By Kevin Truong
Uber Technologies’ major real estate move in Oakland was hailed as a sign of the city’s economic revitalization by some, and as a boogeyman for community groups concerned about the impact of a big corporation setting up shop in the city’s core.
Thus it would stand to reason that the company’s recent pull-back from their initial ambitions would be celebrated by activists.
That was not the general sentiment, however, of a panel convened on the topic at the Greenlining Institute’s annual economic summit. Instead the speakers focused on what community leaders and policymakers can do in the interim to leverage their power and advocate for a more equitable collaboration with business going forward.
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“To me it wasn’t terribly surprising that Uber announced that they were going to bring less employees and less jobs to Oakland,” said Kate O’Hara, executive director of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. “Those of us that have been watching Oakland development have seen that movie before.”
However, O’Hara pointed out that the company’s presence is already felt in Oakland, both in cars on city streets as well as Uber’s future position as a landlord with the ability to affect housing prices, development and retail opportunities.
George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice held up the San Francisco Mission district, which he called the “poster child of gentrification,” as what happens when “tech colonization” goes unchecked. But he said Uber’s current pull-back gives some time to figure out the best path forward for integration.
“I think it’s safe to say that this is eventually going to happen, that’s it’s just merely going to be static,” Galvis. “What this represents is a cooling off period for us and I’m cautiously optimistic that this will be an opportunity to be intentional, rather than reactionary.”
For most of the panelists the move of companies like Uber to Oakland was taken as a given, with corporations being driven both by economic realities and the city’s rising stock as an urban center in the Bay Area.
Anyka Barber, the founder and curator of the Betti Ono Center, said that protections needed to be put in place for the aspects that make Oakland an attractive destination for companies in the first place.
“Oakland’s identity and brand is really driven by its culture, it’s driven by the history and the people. It’s driven by black aesthetics, Latino aesthetics, Southeast Asian aesthetics,” Barber said.
To Galvis, that puts the city in a position of power in negotiations with companies looking at moving into the city.
“We know that when somebody comes in that the negative externalities associated with that are gentrification and displacement, so preemptively we should be charging a tax to them, because guess what, they’re going to come in no matter what,” Galvis said. “People associated with the tech industry want to be in an urban center, they don’t want to be in the suburbs, they want to have cultural amenities.”
Paul Cobb, publisher of the social justice-oriented newspaper the Oakland Post, said that community groups and elected officials need to get ahead of negotiations by having a ready-set and transparent list of demands for companies looking to move into the city.
“The playbook needs to be agreed upon and notified just like in court,” Cobb said. “We have to give notifications to all parties who come into the courtroom. So when you come into the public arena, everybody ought to know what is expected. That prevents the political sideshow.”
Guillermo Mayer, the president and CEO of Public Advocates, pointed to the Facebook campus expansion in East Palo Alto – and the associated community benefit agreement – as a possible model for collaboration between companies and communities.
“That resulted in a donation of $18.5 million into an affordable housing catalyst fund, $1.5 million for legal defense of tenants being unlawfully evicted, as well as payment for nonprofits for local advocacy work and a job pipeline for local residents,” Mayer said. “East Palo Alto is very small, but it was able to sit at the table and bring Facebook to the table as constituents.”
Another example held up was Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s $100 million community benefits deal with Baltimore city officials for his massive Port Covington redevelopment plan that included affordable housing investment, no-interest loans for minority and women-owned businesses and local hiring promises. The project requires that the city float more than $600 million in bonds to fund infrastructure development.
“What we have to understand is the public investment can drive private investment, but on our own terms,” Mayer said. “So rather than just having private capital flow in with no restrictions, we can actually use our public dollars to incentivize investment in a way that is equitable.”