Friday, April 17, 2009

Density debates in Oakland, the Brooklyn of the West …

Oakland    Few places in the nation crystallize modern America as well as Oakland, California.  One of the most diverse cities in the country – diverse both in range of wealth as well as in race – Oakland stretches from fantastic million-dollar hillside homes to some of the most dangerous slums in the country, along with corporate headquarters and major league sports teams.  As the bluer-collar side of a very wealthy, educated, and white-collar oriented metro area, with convenient public transportation, comparatively low housing costs, and a pleasant climate (without all the fog of that other city across the Bay) and wealthy exurbs that strain against the mountains behind it, Oakland should have been set for a great revival in recent years.  And indeed it did, to some extent, boom during the recent boom – its population even rose to all-time high of nearly 400,000 (bigger than Minneapolis or St. Louis) and a revived downtown.
   But happiness has not come to Oakland as quickly or as thoroughly as circumstances might have suggested.  It has not really become “the Brooklyn of the West.”  (I thought I had just coined this, but Google has disabused me.)  One reason is a disturbingly high crime rate (see this article in this week’s Economist).  Another is a contentious debate over density.  Commentator Joel Kotkin has chastised former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown and others for slow-growth policies that hamstring California today.  Columnist Chip Johnson also criticizes what he views as excessive zoning and land use restrictions in the city.  But Oakland is considering widespread changes that would allow for greater density and height in the city.  Some may complain that they don’t want Oakland to become overbuilt, like Dallas or Los Angeles.  But, hey, what about Vancouver – another west coast city with a diverse population, very high density of modern buildings, some serious crime problems, and but all in all a success story? …

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