A pilot plaza at Latham Square, created by eliminating car traffic from the 1500 block of Telegraph, where it intersects with Broadway, has garnered controversy since it opened in mid-August. In early October, the southbound lane of Telegraph was returned to car traffic. In a public meeting held November 20, Interim Director of the Oakland Public Works Agency Brooke Levin, told the crowd that the northbound lane will probably also reopen to cars before the construction of the final plaza next summer. The proposed final design for the plaza includes two-way auto traffic on Telegraph.
Responding to critics of the shortened pilot for the new plaza (in email shared with Oakland Local), Oakland Planning Director Rachel Flynn cited the names of several merchants who oppose the closure of Telegraph to auto traffic as evidence for the city’s decision to end the car-free portion of the pilot early. (Note: Flynn provided Oakland Local with the names of these businesses in an interview before our original article on the Latham Square controversy. Plaza supporters also provided names of business in support of the project.) On a recent rainy Tuesday, Oakland Local did a reality check, going door to door near Latham Square, talking to nearby businesses about the new pedestrian plaza. Among the business owners and employees we talked to, as among the business owners present at the public meeting the next night, opinions ran the gamut from strong opposition to the traffic diversion to appreciation of the plaza as an asset to the neighborhood.
HUB Oakland sported a large poster promoting the grand opening of Latham Square in October and Awaken Café has been programming an evening music series in the space, in partnership with the Downtown Oakland Association. Count them as supporters. Employees in nearby businesses and offices offered opinions ranging from indifference to appreciation for the public space and increased safety from cars.
Dion Bullock, co-owner of the shoe store Shoe Groupies a few doors up Telegraph from Latham Square, was glad she installed a door on the Telegraph side of her store (which also fronts on Broadway) just in time to capitalize on the pilot project. “It brings a lot of foot traffic,” she said. She noted that more people spend time in the area on sunny days and that her business is up in the past month. “It didn’t hinder my business,” she said of the landscaped plaza. “If anything, it helped it.”
An employee at Café Van Kleef reported that their delivery trucks had gotten stuck trying to make the tight right turn onto 16th Street when the plaza was completely closed to traffic. Once the southbound lane of Telegraph reopened in early October, their delivery problem was solved, he said, adding that he likes the plaza, however, and wouldn’t want the northbound lane reopened.
Farther up the block, another shoe store reported that business was down since the pilot project began. Travis Kuhl, owner of Kuhl Frames on the corner of Telegraph and 17th agreed: “I have definitely watched a fall off in foot traffic.” He added, “I’m furious about it.” “I don’t see it as a bridge. I see it as an island,” Kuhl said of the Latham Square pilot. He came to the public meeting to share his views and stayed after, hashing them out with a group that seemed to mostly of the opposite opinion. Despite strong feelings on both sides, the public meeting was respectful, with attendees taking turns and listening and responding to each other’s ideas.
Kuhl’s store is one where customers need to drive up to the front door, to haul away heavy, framed art. He said that unmetered, all-day parking on Telegraph (not related to the pilot plaza) is a problem because it doesn’t provide the turnover and access his business needs. Bullock agreed: “We need parking so people can get out of their cars,” she said, noting that parking was an issue before the pilot plaza opened.
Kuhl also observed that an exit leading from the 19th Street BART Station onto Telegraph was closed for construction, cutting off one source of foot traffic into the neighborhood. At the public meeting, a participant asked what evaluation was built into the process find the causes of reductions in foot traffic reported by businesses – whether the plaza or other factors. Levin replied that there was no plan to study business issues or do an economic development assessment of the area as part of the pilot project.
Based on our informal survey and the business owners who spoke up at the public meeting, we can confirm that Flynn’s list of business owners who oppose the project – which includes local building owners Phil Tagami and Kathy Rousseau – is accurate. But business owners who welcome the car-free space don’t seem to have factored into the city’s evaluation of the pilot.
The next step in the planning process for Latham Square is the Oakland City Council Public Works Committee meeting on December 17 at 11:30 am. Staff will recommend a design for the plaza that substantially increases the median between Telegraph and Broadway, narrows the vehicle lanes on Telegraph, and reopens Telegraph to two-way car traffic (such as option 2a. here).
What do you want to see in Latham Square?
You can direct comments to your city council member, to council member Rebecca Kaplan, and to the members of the Public Works Committee: Kaplan, Dan Kalb, Noel Gallo (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Larry Reid. Find council member email addresses here.