Whose streets? Oakland’s shadow government presses City Hall to end the occupation


by Adrian Drummond-Cole and Darwin BondGraham

In a letter addressed to Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan on Nov. 8, two little-known entities, the Lake Merritt/Uptown District Association (LMUDA) and Downtown Oakland Association (DOA) implored Mayor Quan to “step up and provide cohesive, common sense leadership.” Cohesive leadership, according to these two organizations, means giving the Oakland Police Department a green light to eradicate the now month-old Occupy encampment. “It’s time for Frank Ogawa Plaza to be given back to the people of Oakland,” they conclude.

Who are the LMUDA and DOA? What gives them the authority to make such demands? Further, who are the “people of Oakland” referred to in their letter? If those occupying the plaza do not constitute the people of Oakland, then who are the rightful owners of this contested public space?

The privatization of public administration

“Lake Merritt/Uptown” and “Downtown Oakland” are not community associations or neighborhood groups comprised of Oaklanders with historic roots or identity in Oakland’s larger patchwork. Rather, they are business improvement districts, or “BIDs,” an apt acronym given their focus on commodifying and privatizing government and public space. Both LMUDA and DOA were founded in 2008. BIDs are commercial districts within cities where special taxes are collected on properties for use towards activities determined by the BID’s board of directors. As hybrid public-private entities, their explicit purpose is to increase property values and rents and to cultivate other profitable opportunities in designated geographic areas.

Because they have the power to levy and spend taxes, BIDs must be formed via a petition process and then by majority vote of businesses and property owners within the chosen area and finally approved by the City Council. However, once the BID is established, it largely operates under its own discretion. It does what it wants with its money, which can involve funding events, contracting for extra sanitation and trash services, and even hiring private security to patrol public space.

The Lake Merritt/Uptown District and Downtown District are two of nine BIDs established in Oakland since 2001. The others include Fruitvale, Koreatown/Northgate, Lakeshore/Lake Park, Laurel, Montclair, Rockridge and Temescal/Telegraph Avenue.

BIDs began to emerge nationally in the 1970s as vehicles for gentrification and the militarization of urban space. Laws enabling the incorporation of these districts have spread to nearly every state, and most major U.S. cities contain multiple special districts run mostly by real estate developers and large tourism and entertainment companies, with smaller businesses – restaurants and retailers – as junior partners. BIDs especially took off in the 1990s as real estate capital focused its energy on urban zones from which it had previously divested.

BIDs are a strategic response of real estate businesses to the political backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. Because much of the public sector was de-funded through tax cuts and capital and wealth were withdrawn into newly rich suburban enclaves buoyed by white flight or into private institutions, cities found themselves tax-starved and unable to raise revenues for the public services that many place-dependent businesses once depended on. Many small urban businesses were ruined.

BIDs are a strategic response of real estate businesses to the political backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.

Rather than fighting against these racist forces of disinvestment, most remaining local business establishments instead turned to a solution provided by consultants working for large real estate companies – privately run districts with special tax powers that don’t have to share the wealth. BIDs have the “advantage” of not requiring tax increases to support services that do not directly enrich the businesses paying the tax. These funds are not shared with populations outside the BID’s geographic boundaries and need not pay for things like schools or streetlights in working class residential neighborhoods.

The LMUDA and DOA districts are administered by nonprofit management corporations under contract with the City of Oakland. Each corporation is governed by a board of directors. The acting presidents, J.C. Wallace and Deborah Boyer, are employees of San Francisco-based real estate investment and management companies SKS Investments and the Swig Company, respectively. Both have speculated on properties in Oakland and stand to profit from increased rents generated by gentrification.

Before joining SKS, J.C. Wallace was a “relationship manager” with Wells Fargo’s Real Estate Group, responsible for a $300 million portfolio. John Bruno of the Los Angeles-based CIM Group, a real estate investment firm with over $9 billion in managed assets, sits on both boards, as do members of the San Francisco-based CAC Real Estate Management Co., Inc. The board of the DOA also boasts two employees of Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm, which owns much property in Oakland.

Under the BID paradigm, property owners, many of them absentee corporations – not the people of Oakland – dictate the terms of services once considered the purview of the city administration. BIDs effectively remove services from the political arena, making everything from sanitation to security privately managed.

The LMUDA, for example, can circumvent the law enforcement pensions deadlock and yearly general fund budget shortfalls affecting the city’s police force and subcontract instead with the private security company Block by Block to provide additional security personnel in the downtown area.

A subsidiary of the SMS Holdings Corp., which made Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing private companies in 2011, Block by Block specializes in staffing BIDs. Block by Block runs BIDs in 42 U.S. cities, including Berkeley, Oakland, Pasadena, LA, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. Block by Block’s non-union, minimum wage workforce effectively reduces the costs of city services for corporations and allows these same corporations to determine who benefits from these services, while undermining better-paid, unionized city employees who would provide services to all residents under the ultimate authority of elected officials, not private corporate boards.

A small gang of primarily non-Oaklanders

In their letter to Mayor Quan, LMUDA and DOA remark that the city needs to focus on “identifying the small gang of primarily non-Oaklanders,” those they deem responsible for property destruction, vandalism and skirmishes during the police riot that followed the General Strike. Ironically, most of the leadership of both BID management corporations take their orders directly from companies based outside the city.

This small gang of corporate directors and their associated companies are equipped with the resources needed to disrupt the encampment and discredit the organizing coming from the steps of City Hall. SKS, for example, has four lobbyists registered in Oakland since February 2011. SKS has maintained a lobbying presence in Oakland for years, most recently meeting with Mayor Quan to discuss what sorts of business development activities she envisions as the new mayor.

The interests of big business have become the law of the land.

The interests of big business have become the law of the land. The fictive “people of Oakland” invoked by the LMUDA and DOA are nothing more than the personified corporations who want to turn Oakland into a gentrified metropolis devoid of any real public space.

The people of Oakland vs. the product Oakland

“Since the early 1990s, there has been an explosion in private and public efforts to revitalize older urban, street-based business districts,” explains New City America Inc., the San Diego firm that wrote the legislation to establish both the DOA and LMUDA and has spearheaded similar efforts in 61 other cities since 1995. “Historic downtown and urban neighborhood commercial corridors and urban mixed-use neighborhoods valuable for their setting for human experiences, places of social change and fond memories, are experiencing a renaissance.” But in order for this renaissance to take place, New City America advises that, “property owners … must take the first step – organizing themselves – to respond to the changes occurring in the evolution of our urban areas.”

The transition New City America and similar consultants are promoting – the neoliberal urban shift – ultimately boils down to the privatization of public space and the elimination of democratic politics from city budgeting and services. In the words of New City America:

“The business district must be seen as a product to be defined, marketed and sold to a target audience. A business district, just as a business product, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. The district must distinguish itself from other districts or malls because of its own unique assets and resources.”

The encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza, now dubbed Oscar Grant Plaza, offers many alternative visions of what the people of Oakland desire for the future of their city. In the section of the Oct. 8 statement of the General Assembly addressed to the people, Occupy Oakland declared, “The purpose of our gathering here is to plan actions, to mobilize real resistance, to defend ourselves from the economic and physical war that is being waged against our communities.”

In the days to come, as speculation swirls regarding a second police raid and demolition of the encampment, the larger war rages on to determine who are the rightful people of Oakland, and whose vision will be adopted for a future as yet unwritten.

Adrian Drummond-Cole is a writer, organizer and musician who lives in Oakland. Darwin BondGraham is a sociologist and author currently visiting Occupy encampments across the U.S.; he can be reached at darwin@riseup.net.



  1. Superbly written and researched article, very enlightening. Occupy has acquired local flavor everywhere it has taken root, with students in London fighting budget cuts to universities, environmental focus in the Pac-west, etc. Naturally in Oakland racism is front and center as is made obvious by the immediate resort to police violence and the association of the movement to criminality.

    Keep up the good work, bookmarked!

  2. Thank you for addressing one of the public/private partnerships that are driving further gentrification of Oakland. Sometime in 2009-10, a group of benches were removed from the AC Transit bus stop area above 12th STreet BART in front of 1333 Broadway. This was a popular waiting area for AC Transit buses, but it was removed in part of a larger strategy of removing young Black people from what was always assumed to be public space. However, as a ground plaque shows, permission to pass is "revocable." Earlier in 2011, security guards were hired to keep people off the space and protect Citibank and whatever other businesses are on that property.
    The two BID's also hired a group of private, unarmed security guards called, "ambassadors" shortly after the murder of Oscar Grant and subsequent protests. These men–like the other security guards protecting property, largely African American, Latino and Southeast Asian–patrol the streets and have a direct line to police. I once argued with one, who wanted to be a police officer, who held the believe that "he (Oscar Grant) shouldn't have been resisting and followed the law." I'd only heard this viewpoint articulated by white men and SFGate Comment trolls. After the recent vandalism at the Nov. 2 demonstration, these "ambassadors" were upfront cleaning up–all powerful protectors of property.
    Point being, a part of these BIDs gentrification strategy is hybrid security and I wouldn't be surprised if they sought to arm them sooner than later.

  3. This is a real example of the fraud that our government is involved in. The monied sources, the corporations form organizations the members of which are business executives ordering the mayor and police how to conduct the business of the people of Oakland. They all stand around at meetings with their hands in each others pockets.

  4. Excellent piece. The only thing I'd add is links to follow the $. Who is on their boards, and how many and which boards are each of them on? Any Wall Street publicly-traded corps then included on that list? (An Oakland council member in a public meeting to Oakland residents tried to claim that "Wall Street wasn't in Oakland, so why protest in Oakland?" Also, I guess Wells Fargo just beside City Hall isn't part of wall street. Who knew?)

  5. Good Lord. This thing needs to be in EVERYONE'S screen as soon as possible. It's creepy. Totally have to agree with SkDo, follow the $ and the thing will show it's ugly head -and how to kill it.
    Ah, I remember the times when people thought that Keith Olbermann's comment of citizen's vs Koch (Walmart's deputys, anyone?) was taken as a foolish, populist rant.

    Heh. Well we all know now that he was totally right, wasn't he…?


    Thanks for droppin' science…!!

    The Corporate Lamestream Media (C*L*M) never talks about *those* OUT-OF-TOWN *CORPORATE* VANDALS against public space and public commons truly put to use _by and for the people_!: indeed, public commons for human need over corporate greed.

    The same *CORPORATE* VANDALS that steal people's homes through gentrification, non-enforcement of proper living-standard building codes, and predatory lending — and that destroy, especially, minority neighborhoods with resultant foreclosed empty homes, other empty and/or delapidated buildings and lots all left vacant for a decade or more, while thousands of people go homeless, until property values are driven down low enough to have the neighborhood officially certified as a "blighted area" and then for eminent domain (so that "buy low, sell high" development investment profits can be maximized) now even for *private* commercial development given all sorts of lavish tax breaks.

    This is exactly an example of corporate greed that Occupy Oakland opposes and is fighting again.

  7. …And the same *corporate* vandals that graffiti our residential neighborhoods with tacky, garish, and garishly lighted billboards that at night blanket the neighborhood with light pollution — unsightlyness that the rich would never allow in *their* residential neighborhoods — that *commerically* deface buildings and ruin the skyline in *our* neighborhoods.

  8. I loved this very informative bit of real NEWS. This is what the news should be about! Congrats to the writers and researchers of this story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why can't the mainstream news corps tell deliver the news like this?????

  9. This was a highly informative piece. Thank you! I'll be curious to hear what my real estate friends think of this one. Now, I like to think of myself as a city planner/activist so what I'm interested in is ideas for how to "re-occupy" Oakland's downtown public spaces, e.g. Oscar Grant Plaza in long-term permanent ways that add vitality, music, life, like the day of the General Strike when it felt so alive, joyful and interesting. Yes, this is a short-term concern regarding a much deeper systemic problem, but let's move to demonstrate small improvements that model our progressive ideals, not just our outrage.

  10. Excellent FACTUAL article!!! It's so refreshing, particularly given the crap that has passed for mainstream journalism about the Occupation. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  11. The Oakland Chamber of Commerce has a long history of bullying grassroots organizations. When the Dimond neighborhood fought for a "Hotel and Motel Ordinance" to regulate and clear up the motels on the MacArthur corridor the Chamber tried to kill it. The council wouldn't even vote until a specific exemption was written in for Triple A rated hotels and motels, so the big motels down by the airport would not be subject to any city regulation. Once the Chamber got their members exempted, they supported the regulation. Mayor Quan takes personal credit for closing the Hillcrest using this regulation. Oakland City Council and Mayor Quan still can't take a pee without the Chamber's permission.

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