Education in Oakland

Good Developers Do Go to Heaven

Posted by novometro on July 14, 2006

For a few hours one evening this week, the crumbling boardroom in the Oakland school district’s headquarters was a developer’s paradise. All the characters that populate a builder’s nightmares were present: the skeptical school board members, the anxious parents, the professional gadflys, and worst of all, the children with the hand scrawled entreaties to “please, please save our school.”

But this time the monsters were toothless. One man rules Oakland Unified School District. If he wants to sell 10 acres of school district property to a New York City developer, he will. And it appears obvious that Jack O’Connell, the state school chief who has overseen Oakland Unified for three years, aims to sell the land for somewhere between $55 million and $75 million. No teacher, no parent, no eight-year-old wielding a crayon can stop him.

Wednesday night marked the first of three planned Oakland appearances by executives from TerraMark and Urban America, the developer and finance firm respectively that want to build residential skyscrapers where the school district’s headquarters and several schools now sit. It was an unusual, if not unprecedented event, in the history of public education in California. While selling school property is not unheard of, experts say this would be the largest land deal between a developer and a California school district under state control.

The circumstances, as well as the proposed terms of the sale, have raised some eyebrows. School board members long resigned to their “advisory role,” grumbled on Wednesday night that they had been kept in the dark through most of the process. And it is difficult to imagine that elected officials answering to voters would have crafted the deal now on the table. Pat Kernighan, the City Councilwoman whose district includes the property the district wants to sell, says she is worried that the district will get shortchanged.

The proposal now under discussion calls for Mr. O’Connell to ink the deal before he knows how much the school district will receive in the end. The full plan calls for 1,000 units. But the size of the project that the City Council will eventually allow will change the ultimate price tag by tens of millions of dollars. “The school district is shouldering all the risk,” says Kernighan.

The school district has not been entirely bulldozed by the New York City businessmen. An original offer by TerraMark called for paying the school district $10 million in the form of 15,000 computers. Fifteen for every housing unit sold. Thankfully, that idea was scrapped.

If the deal is done on the school district’s end, opponents of the idea can look for hope in the City Council, which could send a clear message to the developers that the project won’t pass muster. By its own admission, Urban America has been looking to build something in Oakland for almost two years, and has contacts in City Hall. TerraMark, on the other hand, is a newcomer without much juice on the council. The City Council may not stop the project, but unlike the school board, it can if it wants to.


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