Whose Streets?

Part 2., Big Business' Occupation of Downtown Oakland

In our first installment in this series we gave an overview of the emergence and role of business improvement districts in Oakland, CA and beyond. We described how they allow real estate corporations to circumvent tax-revolt era laws that have starved many de-industrialized, majority-minority cities, in order to fund projects that are aimed at gentrifying neighborhoods to increase rents. We introduced two of Oakland's BIDs, the Downtown Oakland Association, and the Lake Merritt/Uptown District Association (DOA and LMUDA), and revealed their efforts to eliminate Occupy Oakland's encampment. In this piece we extend that analysis with more background on the political agendas of the DOA and LMUDA.

Since early 2009 a different kind of "occupation" in downtown Oakland has been reshaping public space and transforming the underlying relationship between government and the people. It's not a protest. There are no tents, banners, rallies or marches. Instead this occupation has taken hold through subtle but profound changes in state and local laws. The leaders of this occupation are a small group of major real estate companies. Their ultimate goals stand in stark contrast to the economic reforms and  greater democracy the Occupy Oakland protesters say they are seeking.

Oakland's two largest business improvement districts, the Downtown Oakland Association (DOA), and Lake Merritt Uptown DistrictAssociation (LMUDA) have been praised over the last three years by politicians and the media for spurring a "renaissance" in one of California's most economically depressed cities. Both organizations have mostly avoided criticism, until very recently when they pressured Mayor Jean Quan and the Oakland Police Department to wipe out the Occupy Oakland encampment in Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. Their stance against Occupy Oakland led many observers to question why both special districts were so adamant about removing the encampment, even if it required violent police raids.

What the DOA and LMUDA's own records show, however, is that the forceful crackdown against Occupy Oakland they encouraged wasn't a one time position. In lock-step (both districts are governed by virtually the same board members, and managed by the same San-Diego-based consulting company) the DOA and LMUDA have waged a concerted campaign since their creation in 2009 to radically transform downtown Oakland. This transformation, according to the groups' own records, is explicitly intended to remove youth of color, the homeless, political activists, and virtually anyone else who does not conform to a desired upper-income consumer demographic. Policing, both private and public, has been central to this campaign.

Militarizing Public Space

The DOA and LMUDA's attempts to eradicate targeted populations from downtown Oakland are most evident in proposals to redesign or eliminate particular spaces where youth of color, the homeless, and even taxi cab drivers congregate. Spaces that the BIDs have been particularly focused on transforming or eradicating include the sidewalk surrounding Burger King on 13th and Broadway, the taxi stands on 13th, ledges around the BART station entrances, Snow Park, and Franklin and Latham Squares, and Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza.

In "Uptown" —the favored name used by corporate developers to identify the blocks bounded by Harrison Street, Grand Avenue, San Pablo Avenue, and 17th Street— the LMUDA is attempting to erase public spaces where "undesirable" persons congregate. Part of this strategy involves placing planters on the sides and backs of the 17th and 19th Street BART station entrances in order to eliminate places to sit. The LMUDA also claims that the homeless are "targeting Uptown," and minutes from the district's April 21, 2009 board meeting reveal that "homeless encampments in district will require coordinated effort with maintenance team," to remove them. Occupy Oakland wasn't the first encampment to be targeted for removal by Oakland's BIDs.

From OPD pamphlet.
In order to drive poor people out of the LMUDA district boundaries the organization has distributed OPD anti-panhandling flyers to building owners and apartment managers. They in turn have distributed these among the new upper-income residents of the luxury apartments and condos concentrated Uptown. Furthermore the head of LMUDA's private security, Ted Tarver of Block By Block, has pressured the Oakland City Attorney, OPD, and the City Council to prioritize the enforcement of laws against sidewalk sales in an effort to eliminate street vendors and panhandlers, according minutes of the district's "Sidewalk Order and Beautification Ordinance" committee from April 20, 2011.

Before taking over Block By Block's security operations for the DOA and LMUDA, Tarver was a 16-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department. Block By Block specializes in contracting with business improvement districts for security and other services. It is a subsidiary of SMS Holdings, a Nashville headquartered firm that owns six similar companies. SMS Holdings describes itself as a "God-centered and faith-based" business in company literature, and is known for the anti-union policies of its management.

At Burger King on 13th and Broadway, the Downtown Oakland Association has proposed several measures to drive away persons characterized by the DOA as "pan handlers" and "loiterers." Seeking to eliminate poor people from this corner, the DOA, working through Ted Tarver, has convened meetings with the owner of the Burger King franchise, and the owners of the buildings immediately adjacent to the corner, in efforts to coordinate increased security patrols. The DOA's board meeting notes from March, 2009 boast that "[Block By Block] Ambassadors have greatly reduced the pan handling, loitering."

Taking further steps the DOA has researched the costs and jurisdictional logistics of installing planters on the ledges that wrap around the BART station entrance in front of the Burger King because "people use it as a bench," and it "encourages hanging out." The DOA defines "hanging out," and "using benches" as bad behaviors that must be eradicated. In one of their "District Identity and Streetscape Improvements" committee meetings, the DOA's board and staff discussed installing bulky landscaped planters as a means to "take up space and move people away from the corner."

Furthermore the DOA has allocated thousands of dollars toward eventual installation of a Muzak system —piped music and sound effects— to drive away "undesirable people from the area," as minutes from an April, 2009 board meeting reveal. Toward this effort the DOA has pressured business owners on the block, including the owner of the Burger King franchise, T-Mobil, Fred Karren (the owner of the building), and Mo Mashoon, owner of the building across 13th Street, to each contribute $2,000 yearly toward this audio deterrent.

Across 13th Street from the Burger King the DOA has advocated for the removal of taxi cab spots in the diagonal street parking because the corner "already has a loitering issue," and they want to remove the cabbies from the sidewalks where they take breaks and wait on fares. Oakland's cabbies, it should be noted, are primarily working class men of color. The DOA claims they are hanging out too much, and that their presence deters shoppers and corporate employees from frequenting the area.

Claiming Space

The 13th and Broadway site has become a zone of racial and class surveillance and policing of "undesirables" because it is the very core of the Downtown Oakland Association district. The DOA has chosen this intersection to install light pole banners with its logo, much like any occupier plants a flag claiming space.

SKS Investments' planned office tower.
Immediately across Broadway is the Clorox Company's office tower. Clorox is one of the district's largest corporate property owners with a controlling interest in the DOA's assessments and votes. Besides having its headquarters and own employees there, Clorox is now renting out much of its own building —seven floors, or 136,000 square feet to be exact— making the company one of Oakland's biggest landlords. Just around the corner on 12th and Broadway SKS Investments, a San Francisco headquartered real estate developer that was a major player in the gentrification of SOMA in decades past, is planning to build a 20-story office building. SKS Investments has a representative on the DOA board alongside Clorox and other major real estate owners in downtown Oakland like CIM Group, CAC, CBRE, Metrovation, California Capital Investment Group and a handful of others.

These concentrated corporate real estate owners are able to dominate the boards of the DOA and LMUDA and determine the policies of both districts because the law governing formation and management of business improvement districts (the Property and Business Improvement District Law of1994, CA Streets and Highways Code 36600 et seq.) apportions votes based on the percentage of the  assessments each owner provides to the district's total budget. He who has the gold, makes the rules. Only property owners may vote on nominees for the district's board. Furthermore, it only takes a simple majority of votes held by the owners of assessed property to form and steer a district.

Phil "Shotgun" Tagami in his Rotunda Building.
According to data compiled from the DOA's initial assessment survey, a mere nine property owners together control more than 50% of the assessed property values in the district. Key among these are CBRE, the global real estate firm owned by Senator Diane Feinstein's husband Richard Blum; Phil Tagami, the owner of several downtown Oakland properties including the Rotunda Building which he infamously patrolled with a shotgun during Occupy Oakland's general strike; the CIM Group, a major LA-based real estate investor; and the previously mentioned SKS Investments and Clorox.

The LMUDA district, located north and east of the DOA's boundaries, is also controlled by an elite group of corporate real estate owners. According to assessment records obtained from the district, a mere twelve property owners numerically account for more than 50% of assessed property. The inner circle of the LMUDA overlaps very much with the DOA. The CIM Group and CBRE have representatives on the board. Other controlling interests include the Swig Company, a San Francisco real estate developer that owns the Kaiser Center and has holdings across California, in Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.; Kaiser Permanente; Brandywine Realty Trust, one of the nation's largest REITs, based in Pennsylvania; Metrovation, another San Francisco real estate developer with national holdings; and Signature Properties, an Oakland-based developer.

Coordinating, Transforming, and Intensifying Police Force

Just prior to forming the DOA and LMUDA in 2008, the soon to be executive director of both organizations, Marco Li Mandri, wrote to the above set of corporate real estate owners in Oakland explaining how the district would allow them to obtain not only special assessment funded services, including security, but also how it would allow them to lobby for greater general city resources, including policing; "Experience has shown that once the assessment district management corporation is formed, the private property owners in the district can normally leverage a greater amount of general benefit City services than before the establishment of the district.This is due to the fact that those property owners are now organized...."

Since their formation Oakland's two downtown BIDs have attempted to coordinate and focus city police force on the downtown, in addition to beefing up security with their own private guards, called "ambassadors."

From very early on both BIDs have organized meetings with OPD leadership and officers in an attempt to seamlessly integrate the district's security guards with OPD. OPD officers, however, have been resistant to cooperating with Block By Block's ambassadors. This resistance is partly born of OPD's internal culture which disparages private security guards, and partly from the fact that OPD leaders and the police union leadership are intent on setting their own priorities.

Even so, OPD commanders have shown much deference to the BIDs and their agenda for the downtown. OPD Captain Anthony Toribio told the DOA board in December 2009 that the department supports joint patrols of OPD officers and Block By Block security, and that these private cops could act as a "force multiplier." In another meeting Captain Toribio told the LMUDA board he wanted the district's private security to "share intelligence" with OPD.

Captain Toribio suggested to the DOA that its board and staff should lobby the Alameda County District Attorney's office to press for stricter enforcement and sentencing of those targeted by Block By Block, and cited by OPD for various misdemeanors in the downtown, so as to drive these persons away permanently. The DOA board has also strategized with Captain Toribio as to how the district could most effectively pressure the City Council to increase the number of cops patrolling downtown Oakland. Similarly in a March, 2009 board meeting LMUDA members discussed petitioning the city to pay for more police to patrol "Uptown" so as to create a greater sense of security during events like the Art Murmur.

Upon hiring Block By Block as its security contractor, both the LMUDA and DOA have sought ways to fully integrate their private police force into the OPD. Early on Block By Block ambassadors were allowed to attend OPD daily lineups. According to notes from a December, 2009 LMUDA board meeting, OPD officers receive "weekly security updates" drafted by Block By Block security chief Ted Tarver.

At the same meeting Tarver, Captain Toribio, and the LMUDA board discussed ways to discipline OPD officers who continued to resist pressures to work with the LMUDA's hired security force: "Officers that do not like them and are resistant to work with them will be held accountable," read the minutes from the board meeting. Captain Toribio recommended that BBB security staff "record the car or badge number" of cops who refuse to cooperate with them, and "he will follow up with [the officers]."

Another means by which the DOA and LMUDA are "force multiplying" police and private security downtown is via technology. Block By Block initially sought permission for its security ambassadors to carry OPD radios. Due to police resistance, and because this could be a violation of the law, it was decided instead that OPD officers would carry Nextel phone/radios used by Block By Block staff. The next stage of this kind of "intelligence sharing" will involve hand-held devices that allow Block By Block ambassadors to track individuals and activity in the downtown, in real time, sharing it with OPD, and storing data for later analysis.

This system is being developed by Eponic, a Portland, Oregon-based company. Eponic's web site explains that they "develop mobile software and management solutions specifically for Business Improvement Districts, Urban Developers, Cleaning and Security Providers." Block By Block is exploring this technology for use in Oakland's downtown BIDs, according to board meeting minutes.

Former Oakland Police Cheif Anthony Batts is listed on Eponic's web site as a supporter. While heading up the Long Beach Police Department, Batts even endorsed the company's tracking software and devices. In a letter to the International Downtown Association, an industry lobby for BIDs, Batt's explained how this technology facilitates policing of the homeless, youth of color and other populations universally targeted for removal by BIDs.

"Guides are able to track on their PDAs trends in graffiti, illegal dumping, abandoned shopping carts, and quality of life issues such as panhandling and outreach to the homeless community. For instance, the Long Beach Police Department is responsible for enforcing curfew in a Downtown park where many homeless individuals tend to congregate," explained Batts. "The Guides are able to note the number of individuals in the park after curfew in their PDAs and send the data to us," whereupon the LBPD would cite, arrest, and otherwise remove these homeless persons.

As a result of Chief Batts' endorsement, Eponic and the Downtown Long Beach Association (a BID just like Oakland's DOA and LMUDA) won the International Downtown Association's 2007 Merit Award, beating out similar police-state/private security technologies developed in Cape Town, South Africa, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

While Chief of the Oakland Police, Batts was very supportive of the downtown BIDs.

The Oscar Grant Rebellion

Few specific examples better illustrate the political agenda of the DOA and LMUDA than their reactions to the protests following Oscar Grant's slaying by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Years Day 2009.

Swig Co.'s Kaiser Center.
Less than two weeks after frustrated Oaklanders marched on the downtown and faced off against the police, the LMUDA held a board meeting in the Swig Company's lakeside Kaiser Center tower. LMUDA directors, including representatives of Swig Co., Portfolio Property, Kaiser Permanente, CAC Beacon, Signature Properties, and CIM Group held a lengthy strategy session about how to defuse the nascent movement against police brutality, specifically because the situation was inconveniencing property owners and undermining the district's public relations campaign to re-brand downtown Oakland.

According to minutes from the LMUDA's January 20th board meeting, the district's staff were tasked with looking into why 14th and Broadway was a site of protest, what the city's process for issuing march permits was, and how the LMUDA and DOA could perhaps block issuance of these permits. Both BIDs tasked their staff with lobbying City Hall to move any future protests outside of the district, but especially away from 14th and Broadway and Frank Ogawa Plaza, which the DOA considers its domain.

Furthermore, the BIDs discussed ways to support removal of the impending trial of Mehserle from Alameda County, also in an effort to diffuse future protests. Mehserle's lawyer eventually would ask for a move which would be granted.

The BIDs also discussed creating a media strategy to undermine the protesters. LMUDA and DOA board members talked of the "need to counteract this negative press by putting forward the story of the CBDs," another name for the districts. Among some of its own corporate members the LMUDA and DOA were able to raise a $100,000 fund to compensate property owners whose buildings were damaged during the January 7, 2009 rebellion.

The LMUDA and DOA board meetings notes communicate nothing to the effect that these groups contemplated assisting Oscar Grant's family and the community, or that the LMUDA and DOA considered playing a positive role in addressing police-community relations during this tense period.

Instead the BIDs intensified their securitization of the downtown. For the DOA and LMUDA Block By Block set up a series of meetings in which Ted Tarver coordinated with the OPD, BART Police, the Alameda County Sheriff, and other police forces, in preparation to crack down against the protests.

In the aftermath of the trial's verdict, in July of 2010, an Oakland City employee who represented the city on both BID boards asked staff of the LMUDA and DOA and its contractor Block By Block for help "tracking down surveillance footage in an effort to apprehend and prosecute individuals involved in vandalism," according to meeting notes.

In the run up to the November, 2010 sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, Block By Block advocated for the creation of "arrest teams" among police forces, and the strategic placement of officers on each block to deter property damage. Block By Block chief Ted Tarver worked to create a "operation's [sic] manual to address any potential fallout from the upcoming Mehserle sentencing." According to DOA board meeting minutes from October 6, 2010, Tarver and the BIDs convened meetings of "all security managers in the districts, local law enforcement (OPD, BART Police, Alameda County Sherriff's Dept. [sic], the District Attorney's Office, the City Attorney's Office and CEDA to develop a game plan."

When the LMUDA and DOA learned that the sentencing date fell on Friday, November 5, the organizations went so far as to attempt to lobby the California Attorney General and District Attorney of Los Angeles, who they hoped would in turn put pressure the presiding judge to move the sentencing date, because it would conflict with a "First Friday" event, one of the art and culture productions put on by the districts to whip up tourism in Oakland.

According to DOA board meeting minutes from August 18, 2010 "Ted [Tarver of BBB] emphasized that a lot of the damage [from the protest after the July verdict] was cause by so-called Anarchists and not Oscar Grant protestors.  Marco [Li Mandri of New City America] expressed concern over the scheduled date for the Mehserle sentencing.  The date is a Friday and coincides with First Friday.  Efforts are being made to reach out to the District Attorney and Attorney General to try to talk to the judge and request a new date."

After the sentencing DOA and LMUDA staff congratulated themselves on not receiving any reports of damaged properties, and diffusing negative impacts on the districts due to the protests which had by then become subject to enormous police repression.


Felix said...

Hey, thank you for the thoroughly researched piece. A lot of this is news to me, and I try to "keep up" with Oakland politics and news.

By the way, probably worth pointing out that this Block by Block is distinct from the other Block by Block.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece however i fail to see anything negative about business in the city trying to protect their investment and improve a city that desperately needs improvement and an image change.