By Ken Epstein | Post News Group
Buried in a draft plan for future housing in Oakland, submitted to City Council by Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Administration, is a map of zoning changes that would rezone the beautiful park-like 135-acre campus at what is now known as Mills College at Northeastern University to allow for private real estate development, including condominiums and retail, the Oakland Post has learned.
(Mills College officially merged with Northeastern University on June 30, 2022.)
The map is part of a presentation supplementing a 54-page draft Housing Element that was submitted for discussion to the City Council last week. The draft will be discussed and modified and scheduled for a vote in January. The City is required by the state to update its Housing Element every eight years as part of the City’s General Plan.
The map shows the entire Mills campus in East Oakland as changed from zoning designation “RM-4 Mixed Housing Type Residential – 4 Zone.”
According to the City’s definition, “The intent of the RM-4 Zone is to create, maintain, and enhance residential areas typically located on or near the City’s major arterials and characterized by a mix of single-family homes, townhouses, small multi-unit buildings at somewhat higher densities than RM-3, and neighborhood businesses where appropriate.”
City Council staff indicate that the RM-4 Zone would permit the development of the entire site with condominiums, townhouses and retail businesses.
The current zoning of the Mills property, RM-3 Zone, has been in place for at least the past 20 years, according to a staff member in the City’s zoning division. These changes are now in the works after Northeastern University in Boston recently took over the Mills campus, with pledges of a merger of many of the best aspects of both institutions.
At present, it is not clear what agencies or individuals requested the proposed zoning change, nor are there indications so far of how the property would be developed. In general, zoning changes are proposed by Council members in their districts.
Councilmember and mayoral candidate Loren Taylor, who represents District 6 where the campus is located, has been outspoken in support of the takeover of Mills by Northeastern.
Schaff has also been spoken forcefully in favor of the takeover of Mills by Northeastern.
According to an article in the Northeastern University (NU) newsletter, Taylor has been deeply involved in the merger discussions between the university and Mills.
“Taylor says he was involved in talks with the college and university as the merger evolved from idea to reality. ‘When I’ve had conversations with leadership at Mills and Northeastern,’ Taylor says, ‘I’ve always come away reassured. I hear, feel, and sense that there’s a true commitment to ensuring the legacy of what Mills had. I look forward to seeing that happen,’” the NU newsletter said.
By the Post’s deadline, neither Schaff nor Taylor had responded to questions about what the rezoning proposal means for the future of university education on the campus.
Although the proposal is to rezone the entire 135 acres of the campus, City staff told the Post that only part of the campus was being considered for development.
“The undeveloped western edge of the Mills College campus adjacent to MacArthur Blvd. was identified as a potential location for the addition of infill housing. Any rezoning of that portion of the campus would only occur if the community and decisionmakers support such a change and only for the purpose of facilitating the addition of housing along this undeveloped campus edge,” according to the City’s zoning staff.
Said City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Sheng Thao, “Recent changes in our zoning laws have raised alarm bells that this deal is nothing more than an attempt to turn Mills College into a plot of land for luxury condos. Developers stand to make enormous profits off that land.”
She continued: “Mills College is a 170-year-old institution and one of only two women’s colleges left in California. The shady backroom deals that led to its closure need to be investigated.”
“Meanwhile, Mills students have seen a drastic reduction in programs and workers are concerned that Northeastern has a history of union busting, and the community is concerned this will lead to their displacement,” said Thao, who attended Mills.
“I do not know why some of my colleagues rushed to embrace this deal, but I do know we need a fair and transparent process and an investigation from the state like I requested in July. The community deserves to know what is happening,” she said.
Rebecca Kaplan, Vice Mayor, and candidate for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, told the Post she was also deeply concerned about what is happening to Mills. “The merger is suspicious and warrants an independent investigation,” she said.
The Council unanimously passed a resolution in July, introduced by Kaplan and Thao, calling for an “independent investigation into the circumstances of the merger between Mills College and Northeastern University.”
Mills College, a women’s institution, “is reflective of the region’s diversity,” according to the council resolution. “Within the 2021-2022 Mills student population, about 44% are first-generation undergraduate students and about 66% of undergraduate students are students of color.”
This investigation must be conducted because of “allegations of misconduct and misinformation (on the part of the Mills administration) ….to ensure that community needs are respected, truth is pursued, and that the important work of Mills in serving vital needs can be continued,” the Council resolution said.
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