“There is a change that is happening in the US where young people want to live in cities and don’t want to rely on cars to get around,” said Liz Brisson, a San Francisco urban transit planner who lives at Uptown Place and supports closing Latham Square to traffic. “These kind of spaces support that kind of generational transition.”
Brisson is talking about a pilot project to create public space at the gateway between downtown and uptown Oakland. Since August 16, Latham Square has created a painted and shady plaza on the roadway. Only ten weeks into the six-month pilot, which opened July 15th, the city let cars flow southbound on Telegraph, ahead of schedule and with no plan to return to the full street closure. “The planning department’s insistence that the pilot be cut short really hurt the viability,” said Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO) board president Jonathan Bair.
Rachel Flynn, who joined Oakland as director of the planning and building department in March, has confirmed that staff from the city will present to city council a design for Latham Square that includes traffic flow in both directions on Telegraph between Broadway and 16th streets, relegating public space to an expanded pavement peninsula. “I don’t think we’re harming pedestrians,” she said in an interview with Oakland Local. “We’re really addressing everyone’s needs.”
Flynn is frank about her reasoning for reopening Telegraph to car traffic: local business owners got in touch and complained. “We just heard concerns from property owners and business owners that cutting off that link between Telegraph and Broadway” was problematic, she said. “We still need that access [for cars].”
However, traffic studies commissioned by the city and obtained through a public records request seem to show the opposite. Of several possible configurations studied, the safest one for both cars and pedestrians appears to be the full closure of the Broadway/Telegraph intersection, according to the reports by Kittelson & Associates Inc.
The first study found: “Alternative 1 (Full Plaza) has only minor impacts to travel between southbound Telegraph and southbound Broadway (and vice versa)[.]” The second study, which looked at additional options for reconfiguring the intersection, said of the full closure option: “This alternative also eliminates the most vehicle-vehicle and pedestrian-vehicle conflicts compared to the other alternatives.”
“The traditional planning perspective that cars drive all development is simply not true in Uptown,” said Bair. “It’s been a vision of a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.”
Results of an online survey conducted by Oakland’s Public Works (and obtained via public records request) show that Oaklanders who responded to the survey liked the pedestrian-friendly space. Of 180 respondents, 63% picked a car-free plaza as their first choice. Limited traffic was preferred by 25% and only 12% wanted the option that will be presented to council: resumption of two-way traffic. The survey respondents also overwhelmingly felt that the pilot “improves downtown Oakland overall” (82% agree or strongly agree).
The move to shrink Latham Square seems to have started even before the pilot opened. In mid-July, Brian Kendall, an Oakland city employee who is the project manager for Oakland’s downtown façade & tenant improvement program, circulated a petition to the merchants he works with in Oakland, opposing the planned street closure. A senior city official reports that Kendall personally brought the petition around city hall the day before the pilot began.
Some might feel the duty to represent the business owners rested with the Downtown BID, which supports the pilot project. “Most people are very positive about the project,” said Andrew Jones, district service manager for the Downtown Oakland Association.
Flynn defended Kendall’s actions, noting that, “He was getting an earful from the people who had heard about it,” and, “I think it was Brian’s duty to respond.” Flynn went on. “I know it was kind of awkward for some people because it was one department vs. another,” adding that, “democracy is messy.”
Kristine Shaff, spokesperson for Public Works, says that that a planned second public meeting on the project (still listed as “to be announced” on the city’s website) was moved to December and was not cancelled. Bair disputes this version of events, noting that the December public meeting was added only after he lobbied assistant director of public works, Michael Neary. Bair and others are concerned that the December meeting will come too late to affect the decision as to whether Telegraph will be open to pedestrians or cars.
Phil Tagami, whose California Capital & Investment Group is overseeing the Oakland Army Base project, owns the Rotunda Building, which fronts on the plaza. He also feels there was not enough outreach. “The big community meeting [the city] did organize was on Yom Kippur,” he said, noting that many local businesses could not attend on the Jewish holy day.
Tagami is concerned that the micro-plaza will end up like Frank Ogawa Plaza, which “never really was successful.” He noted that he is not against the plaza but “what’s missing from the equation is the impacts” on the neighboring properties. “I respect and appreciate the desire to make downtown cool.”
“A lot of people got reactionary about the plaza,” said Popuphood’s Sarah Filley. “I don’t think that it means we shouldn’t try anything new.” She added, “For cities to be able to move forward in a cost-effective way, this is a great option.” Popuphood, which has a contract with the city to use Latham Square as an incubator for microvendors, will now only be able to place vendors in the plaza during special events when the street is closed. (“Let it be known, we’re looking for vendors,” Filley noted.)
Pedestrian advocates have vowed to keep fighting to preserve the traffic diversion and the full plaza space. WOBO has started a petition and is encouraging Oaklanders to voice their support for the Latham Square at upcoming city council meetings.
The Oakland City Council‘s Public Works Committee is set to review the proposed permanent design at a meeting on December 3.