The groundbreaking of Latham Square, Oakland’s newest plaza, has temporarily closed off the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph Avenue off to traffic in favor of experimenting with public space. The pavement where cars flowed—or stalled—is now a blue and green mural based on the City of Oakland’s logo, adorned with modular street furniture and landscaped planters.
The Latham Square project, a public-private collaboration between the City of Oakland, the Downtown Oakland Association, and San Francisco-based art and design studio Rebar, draws its momentum from the growing popularity of pop-up urban space and pedestrian plazas in American cities and Uptown’s redevelopment, according to the City Council resolution written by Complete Streets Program Manager Jamie Parks.
While “parklet” projects have recently become popular in Oakland, Latham Square represents a new typology of temporary urban space for the city: the pedestrian plaza.
According to Iris Starr, Transportation Planning and Funding Manager, parklets are one or two street parking spaces that adjacent business owners can rent and convert into public space, while the Latham Square project converts the Cathedral Building plaza and the roadway next to it into a unified public space.
Starr said that this experimental closure has the potential to make Latham Square a vibrant urban space that hosts events, music, and food. In addition, Starr says that the City is working with Oakland small-business initiative Popuphood to install temporary retail trucks.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “People are happy. People are nervous. I think there’s so much excitement about Oakland now and people want one more opportunity to see what could happen in our city. We’re really starting to be on the progressive end of urban design…This is really a pilot project in a big way to see if it can be applied into other areas of the city.”
According to Rebar Principal Matthew Passmore, the community design workshop held in February was a productive brainstorming session to gather ideas on how the space could be used.
“We got a lot of good ideas from the community and people who are interested in activating it as a cultural space for theater, fashion shows, and music,” Passmore said. “Through that process we discovered pretty early on that this site located at the base of the uptown arts district could be a great venue for cultural programming.”
While Rebar has designed many San Francisco parklets, Latham Square marks Rebar’s first design intervention in Oakland. Passmore said that the project’s funding, provided by a Proposition 1C grant from the state, was substantial enough to allow for high-quality materials and fabrication. Rebar collaborated with Engineer Artworks in West Oakland to use reclaimed lumber, lamppost bases, tree grates, and even street signs, to build the plaza.
“Even though my firm is based in San Francisco, in many ways it’s an Oakland-based project,” Passmore said.
Adding to the plaza’s experimental nature, the furniture and trees are moveable. Based on where plaza users need shade or prefer to sit, Passmore said, the City will be able to rearrange its components.
“We wanted to explore ideas of modularity and mobility,” he said. “Basically we want to turn the plaza into the laboratory.”
However, not all the in the community have embraced the plan with open arms. While Starr said that traffic analysis done by a consulting group has shown that the closure will not worsen congestion, some worry that the district will become more difficult to navigate, she said. And in light of the recent vandalism to storefront windows after the Trayvon Martin verdict, some business owners have expressed concern that the expansion of public space may increase similar incidents of vandalism.
Starr dismisses these concerns, citing that many business owners, even those affected by the recent vandalism, were overwhelmingly excited about the project.
“We’re not planning for the crisis that may happen,” she said. “We don’t want to plan for having huge parking lots at different stores to make sure we only have enough room for people who go there on Christmas. We want to plan for the best typical use. We don’t want to plan defensively.”
Based on the pilot’s success, Latham Square could last anywhere from six months to a year, or become a permanent urban design element. According to Starr, when Oakland schools reopen for the fall, the City will conduct another traffic study to evaluate the plaza’s effectiveness.
“We’re experimenting with the thing being totally closed right now, and then in a few months, we’re going to experiment with opening Telegraph southbound only,” she said. “By that time we’ll be writing a report and going to City Council to ask the blessing to go forward with the permanent design.”
The Downtown Oakland Association, a business improvement district, will take on the plaza’s maintenance.