On the ground in Oakland "a good fit"

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

Earlier this year, Walkabout began an informal series that features the leader of a different neighborhood advocacy organization. Most of these are community development corporations, which, although many neighborhood stories bring their work to the public eye, fly under the mainstream radar like many things that seem wonky and unexciting.
This series is meant to highlight the sometimes very exciting, tireless and occasionally maligned, or misunderstood, work of CDCs in this acronym-rich field of professional planners, designers, organizers and activists of every stripe.
Some neighborhoods don’t have CDCs. They might have a civic council or other all-volunteer  group of passionate advocates who struggle to amass accomplishments; some neighborhoods have extremely potent CDCs that have guided and even led neighborhood transformations.
The Oakland Planning and Development Corp. is one of the high capacity CDCs with 20 employees. Its current executive director Wanda Wilson (in photo above) said OPDC was “a rock star of the CDC world” in the 1980s. “ELDI [East Liberty Development Inc.] is kind of that rock star now.”
Both OPDC and ELDI — whose leadership Walkabout will nag for an interview in the near future — have real estate work at the core of their missions. OPDC has built and renovated 320 houses and more than 100 units of rentals over the decades and was one of the early users of low-income tax credits.
Wanda went to full-time advocacy for Oakland in 2009 after nine years as a senior planner for the city and three years as a program officer for the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. In both of those earlier jobs, she had Oakland on her plate.
When the job at OPDC opened, she stepped into it “to be on the ground, able to implement and do things first hand,” she said. “It was a better fit for me.”
A graduate in sociology and anthropology from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, she received her master’s degree in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts University in Boston.
“I know all neighborhoods of the city because as a city planner I was a generalist working throughout. But I was always the planner for Oakland and at PPND, I was assigned Oakland.”
She declares a passion for Oakland as a neighborhood and a regional cultural hub.
At OPDC, she oversees OPDC’s programs, fundraising, and planning projects and the job-training operations of JobLinks and School 2 Career.  JobLinks serves people from throughout the city but was established by OPDC to focus on helping neighborhood residents get jobs at Oakland institutions. That remains at the core of its job training.
OPDC, which grew out of the late 1970s Oakland masterplan, led the year-long community engagement process that resulted in the Oakland 2025 plan last year. It was professionally assembled by Pfaffmann + Associates and the Studio for Spatial Practice as “a vision for sustainable living and mobility.”
It deals with opportunities for development and housing — for students, low-income workers, professionals and retirees to Oakland — environmental remedies, land banking and transportation options. The transportation component of the plan includes a proposed redesign of the Fifth and Forbes corridors to slow and narrow lanes of traffic to better accommodate bikes, buses and pedestrians.
“If we want Oakland to be a healthy neighborhood, transit hubs are essential. People have been thinking about transportation in Oakland for a long time, but we came out of the 2025 process with a ‘complete streets’ vision. This vision is compelling” and calls for “change that will help Oakland and Pittsburgh keep up with what people want of a city.
“It’s not just about looking at Portland,” the perennial feel-good capital of sustainable transformation and hipness. “New York City, an old Eastern city, is a leader in bicycle infrastructure. We need to be moving in the direction of places like New York and Boston,” where the street grid configuration (crazy-ish) is similar to Pittsburgh’s. In cities that are attracting people, she said, “there’s high demand for being able to get around without a car.”
The Oakland Transportation Management Association — itself a non-profit advocate of better public transportation opportunities for residents and visitors to Oakland — reports that more than 100,000 pedestrians and 75,000 vehicles travel through Oakland every day.
And while it does seem that every bus in the Port Authority’s care goes through Oakland — many do — the traffic lanes and traffic intensity are unfriendly to people in the cross-walks, especially along  Fifth Avenue.
“We can’t accomplish growth and quality of life by accommodating more and more cars,” Wanda said. “Changes in transit development in Oakland would benefit everyone, including employers.”
Photo by Hilary Meurer, Muffinman Studios

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