Oakland would be a terrible substitute for the Silicon Valley

By James Robinson , written on February 24, 2014

From The News Desk

A week ago, I spied a piece on GigaOM by Tom Krazit advocating for Oakland as a Silicon Valley replacement. His argument was that as tensions build over gentrification in San Francisco and people become impatient with the sprawl of the Silicon Valley, Oakland will be the only natural alternative for a new Bay Area tech hub and should place incentives accordingly to attract companies. The article was debated fiercely and circulated widely throughout the week. As nice a thought as it is that Oakland could be the answer to Bay area worries, every time I saw someone link to the story I shook my head.

The author of the piece and I are both Oakland residents. I’ll concede to him two points: Oakland is 'geographically' closer to San Francisco than even the closest tip of the Silicon Valley and there is a lot of commercial real estate to fill.

But Oakland is a thornier logistical proposition than many imagine. With no traffic the city is a 20-minute drive from San Francisco. But the Bay Bridge is a tiresome bottleneck - struggling already with 240,000 cars crossing it each day. The bridge is the only way to drive between the two cities. A quarter-of-an-hour can become an hour easily and more often than you’d like, that can drift closer to two. During daylight hours, traffic almost always resembles something close to rush hour. BART works most of the time, but a downtown-to-downtown trip across the harbor is still going to cost you 45 minutes. If you leave San Francisco by car most times of day, you’re a good bet to be in Palo Alto before you are in downtown Oakland.

But this is well down the list of reasons that those “To Let” signs will be hanging a while longer in Oakland.

Most pressing is the unavoidable reality that Oakland is the third most dangerous city in America. More than 1-in-100 of its residents were robbed last year. There is stark inequality in the area and Krazit tries to push the crime problem off to the bad parts of town. But Oakland’s crime problem is an equal opportunity offender. Lake Merritt, where I live, is considered one of the best places in town to be and it is a beautiful suburb to live in. But its proximity to the freeway has made it an opportune spot for snatch and run robberies. There was a double-homicide around the corner from our home last year. Oakland has earned the moniker of Vampire Town. It gets dark around 6 p.m. in February and the streets of downtown Oakland are empty by 8pm.

Plainly put: it’s hard to encourage large scale relocation of a workforce to a place where you’ll go out of your way not to have to walk a mile after dark. The answer to this problem is of course, more law enforcement, but the long discussed plan to bolster the Oakland Police Department came to a farcical end in December, when only four new recruits enrolled into the academy. The civic infrastructure to remake Oakland into something competitive, isn’t there. The city struggles with mass migration out of its public schools.

The movement to Oakland from San Francisco to date has been driven by residential needs rather than professional ones, with young professionals and families coming across and settling in affordable suburban hubs like Lake Merritt, Temescal, Rockridge. My wife and I moved when we could find apartments twice as good as what we could afford in San Francisco, for half the price. But Oakland is not immune to the class tensions seen across the bridge. In December, a protester smashed the window of a Google bus in West Oakland. House prices rose as much as 56 percent in the East Bay last year. As comparatively affordable as our apartment was to San Francisco when we moved, because of a clerical error it was let slip to us one day that the previous tenants of our apartment were paying over 30 percent less.

To understate the matter, Silicon Valley's role is entrenched, set around the early influence of Stanford University, the companies that set up shop there decades ago and the new giants like Apple, Google and Facebook and that built around that.

If Oakland is ever going to be the third or fourth banana in the Bay Area tech scene its growth will be something similarly organic. It will happen when the city has grown out its tax base through new residents and engaged them in the community, making it a safer and more practical place to be and not just cheap and close, and when the new, young residents start their own companies and feel safe to keep them there. Even then, it’s a really big maybe and not for decades. Recent market tensions in San Francisco have cast a long shadow on Oakland already and the city has much bigger problems than trying to land a new tech plaything.

[image adapted from Boston Public Library and thinkstock]