Episode 65: Caretakers of the Public Realm
We’re joined by Andrew Jones, Program Director for the Uptown and Downtown Community Benefits District (CBD) in Oakland, CA.
At a time when downtown revitalization is a big focus, our latest podcast gets into “urban place management” with Andrew Jones, program director at the Uptown & Downtown Oakland Community Benefits District (CBD). Hear how he and his team think about — and work to improve —the “first-last mile” experience of everyone in or coming to downtown, from visitors to workers, residents to small business owners.
Downtowns are a really big venue, says Jones, who came to his current work from a background in theater and managing performance venues. Downtowns are moving, breathing, evolving areas that need to be safe, programmed and marketed, branded and cared for, he says. He and the team of Ambassadors – or Place Managers – he works with are caretakers of the public realm, with a credo of radical hospitality.
“I have the best job ever. I mean, really, it’s like an insane field to be in because we get to support people. In the last week, our organization found housing for over seven people. We are planning out all sorts of meaningful marketing campaigns that’ll help our merchants, meeting with stakeholders to solve problems, you know, some crime related, but some just infrastructure related. . . . There are the negatives, the kind of, you know, hardcore nitty gritty of the thing. But in general, 95% of my day is spent thinking about all the amazing things that make Oakland Oakland and how to help people have that experience.” — Andrew Jones
Over the years, Oakland has been a place both of protest – related to the killing of Oscar Grant, with the Occupy movement and following the murder of George Floyd – and a place of new investment, with cranes dotting the skyline and empty parking lots becoming new housing or business or retail. The downtown population has grown, as residential units ballooned from 800 in 2009 to 12,000 today.
A lot of the budget for the community benefits district in Oakland goes to “clean and safe services,” but the staff also supports downtown developments and checks in regularly with retailers, helping address “quality of life” crimes rather than calling the police. The staff are “force multipliers” and creative problem-solvers, doing hard and sometimes dangerous work. Recognizing the “massive value” Ambassadors create for the property owners they serve, the board of the CBD has put a major focus on making this work a more sustainable career, changing the job titles to Place Managers and boosting pay and benefits.
The CBD also works on events, helps with bringing in new retail and supports new developments. The CBD currently is launching Oakland Works Wednesdays, providing a suite of activities to draw workers back to the office.
Through a separate company he founded, DistrictWorks, Jones also is working with BART to ensure a favorable customer experience around the reopening of several long-closed restrooms in transit stations. It is an example, Jones says, of the human presence as infrastructure.
Andrew Jones, Program Director, Uptown and Downtown Oakland Community Benefits District