trading only those goods that we do not have or cannot produce efficiently (and by “efficiently” I don’t mean Indonesian children, either!) and—importantly—that we actually need. And we should be offering those supplies that we have or can efficiently produce for other nations that may not have those resources. If it’s not in one of those two categories, we should be making it in the United States, growing it locally, or adapting to go without. We should also be thinking carefully about the future of our ports if we do reduce exports and imports over time, and should be planning accordingly. (Also see “immigration” below for more on trade.)

Obama would: Reform NAFTA to better protect workers’ rights and the environment; resist free trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia without reforms.

McCain would: Continue to support and strengthen NAFTA in its current incarnation.

Advantage: Obama on NAFTA; neither has said much to address intercontinental trade, which is problematic. Conceptually, having a continental trade agreement is a great idea. But NAFTA has issues—big issues. It was supposed to generate American jobs and raise Mexican wages and benefits, but in both cases the reverse has happened, which has had dire consequences for Oakland and the rest of California. Mexico’s agricultural economy has failed in part due to the subsidies U.S. agriculture receives. None of the three countries have seen the promised living conditions or environmental benefits. The coalition against NAFTA is hugely diverse, which should raise a big red flag. It needs to be tossed and constructed anew. If you’re not familiar with NAFTA and its provisions, definitely learn more about it (Wikipedia provides a decent starting place). Its huge failure over the last fifteen years also leads us right to….

Immigration is a big issue in many cities, but it’s a HUGE issue in Oakland and across California. While there are clearly a wide variety of views on whether immigrants should be here, the reality is that they are. Oakland schools have hundreds of immigrant students whose first languages are Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Amharic, Oromo, Vietnamese, Spanish, and dozens of others. We need a comprehensive set of programs to support children and their families so that students are healthy, learning, and engaged in their communities. While there’s an argument that says that we should only offer such programs to American citizens or immigrants with green cards, the consequences of excluding these children have the potential to be devastating—both for the youth themselves and for our communities. My preference is to create a path to citizenship as we have had for so many immigrants in past generations, but at a bare minimum we need to find effective way to provide education, health care, and other basic necessities to all families in the United States. Our investment there will come back to us tenfold in educated young adults who are active members of our communities and our work force, rather than youth who are relegated to underground gang activities and other under-the-radar means of getting by.

Obama would: Support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants that includes learning English and paying fines; toughen penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

McCain would: Secure borders, including a fence between the U.S. and Mexico; support comprehensive immigration reform, possibly including a guest worker program [before his presidential run, McCain also supported a path to legalization very similar to Obama’s proposal, but says he has now changed his mind].

Advantage: Obama.
We need to address immigration in conjunction with foreign relations, and specifically in conjunction with our trade agreements with Mexico. Mexicans come to the U.S. because they have so few opportunities there. Improving conditions within Mexico would be a great first step in creating a disincentive to flee. I understand the notion of border security, but in California, at least, immigrant workers play (and honestly, have always played—see also the Chinese workers of the 19th century!) a huge role in our local economy, filling jobs that Americans aren’t taking. We need to address this on a number of levels: prepare Americans who do want manual labor, agricultural, and trade jobs to work in those industries, if they so choose; we do a terrible job of this right now. Then consider the labor gap that remains, and recognize that currently, illegal workers fill that gap. If you want to formalize some sort of guest worker program to allow immigration at that level so those jobs are filled, that’s okay by me, as long as it’s a fair and ethical system. But it should also allow those workers who do come to bring their families, work towards citizenship, pay taxes, and share in the benefits other residents receive. (We already do this with H-1B visas for workers in high-end professional industries where there are shortages; we should offer similar rules and similar benefits for workers who fill critical needs in less sexy manual labor-based industries.) Otherwise it’s effectively just slave labor—no benefit for the workers who help keep our country running. As an added benefit, allowing workers to enter legally removes the market for coyotes and makes it much easier to deport those immigrants—and they’re the minority—who are involved in criminal activity. Right now, there’s a huge culture of distrust, and people are afraid to speak up on injustices or crime for fear of what INS might do. In Oakland, INS raids on parents picking children up from elementary schools became a huge concern (and to OUSD’s credit, the district refused to allow it). Change that culture, and you get stronger neighborhoods, better law enforcement, and, ironically, much greater control over immigration.

It probably goes without saying that guns and gun control are huge issues for Oaklanders. There are several camps on this one, too; we have friends and neighbors who keep legal handguns for protection, something I wouldn’t be comfortable with personally. But the bigger issue around here is illegal handguns. They’re rampant, and contribute to the drug culture and gang warfare plaguing a number of areas of the city. We need better control and regulation of guns, and I believe this should extend to bans on automatic assault weapons and other guns that are clearly beyond the definition of “hunting” or “self-protection” weapons.

Obama would: Support some restrictions on gun ownership.

McCain would: Oppose gun control. [McCain did support some restrictions before his presidential run, but has since changed his view on this. He does, however, support mandatory background checks at gun shows.]

Advantage: Obama. This is not even a discussion. Oakland needs guns off the street today. This is a litmus test issue for me.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. I’m not even going to open the box on issues like the war, abortion, foreign relations, the death penalty, or gay marriage (a big one in California this year). Those all affect Oakland, too, but I could write a book on all this, and this is enough for one election!

(You can also read my two cents on the California ballot measures and the Oakland/East Bay elections.)


The City Dweller’s Guide to the Election: Part II (Oakland)

October 23, 2008

It’s Oakland time!

Councilmember At-Large
, Oakland City Council:
Rebecca Kaplan. The race here is just between Kerry Hamill and Rebecca Kaplan for the at-large seat, since the other seats were all settled in the June primary. I actually think either of these women could bring good energy and ideas to the Council, which is a refreshing contrast to the national races. But I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen and heard from Rebecca Kaplan, so my vote is with her. Not only does she seem to “get” cities in general, but she’s been very articulate about how she would tackle some of the heavy-hitting issues the new council will be dealing with, most notably the fallout of the corruption scandals and the housing crisis and HUD funding. I also resent Kerry Hamill’s “safe neighborhoods” ads that are all over the place, partly because her team keeps sticking them on public and commercial property without permission (big no-no!) and partly because the ads imply that she’s the safety candidate and Kaplan isn’t, which is just patently false. (One of these days I will remember to bring my camera and snap a shot of an ad that’s fallen into a vacant lot on Auto Row, where it’s been looking especially ironic.) Yes, public safety is probably the single biggest issue in Oakland right now, but we don’t need a single-issue candidate—we need someone who can think holistically about the city to enhance safety by strengthening the local economy, meeting the basic needs that are driving some of the more desperate crimes, looking at youth issues to get a handle on the gang warfare in East Oakland, etc. That’s Kaplan, in my view.

U.S. House of Representatives, District 9
Barbara Lee is running again, so there’s really not much to say here.

State Senate, District 9
Again, Loni Hancock running. This race was over back in June.

State Assembly, District 16
Sandré Swanson is our current rep, and does good work. I’m sticking with him.

Superior Court, County of Alameda, Seat 9
Dennis Hayashi. Another race where there are two good contenders, though, so that’s nice. But I’m much more impressed with Hayashi’s experience and his stated goals, especially with respect to accessibility of the courts without regard for language ability or income, which is a huge barrier in Oakland.

Board Member At-Large, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District
Chris Peeples gets my vote, though I have to say that I’m not super enthused by either candidate. I find Peeples’ devotion to the Van Hool buses irritating given the many issues that have arisen with them and the huge cost, but otherwise I think he’s doing an okay job. And Joyce Roy, his challenger, is a BRT-lite fan, which irks me much more than the choice of bus thing. The buses can be fixed. Screwing up our shot at a true BRT system can’t be, at least not easily.

Board Member, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, Ward 2

I like Greg Harper fine. He can stay. As a bonus, he hates the Van Hools!

Measure N: Outstanding Teachers for All Oakland Students Act (OUSD)
NO. I almost always support any measure to increase school funding, but this one has me a bit worried. Conceptually, raising teachers’ salaries is a good thing, but everything I’ve read about Measure N suggests that it is poorly put together, and not a good means to that end given the cost to manage it. Let’s wait for a better opportunity to do this. No on N.

Measure NN: Police Services Expansion Measure (City of Oakland)
A very, very lukewarm YES.
Oakland needs more cops. Period. Even if we had all the cops that Measure Y was supposed to get us (which we don’t), we wouldn’t have enough for a city our size. Do I trust the City and OPD to manage and spend funds effectively? No, not really (though I was pleasantly surprised to see OPD overtime meet the hatchet in the deficit-closing budget meeting earlier this week, since that’s certainly one of the biggest budget sucks). But at the end of the day I think we need to secure the money first, and then make sure we put the fire under them to do it right. There’s a compelling argument that says that’s me being overly optimistic (and/or a trusting idiot), but there ya go. Yes on NN. If you want to vote no, though, I won’t hate you for it. And I somehow doubt it’s passing either way.

Measure OO: Kids First! (Oakland Fund for Children and Youth Act)
NO WAY. I’m usually a shoe-in for any measure that supports kids or education….but not this one. Here’s why: while this is a great idea, this ballot measure doesn’t include a funding source for this work, which means it’s an unfunded mandate to the City to move money in the General Fund over to this fund. Which means taking money from somewhere else. The City Council just spent hours trying to figure out which critical programs to cut this week. We’ll be holding round two of that if OO passes. I’d actually like to see this measure return in a few years with some teeth—figure out where the City will get the money from, and then spend it. We do need more funding for youth programs, but not at the expense of parks, libraries, arts, police, street lights, and other crucial services. (Incidentally, if this had been a parcel tax for these programs, I would happily have voted for it.) The worst case scenario if this passes is that we could wind up in a few years’ time with a sea of these issue-driven mandates controlling General Fund spending so tightly that the City won’t have anything left to fund basic services. No on OO.

(More no on OO from V Smoothe, D.’s go-to source for how-to-vote advice when he doesn’t feel like listening to me.)

Measure VV: Special Tax Measure (AC Transit)
YES. Okay, let’s get rid of that negative energy. Here comes a critical ballot measure that Oakland can’t go without. A while back, AC Transit, which provides bus service throughout Alameda and Contra Costa Counties and across the Bay Bridge to downtown San Francisco, announced that they would have a massive deficit in large part because the state had pulled a lot of local transportation funding. They’d have to raise fares across the board, and cut service and routes. People cried. They staged protests. Seniors and youth who can barely afford to ride now showed up to public meetings. Everyone begged AC Transit to look for another solution. Well, folks—here it is! This measure extends and raises by $4/month a current parcel tax for transit services. Four bucks a month is pretty minimal as taxes go—in fact, I’m the only bus rider in our house and I only ride a few times a week, but we’ll still pay less with the new parcel tax than we would have with the increased bus fares. This is important for Oakland in part because a strong transit system helps keep cars off our streets, and in part because it’s an equity issue for transit-dependent Oaklanders (including seniors and youth). Yes on VV.

Measure WW: Renew & Protect Our East Bay Regional Parks (EBRPD)
I *heart* parks. I especially *heart* EBRPD parks, which are honestly some of the most incredible regional parks I have ever known (and I’ve lived in some very park-rich cities!) I will pretty much vote for any parks measure, but this one is especially good because it’s an extension of an existing measure, so it’s not a new tax. And it’s a proven program—the renewal of the parks really is working. It also allocates funding very specifically, so you know exactly what you’re getting. (Me? I’m getting the East Bay Greenway, Eastshore State Park, public access to the Oakland shoreline and estuary, more open space at Sibley, and Redwood Creek. What’s in there for you?) Yes on WW.

Berkeley’s Measure KK
NO!! Finally, just for kicks, let’s talk about Measure KK, which is actually a Berkeley measure but will directly affect Oakland. Measure KK seeks to require voter approval for transit-only and commuter/bus-only lanes as an underhanded means of barring AC Transit from dedicating a lane along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to bus rapid transit (BRT), an innovative system that gets you most of the efficiency of light rail at a fraction of the cost. We need-need-need BRT. It will provide reliable, more frequent bus service to better connect our neighborhoods, help reduce emissions, and wean us off cars. Berkeley, in its beautifully contrary nature, is working on its climate action plan to reduce car use, but doesn’t want transit in its midst. Huh??

The people who live in the Berkeley neighborhoods along Telegraph (and I used to be one of them and still get all their emails, so I’m comfortable vouching for them) are convinced that taking a lane for BRT will lead to people driving around Telegraph on the side streets and parking there, too. Shops will lose their customers when people can’t park in front. Telegraph will get even more congested. Okay. Let’s unpack these. Will people drive and park on side streets if Telegraph is congested? Left to their own devices, sure. But that’s one of the easiest things in the world to control: you close off the ends of streets, and you use residential parking permits, as in Elmwood. Done. Will shops lose customers? Umm. Have you been to this part of Telegraph recently? It’s virtually all student-oriented shopping. The students are coming from campus, not in their cars. I, for one, will go to Telegraph way more often if I can do it in a few minutes on BRT—it’s already painful to drive there, so I don’t. You risk running over students, hippies, and guys selling buttons. I can’t think of many/any shops in that stretch that require cars for transporting your purchases. Half the streets are already one way in bizarre directions. The notion that people will refuse to abandon their cars even in the face of steep parking fines and annoying street patterns is puzzling. That’s exactly the point: you make it super quick and easy to hop on the bus and a royal pain to drive, and YES, people will stop driving.

Importantly, if Berkeley blocks BRT, there’s a very real chance it won’t happen in North Oakland, either, since it will be less viable along just half of the Telegraph corridor. In that case, it’s most likely that the line would run from San Leandro into downtown Oakland, but end there—stranding those of us in Westlake, Mosswood, Temescal, Bushrod, and other parts of North Oakland. If you live in Berkeley or know people who do, urge them to walk the walk, not just talk the talk—their new climate action plan calls for encouraging transit and other alternatives to cars along major transit corridors. Berkeleyans need to prove that they mean what they say.

(More on Measure KK and the other state and local transit measures from Living in the O.)


The City Dweller’s Guide to the Election: Part I (California)

October 23, 2008

Okay, I’ve kept politics out of this blog up till now, but as the November election gets closer, it’s time to start sorting through all those races and ballot measures that are coming up. I though it would be interesting to look at these issues with an eye towards what might be best for Oakland, and for cities in general. This is Part I, which focuses on the California statewide ballot initiatives. Part II will look at local Oakland measures, and Part III will tackle the national race. Here goes!

Prop 1A: Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century
YES. This would be even more important if the East Bay spur of the rail were still under serious consideration, because that would have connected Oakland and the other East Bay cities to what may well be one of the most life-changing infrastructure improvements in California in generations. High speed rail not only provides connections between all of the state’s cities, but it helps get traffic off the freeways, and ultimately may help us get the freeways out of the cities altogether. This initiative will build dedicated tracks for passenger rail to avoid scenarios like the horrible LA train collision earlier this fall. In most parts of our country, freight companies own the tracks, so passenger trains must stop and wait for freight trains to pass before they can go on their way; some Amtrak trains wait for hours to allow a late freight train to pass through. A new system is costly, yes, but most good infrastructure is; we’ve simply grown accustomed to not paying for new infrastructure (and not even keeping up what we already have terribly well). We need a new era of public investment in our facilities. If you’re under 45, this will probably be the most important transportation infrastructure project in your lifetime. Be a part of it, and help California set a new precedent for train travel! A very big YES on 1A!

Prop 2: Standards for Confining Farm Animals
YES. This one is hugely controversial. Basically, it requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. I think that’s a great thing. The argument against it is that it’s too expensive to raise animals this way, so stores will start importing these products from out of state. I don’t buy it. It is similarly “too expensive” to pay living wages to workers in the U.S., and so we import products made by children in Indonesia. The funny thing is that people have started caring about Indonesian kids, and realizing that there’s a tradeoff to things that are cheap. I think the same will be true of raising animals for food. If other states follow suit—and fuel costs continue to rise—we’ll see the relative cost of raising animals humanely drop. In the meantime, I think it will also be a boon for California’s small farms, many of which are doing this already, and for backyard agriculture. A chicken for every yard. Yes on 2.

Prop 3: Children’s Hospital Bond Act
A lukewarm YES.
No, it’s not *that* Children’s Hospital bond measure! This one would benefit children’s hospitals (and hospitals in general) across the state. Is it true that the Prop 61 money isn’t even spent yet? Yes, but that’s intended for grants through 2014, and is a much smaller pot of money that doesn’t begin to make a dent on needs. Oakland’s own Children’s benefits from both measures (and has already completed its Prop 61 work) and does desperately need seismic improvement even if the measures on the last ballot weren’t the right way to get it—and for that reason, I say yes on 3. (The best argument against it, I think, is that the state is already massively bonded and should be avoiding any more debt right now. I buy that, too; if we’re only going to bond for one thing this year, it ought to be high-speed rail.)

Prop 4: Abortion Waiting Period & Parental Notification Initiative
How many times has this one been on the ballot?? No, no, no to creating disincentives for pregnant teens to seek counseling and support for difficult decisions like abortions. An issue for Oakland, as for other communities, because we have a high incidence of teen pregnancy….and they need all the support they can get. I’m not opposed at all to involving parents in this process, and ideally they’re actively involved, but there shouldn’t be a mandate or waiting period that will interfere with teens’ rights to choose. No on 4.

Prop 5:
Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA)
YES. This is another tricky one that will have a big impact on Oakland, where drug busts barely phase me anymore. There are compelling arguments for and against it, but at the end of the day, I say yes on this. It prioritizes treatment over incarceration, and I think we have pretty compelling evidence that California prisons just aren’t working (and may actually be making the gang/drug problems worse). This proposal is based on Prop 36, which has largely succeeded at treating nonviolent drug offenders. This one also includes youth treatment, which is significant—we know that our prison system is failing youth right now, so if this provides an alternative for just a few of those kids, we may have fewer adult offenders down the road. Substance abuse and mental health are woefully underfunded across the country, and I do have faith that, given the resources, many drug offenders can become productive members of our community. Let’s just hope it works. Yes on 5.

Prop 6: Safe Neighborhoods Act/Runner Initiative
NO. Like much of what seems to wind up on the California ballot (have I mentioned what a screwed up system of governance this is?? Remind me again what we pay our lawmakers for?!?), this proposition has a happy sunshine goal, but a pretty misguided way of getting there. Of course I want a safe neighborhood, but this isn’t how I’m going to get one. It introduces a number of unfunded (or partially funded) mandates for counties, cities, and housing authorities, and moves a chunk of funding from crime prevention programs to crime prosecution. More youth will be tried and jailed as adults (yup, we know how well our prisons work for kids!) It’s incredibly expensive (try one BILLION dollars!) for a not-especially-well-thought-out program, too. The list of people opposing it is ridiculously long, and includes not only the Oakland police chief, but also the mayor and entire city council (not to mention most of the elected officials in shouting distance of Oakland, plus many community organizations I highly respect). No on 6.

Prop 7: Renewable Energy Generation (aka “Big Solar”)

NO. Surprise surprise. This is another one that sounds like it should be a good idea, but really isn’t. Clean, renewable energy is great. Done right, it will actually cost us less and establish California as a leader in the field, which is important for Oakland because we have a green jobs initiative to build an urban workforce for energy and related industries. But Prop 7 goes about this the wrong way, and will actually make it cost more. It’s inflexible, so we’re not positioning ourselves to change with the science. And it excludes the small local renewable companies from the benefits, which just isn’t right—they were the ones forging this path long before the big producers got on board. (For what it’s worth, though, the big boys aren’t on board for this proposition either.) No on 7.

Prop 8: Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry
Has your life changed dramatically since same-sex couples gained the right to marry last spring? No? Okay, so why take away someone else’s right—just to be mean? (Smear campaigns aside, this doesn’t change nonprofit status for churches or force new teaching in schools—churches marry people spiritually, not legally, so their practices are unaffected, and schools already teach tolerance of all families and will continue to do so regardless of how marriage is defined.) From a more practical perspective, this one is important to Oakland because our city is home to many gay and lesbian families, especially families with children, who would be very directly affected by losing the rights associated with civil marriage. Let’s keep our communities family-friendly for everyone. No on 8—don’t discriminate!

Prop 9: Victims’ Rights & Protection Act of 2008
Okay, so right off the bat, this one is another constitutional amendment, which should raise a red flag. The California Constitution is not something we should be amending every November depending on how the wind blows. This is yet another proposition that tries to address very real problems with our criminal justice system in a convoluted, not-especially-effective way. Yes, victims should have rights. But they already have the notification rights that are included in this proposition. Should those rights also include being paid restitution before any other creditors? Maybe, maybe not; consider a multi-million dollar fine, for instance, for a criminal who also owes child support. Not so sure that the victim ought to get every asset before the kids. Should the wait for parole increase? Maybe, but amending the constitution is not the way to do that, either. The point of parole hearings is that people are evaluated case-by-case based on the nature of the crime and the individual, so a blanket approach to barring early releases defeats the system. At the end of the day, this proposition throws more people in jail who may or may not belong there, and gets rid of some basic rights like due process. I don’t like getting rid of rights, in case you can’t tell. (Also interesting is that the only major supporter of this proposition, Henry Nicholas, stopped advocating for it after he was indicted for felony drug conspiracy. Oops.) No on 9.

Prop 10: California Alternative Fuels Initiative (aka “Big Wind”)

NO. This is a proposition that was hastily put together by all the people opposed to Prop 7. Yay, I love legislation from the ballot box. Read everything on Prop 7 again, except put “will cost much more” everywhere it says “will cost more.” It still doesn’t do much for the little guys. We need renewable technology, but I’m comfortable leaving that to our legislature to work on. (C’mon, we need to leave them *something* to do!) No on 10.

Prop 11: Voters FIRST Act
YES. Is this going to affect Oakland? Hard to say, but I’ll count it that way. Basically, I have no issue with commissioners drawing district boundaries, and I think we should be redrawing district boundaries as demographics change. The notion that appointed officials are more likely to be corrupt than elected officials just seems a bit off. Right now politicans get to draw their own district lines. (I know, if you don’t live in California, you’re shaking your head in disbelief right about now.) If anything, bureaucrats seem *more* likely to draw them fairly, not less. Let’s give it a shot, at least. Yes on 11.

Prop 12: Veteran’s Bond Act of 2008

YES. This extends an existing program, and with more veterans coming home every day (many of them to Oaktown!), it seems to me that we ought to keep this around. Opponents include a guy in Mountain View, who doesn’t actually object to the act, but thinks it ought to define veterans as those who served in combat, not just anyone who was in the armed forces. Proponents include everybody else. (Okay, that’s a little exaggeration—but really, there basically aren’t any opponents on record!) So I say yes on 12.

Next up: local issues, including the Oakland City Council race and some important local funding measures.


What to do with all that fruit…. (or: cool food organizations in Oakland!)

September 9, 2008

Our persimmons are on the verge of ripening, which means it’s time to figure out what on earth to do with the bushels upon bushels that our trees are going to start shedding. Last year we had just moved in and had no idea that two single trees could possibly produce that much fruit. Now that we’ve weathered the persimmon, plum, apple, and loquat harvests, we’re pros at this. And while apples (and applesauce) are easy to give away, persimmons are a little more challenging. Last year I dumped a bunch at work, made our friends eat persimmon cake and persimmon pudding for weeks, froze a few as an experiment, and threw the rest (by which I mean dozens) into the green bin to help with Oakland’s city composting efforts.

This year I’m a bit wiser, and am not planning to attempt to use these all ourselves. Neither of us really likes the hachiya ones except in baked goods, and my noble attempt to freeze lots of puree for wintertime baking really didn’t pan out so well given that in California we get fresh local fruit all year round. Instead, I’m going to have one of these Oakland orgs come out to harvest them and cart them away—though we haven’t decided which yet.

PUEBLO’s Urban Youth Harvest: This program, a joint effort with Cycles of Change (another great local group!), has Oakland youth cycling through the city collecting ripe fruit, which they then donate to low-income seniors in the city. Not only do we get to help provide food for our neighbors, but we also provide jobs for youth and get them excited about sustainable local food and biking. You’d think choosing this would be a no-brainer.

Except….except! There’s also Forage Oakland, a new local project that offers a neighborhood exchange: you give them your edibles, and you get someone else’s edibles. I really like this idea; it reminds me of Portland’s backyard fruit trees project that got neighbors talking with one another as they traded the harvest.

So I’m torn. PUEBLO’s gig sounds like a better choice for benefitting the city overall, but the experimental/artistic vibe of Forage Oakland is compelling too. Of course, we do have two persimmon trees, so maybe we’ll just share the wealth….

Hachiya persimmon


Is small the new cool?

September 1, 2008

That’s what the Chron’s Mark Morford is asking in a recent column.

It’s funny, because we weren’t exactly thinking about size when we were house-hunting, beyond avoiding anything that was reminiscent of a dorm room. It was mainly a matter of getting the most house we could afford in a neighborhood we wanted to live in. As it turned out, we ended up with a small bungalow that’s exactly the kind of house everyone seems to be singing the praises of these days: close to the city center, transit-accessible, walkable and bikeable, near lots of services and amenities. (Okay, we could definitely use a few more of those, but Oakland’s working on that too.) The fact that it’s a single-family home is definitely a vote against it on the footprint front, but our neighborhood is one of the city’s densest, and even the freestanding homes here are packed in on tiny lots. (We’re lucky on that front, too; ours is among the largest lots in the neighborhood—which is to say, we have a small-but-not-tiny, sweet backyard that’s nicely matched to the house.)

It’s no small coincidence that Oakland is full of small bungalows; the city grew up in an era when space was at a premium, and homes were designed to be efficient, utilitarian spaces. To wit: a family with five children lived in our home for much of the 1920s—I was astounded at first, but as we’ve lived here longer, I see how that could work (though there must have been some wait for the bathroom!) With two of us, we rarely use two of the rooms. We’ve also embraced spaces that my family never used in the houses I grew up in—we eat most meals in the dining room, for instance, and we just have a single large living room that can be either formal or informal as required. The breakfast room also has a built-in baking counter, so that’s another room that doubles up uses. A lot of this comes back to the fact that California bungalows that haven’t been muddled around too much are just really well-designed spaces that flow well for daily life. There’s a lot packed into the tiny footprint, and if anything, it sometimes seems that we have too *much* space. As a bonus, we also have super low utility bills and it’s very easy to tackle projects like rewiring or retrofitting, because the house is very compact and well-defined.

So is small really the new “cool,” or are people just momentarily swept up by high energy costs and the economy? When gas and fuel costs come back down, will people head back to their spacious luxury digs, or are small spaces truly back? I’m curious….I’m a bit biased as someone who lives in and loves the bungalow model, but I do hope it gets embraced once again if some of these value shifts stick.

This isn't our house, but it's awfully close! (From's great bungalow plan library)

This isn’t our house, but it’s awfully close! (From’s great bungalow plan library)