The use and abuse of eminent domain in West Oakland has created lasting skepticism and even hostility toward redevelopment and infrastructure projects.
Eminent domain is the constitutionally sanctioned power of government to purchase private property for public use—with or without the owners’ consent. In California, redevelopment agencies may use this controversial tool to acquire property only in areas that have been declared “blighted,” and only for the purpose of economic development.
Eminent domain in West Oakland: A Controversial Legacy
Starting in the 1950s, government agencies used eminent domain in West Oakland to build a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, elevated tracks along 7th Street, freeways, a massive postal facility, and new housing developments. Clearing land for those projects cost residents their homes and businesses, permanently displacing many. Some new housing projects actually destroyed more homes than they created. The government paid compensation to dislocated residents, but rarely enough for them to find new homes in the area.
These projects disproportionately affected the poorest residents and carried lasting negative effects for the community. Longtime West Oakland resident and activist Bruce Beasley remembers how the post office project hurt the neighborhood. “You can’t take out six blocks of houses and not have an impact on the social fabric,” he says. “It destroys things.”
Project area committees required
The threat of eminent domain spurred Beasley and other residents to organize against many redevelopment projects over the years. In 1972, state law was changed to require redevelopment agencies that plan to use eminent domain to create project area committees (PACs) made up of local residents, business owners, and community groups. PACs set neighborhood priorities for redevelopment, advise redevelopment agencies on new projects, and approve any proposed use of eminent domain to take residential properties. When the West Oakland Project Area Committee (WOPAC) was formed, Beasley and a handful of other activists were elected on a slate opposing eminent domain.
For years, WOPAC has lobbied against projects that would take private property for redevelopment. “The problem of redevelopment was eminent domain,” says Beasley. “That was the tiger. So we said, ‘OK, let’s just pull the fangs out of the tiger. Let’s accept the idea of redevelopment, but no eminent domain.’ “
To be designated a redevelopment area, a redevelopment agency must document the presence of the negative physical and economic conditions known as blight. But early in the last decade, as real estate prices skyrocketed across Oakland, WOPAC decided that if the redevelopment agency wouldn’t agree to stop using eminent domain, it would fight the blight designation in court, arguing that high property values meant there was in fact no blight in the neighborhood.
A successful tactic
The tactic worked. In 2003, the Oakland Planning Commission banned the taking of residences altogether in most of West Oakland’s redevelopment areas; even in the one zone where eminent domain is allowed, tight restrictions make it nearly impossible to use.
This ordinance represents a historic change for the community, altering the redevelopment process there. Sweeping projects that would require the use of eminent domain are no longer possible.
Eminent domain has shaped West Oakland, and its destructive effects are still evident in the physical environment and the social fabric of the community. But its legacy also includes the kind of grassroots activism that effectively ended its use in the neighborhood.
Photo 1: Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey, Oakland City Planning Department
Photo 2: Oakland History Room, Oakland Public Library