May. 28, 2004


"LIKE PUTTING the lambs and the wolves in the same room," someone said as I walked into the Horace Carpentier Dinner last Friday night at the Jack London Aquatic Center.

An apt description, with the crowd ranging from a few sharp-teethed developer types to lambs like me -- who had just written an anti-waterfront column that very day and was prepared to be slaughtered for it.

I wasn't. The truth is we're all humans, and when we break bread together, we find we have a lot more in common than otherwise.

The festivities were the brainchild of "waterfront booster" Sandra Threlfall of Waterfront Action, and attorney Robert Kidd, who quietly stirs more pots in Oakland's stew than anyone realizes.

The two of them decided to celebrate the waterfront and it's ignoble history, and to turn the negative of Carpentier's larceny into the positive a colorful, ribald ha!ha! story. Even the likes of Horace Carpentier himself showed up, looking a fair bit like David Nicolai, proprietor of the Pardee Home Museum.

Kidd and Threlfall both took turns recounting the sordid story of the plundering of the waterfront and the founding of our semi-precious city.

We've all heard the tale and, frankly, it's about time we showed a sense of humor about it. What's that Latin saying? "Get over it!"

I think ultimately that's what our hosts had in mind and why their dinner was such a success.

The other excuse for the dinner was to honor people who, 150 years later, are turning plenty of negatives into positives along the water.

The first-ever Long Wharf Award -- named after the Carpentier's first pier -- went to Tay Yoshitani, the retiring director of the Port of Oakland. Say what you will about the port, but thanks to Yoshitani and his immediate predecessors, the port's begun bringing the community into the planning process.

"Economics, environmentalism and social equity," Yoshitani said, "are now fundamental to the port's success." What's being called the "triple bottom line." It may not be perfect, but it's not just all about "them" now. There is finally a little for "us," too.

The School House Awards -- named after the one-room schoolhouse Carpentier was required to build and tend to -- went to Jane Brunner and Danny Wan for having picked up the mantle of Measure DD and run with it to a landslide victory. DD, you recall, authorized a $198 million bond to improve public access to the estuary, remodel Lake Merritt and develop a connection between the two bodies of water through the Lake Merritt Channel.

"What Horace stole, Danny and Jane bought back," award presenter Richard Winnie offered.

That may be a trifle strong, but they do deserve a lot of credit. And talk about timing! Three months after DD passed, the economy tanked, the schools sank, and (figuratively) the Bay Bridge came tumbling down. Double D would probably be a tough sell today.

Finally, the keynote speaker, Will "Trash" Travis, executive director of the Bay Conservation Development Commission, spoke, and he had some mighty interesting notions.

Travis knows waterfronts, knows the Bay and has defined four ingredients necessary for the development of a great waterfront.

First is the public will to demand it, through activism and determination. We need folks who will stand up for the waterfront and who will not take no for an answer.

The second ingredient is sound public policy. Oakland's Estuary Plan is case-in-point. Unfortunately, it's gotten kicked around like an old tin can. Still, it's there as a blueprint, and can be used to our benefit.

The third ingredient is private capital and investment. That's where people like Michael Ghielmetti of Signature Properties come in.

As much as we'd like for the city to step in and make the waterfront a wonderland, the days of great civic adventures are over. City governments can't barely fill potholes, much less build grand concourses. They can't do great things without private capital. That's the bitter pill some, like this aforementioned columnist, don't like to swallow.

As I told the young Ghiemetti after shaking his hand, "You can have yours as long as we get ours." He readily agreed. Thus did he and I settle the whole of the issue.

(Young Ghiemetti did inform me that it's hands-off at the Fifth Avenue Marina, a victory for one and all.)

Lastly, and most interestingly, Travis spoke of the need to have "rascals" in the mix; people with imagination and whimsy, who look for new ways to do things, take risks, break molds, defy the odds, do the unexpected and succeed. To me, the Fifth Avenue community is just what we need on the waterfront. (ArtShip was pure rascal but she's gone.)

On the other side, we have the Landing at Jack London Square, which suffers from (my opinion) intense over-generic style. No rascally rabbits there.

What does Ghiemetti offer at Oak to Ninth? The capital, obviously, but only time will tell if this project and its supporters passes the special rascal test.

Finally, Travis had a warning to all our prospective partners: "The trouble with rascals is that when they get infested with greed, they become scoundrels." Horace Carpentier, case-in-point.

And so the party ended with a warning and another wash of wine. A good time was had by all.

Mark your calendars for May 26, 2005 -- the Second Annual Horace Carpentier Dinner. Watch young Ghiemetti and I get our just desserts.

"Wharf! Wharf! Wharf!" barked the salty old dog to