Like many Oaklanders, I've been engaged in a lot of discussions lately about what our downtown should look like in the future. I've heard a growing desire among locals to keep it creative, homegrown, equitable, and affordable, and I've read plenty of recommendations to make it more developer-, transit-, and business-friendly. I agree with most of these principles, but if we're truly going to have a downtown for everyone, I believe we must also make downtown Oakland more family-friendly.
Over the past six years, we've enjoyed many other downtown family-friendly destinations, like the New Parkway's all ages theater with sofas and bean bags; Plank's kid-friendly bowling alley, arcade, and beer garden; and Friday night food trucks and cultural programming at the Oakland Museum of California. And then there's the Oakland Ice Center, the Museum of Children's Art, the Downtown YMCA, the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and Fairyland, the country's first storybook theme park.
Six generations of my family have grown up and grown old in downtown, in and around Chinatown and Old Oakland, but the unfortunate reality is that while there's always been family-friendly amenities, there's hardly any family-sized housing options available nowadays. So it's no surprise that early this year, we — like other families we know — reluctantly moved to the edge of town, where we could find a little more space for our growing girls. But we're not the only ones. Over the last thirteen years that I lived downtown, I bid farewell to many families of all incomes being sized out and priced out of downtown.
For too long, developers have been maximizing profits by building a disproportionate number of studios, lofts, luxury one-bedroom units, and millennial micro-units, which fetch high per-square-foot rents and prices. Without incentives or requirements to include affordable or family-sized units, three-bedrooms for rent or sale have become extremely rare, if not nonexistent, in downtown. Even the number of two-bedroom units were significantly less than one-bedroom construction during much of our last building cycle.
Between 2000 and 2010, more than 2,300 condominiums were built in downtown. Of those, only 47 units, or about 2 percent, were three-bedroom units. Only five homes have sold with three or more bedrooms in downtown [as of October] 2015 and there are hardly ever any family-sized rentals on Craigslist. Meanwhile, the number of children in Oakland dropped 16 percent during that same time period, four times faster than Alameda County's (3.9 percent decline) and more than almost every other large city in the country.
Fortunately, it's not too late to build a more family-friendly Oakland, and there are good reasons for prioritizing it without delay. As other cities have shown, there are benefits that would come with including families of all ages and incomes as a flavorful ingredient in our "secret sauce." Building family-sized housing downtown for all incomes furthers race and social justice goals by reducing household transportation costs and increasing housing near jobs. More families in downtown increase urban density and reduce the region's environmental footprint. And family-sized housing in downtown also creates greater economic competitiveness and fuels hyper-local spending.
According to researchers at Cornell University, "Families with young children are a source of economic growth, because:
1. Families with children spend the most in the local economy.
2. Services for children are an important part of local and regional economies.
3. Investment in children builds a productive future workforce leading to long-term growth."
How can we grow a downtown for more families? We've got a lot going for us. In addition to all the attractions, families, and youth organizations, downtown Oakland already has quality public, private, and specialty schools for all ages, giving it a distinct competitive advantage over many nearby downtowns.
But we need to do much better at accommodating more families in downtown, so here are my recommendations for making our downtown even more family-friendly:
1. Engage parents, youth, and family-friendly advocates. Family-friendly cities are intentionally created when they are included in the visioning and design process. More coordination is also needed to bring the school district and leaders of downtown youth and family-serving organizations into planning conversations.
2. Encourage the development of more family-size housing. We need a lot more three bedrooms, and housing for all ages, all incomes, and a range of household sizes. Emeryville has already stepped up and is offering incentives for developing housing for a range of incomes and household sizes. We can do the same.
3. Infuse family-friendly and flexible design principles into planning. So let's add more playful public spaces, more outdoor family dining, and more street art by our youth. Developers should also be encouraged to design units following family friendly design guidelines and flexible design principles allowing households to reconfigure their units as their needs change.
4. Make sure downtown is safe for our children. Anything less is not acceptable for anyone. Families downtown will not destroy urban nightlife. Car break-ins, gun violence, and unsafe streets occurring around restaurants, entertainment, or nightclubs will. Downtown residents habituate to many urban sounds, but no one ever gets used to the sound of gunfire. So let's make sure our parks, streets, sidewalks, and transit systems are safe for everyone, all day and all night long.
Oakland is rapidly changing, but with leadership, engagement, and careful planning, we can and should do everything possible to keep our children and youth in the city. After all, a family-friendly downtown and a family-friendly Oakland are in everyone's best interest.
Tiffany Eng, Oakland, representing the Family Friendly Oakland campaign, FamilyFriendlyOakland.org and @FamilyOakland