Former Educator Aims Sights on Urban Planning in Newark

Melinda Pickens is one of four people who applied for a position on Newark’s Planning Commission. Discover what she would prioritize if appointed to the job.

Melinda Pickens is a candidate for an open seat on Newark's Planning Commission.  Photo credit:  Alex Morales
Melinda Pickens is a candidate for an open seat on Newark's Planning Commission. Photo credit: Alex Morales

Melinda Pickens positioned herself as the environmentally-friendly candidate for the open seat on Newark's Planning Commission this week, with a penchant for progressivism. 

Pickens has lived and worked in the community for decades. 

“As a long-time resident of Newark I have seen it grow and change and prosper...and go into some decline," she said.

But, her professional experience is in an entirely different sector. Pickens was a teacher in the Newark Unified School District for more than 30 years. After retiring, she continued to spend her spare time helping sixth graders learn to read.   

“It’s definitely out of my comfort zone,” she admitted, when asked about the reasons she applied to be a planning commissioner.

"We’re the custodians of the community...As a city we need to look at the green alternatives,” she explained. 

While Pickens is not intimately familiar with the issues that plague Newark’s planning department, she said that if appointed she would research them and learn from the mistakes and successes of large-scale developments.

“NewPark Mall used to be the end-all, be-all in the 90s and now it’s practically empty. Why? Why are all the businesses moving to Pacific Commons? What could the planners have done differently to prevent that,” she asked rhetorically.

She advocated for a more thoughtful approach to urban planning. She is a fan of bicycling and walking around town, although she wishes it were easier for residents to do. Pickens has seen firsthand that the city’s transportation infrastructure is incomplete and poorly maintained. 

“I live near the lake and volunteer over at Milani School. I walk there and back, which is about five miles a day,” she said. “I’ve seen places where it looks like people have thrown out whole jars of cigarette butts.”

She said that in some areas the existing bike lanes are filthy, while in others there are no bike lanes at all. This could be prevented with some forethought and a maintenance plan, she said.  

When asked about her thoughts on the Dumbarton Transit-Oriented Development area she replied that the city could find a balance between progress and home creation.   

“We can’t just throw up dense housing and expect it to meet the needs of everyone," she said. “The ecosystem is fragile; we need to be mindful of that. Once it’s gone, or not done in a good way, it’s not coming back,” she said.

Pickens is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Amador Valley Quilters. 

She is one of four people who applied for the job, which comes with a stipend of $75 per meeting, according to City Clerk Sheila Harrington. Mayor Alan Nagy will sort the applications and conduct interviews with the candidates, said Bernie Nillo, vice chairperson of the Newark Planning Commission.   

“As planning commissioners, we do not get to add any comments on any candidates that apply,” Nillo said.

Notably, Mayor Alan Nagy recognized Pickens in 2013 as Newark’s volunteer of the year for her contributions to the community. 
The Planning Commission is an advisory board composed of citizens who are tasked with reviewing land-use issues and making recommendations about them to Newark City Council, among other things.

If appointed, Pickens would likely vote in favor of public-private partnerships.

“Here we are in a key place to the East Bay and to Silicon Valley,” she said. We’re at the cross roads…That land should be developed,” Pickens said.

About the City of Newark’s future she said, “I want to make it a destination.”

Editor's note: This article was edited on Monday to reflect the proper spelling of Louis Milani Elementary School. It previously read Maloney School. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused. 
Vanessa Castañeda January 27, 2014 at 05:22 PM
Thanks for clearing that up, Melinda. City staffers said you worked with 1st through 6th graders.
April January 28, 2014 at 03:33 PM
Go Melinda! I LOVE it that you live here and taught here, and volunteer here! You actually know our history! I wish I could appoint you! I love the "find a solution, and don't fix blame" approach.
James Nelson January 28, 2014 at 11:19 PM
I'd be REAL surprised if Nagy chose the Teacher out of the group of candidates. He's going to look for the one Candidate who is more than willing to play his "game" and kiss his ass. Anyone whose ideals don't match his own are automatically ignored. No offense to the Teacher, I'm sure she's great, anyone who can survive three decades in a School setting, without killing a little bastard or two is a total professional. LOL.
April January 30, 2014 at 03:38 PM
Melinda, if you don't get appointed, run for Mayor next time.
Rob Sorensen January 30, 2014 at 03:42 PM
Don't neglect the School Brd either as you'd have valuable insights for boot strapping teachers in The Common Core.


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