Oakland Local

Are Oakland city politics affecting the fate of Oakland's Latham Square pilot project? 

“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.

 

The short URL for this post is http://oak.lc/bvaKB.

29 thoughts on “Car-free plan for Latham Square challenged by City of Oakland staffers

  1. Oakland remains about 50 years behind much of the country where reclaiming streets for people (rather than cars) has become a major goal of urban renovation. Americans travel in droves to European cities where street life is lively and automobile-limiting (called “traffic calming”) policies are standardized and highly effective in maintaining and promoting city-center economies.

    There have been a number of successful mini-plaza projects in our sister city across the Bay. Portland, Oregon is famous for its urban revitalization through careful transit and pedestrian planning and project completions.

    This situation is further evidence of an utter lack of vision and leadership among Oakland’s elected officials. Thus Oakland never can move forward in a steady, progressive fashion. Crime remains rampant in part because of streets that are accomodating to cars and hostile to people on foot. Oakland’s electeds, and their dullwitted appointees just don’t get it.

  2. Clearly the employees of Oakland city’s bureaucracy, including Rachel Flynn and Brian Kendall, are interfering, using lies and distortions, what most Oaklanders want and anyone with any sense understands would be best for our city.

    Shut down that damn intersection permanently. Let us enjoy, car free, a lovely space with beautiful architectural detail which is completely missed when you go through that intersection in a car. The inconvenience for drivers is tiny compared to what would be gained by all of us (including those drivers) who can come and enjoy a wonderful open space in the heart of downtown/uptown.

    But I think this particular controversy is a lesson demonstrating that city employees we pay through our taxes and fees too often do not serve our interests well.

    This city is bloated with self-important bureaucrats who have far too much power over our lives and misuse it to make our city far far less than it could be. What potential we have as a city and how sad that we cannot get the services that we deserve. It’s time to take back our city. Let Mayor Quan and our council members know that this is unacceptable behavior by city employees.

  3. Local businesses would benefit from increased pedestrian and bike traffic but the majority of visitors to downtown still drive, so we should find a way to make it all work. It’s important to find a solution for everyone, not just the bikeriders. Quite a few options for potential reconfiguration of the area, including considering a single lane for southbound traffic, and perhaps removing those three silly parking spaces on Broadway to increase the space. And please, could we make a real bike lane? Mingling pedestrians, sitters-arounders, and speeding bikes is a recipe for problems. Lastly, come up with a good design that shows off Oakland’s architecture and is durable. What is there now is only interim.

  4. Many business people complain that Latham Square was a bad idea.

    Not everyone ride bikes downtown. Some people from East, West and North Oakland want to drive. Many older people want to drive as well.

    Many customers complained about Latham Square.

    The city employees have to take these people into account.

  5. In fact, I wish the city would improve the parking downtown. The city makes money from parked cars placing money in the meters.

    Also, I want to shop more comfortably. I don’t want to lug a bunch of bags on the bus or on a bike.

  6. Wow, I’m amazed by the vehement bike proponents -and their all or nothing demands. I bike and live in the neighborhood, so don’t put me in your “them” pile, but I want Telegraph to remain open to Broadway.

    For almost a decade the city has wanted to make the intersection of Telegraph and Broadway safer. City staff worked on a very good design that allowed for all modes of travel and it was out in the public domain for SEVEN years. Then out of the blue Telegraph was closed off from Broadway -that’s your eleven hour change!

    You want to know what’s a 50 year-old, behind the times plan -SUPER BLOCKS. If you don’t know what those are and why they are bad then look at what was there before City Center, the convention center, and FHOP. If you can’t remember then get to the OPL main branch and start digging. Closing off streets to all motorized traffic is OLD science that creates congestion and if there isn’t already a really good reason to accommodate pedestrians only, then the area suffers major divestment. Burbank did this to their downtown and before it completely killed it they put the roads back in.

    What pisses me off the most is that the temp plaza isn’t even wheel chair accessible!!! That’s ridiculous -but you don’t’ hear a peep out of the bike contingent and their scorched earth tactics about that.

  7. Also my favorite statement in this op-ed: “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.”

    No intersection is the safest intersection, really? That’s just mind blowing! Perhaps we should eliminate more intersections because no intersection is the safest option… according to reports.

  8. “Closing off streets to all motorized traffic is OLD science that creates congestion and if there isn’t already a really good reason to accommodate pedestrians only, then the area suffers major divestment. Burbank did this to their downtown and before it completely killed it they put the roads back in.”

    Latham Square is not downtown Oakland, but a small part of a large downtown. Comparing a promising urban renewal strategy In Oakland to a poorly-designed-and-implemented one in Burbank is apples to oranges.

    And characterizing bike and/or pedestrian advocates as “all or nothing” is completely irrational. Most bicyclists and pedestrians also have access cars and are not opposed to the completely, but to their inappropriate dominance in parts of Oakland which need a safer, more comfortable environment for people not traveling in cars.

    The attitude of the writer is, sadly, too frequently found in Oakland–divisiveness, “us against them” with the result that this poor but promising city never moves forward and stays decades behind truly progressive cities.

  9. R2,

    Latham (the three sided) Square adds to the FHOP superblock does it not? FHOP did not increase the vitality of the area, it killed San Pablo Ave. below 17th St, and contributed to SPA’s overall decline. FHOP and downtown Burbank are excellent comparisons.

    Is the bike contingent demanding nothing less than a completely closed intersection or not? That’s all or nothing to me.

    I feel your response is passive aggressive, and avoids direct response to the issues I brought up, as well as dehumanizes me by calling me “the writer” and not Matt… which I provided to you R2.

    It’s sad that you see someone who’s challenging assumptions as being divisive.

  10. Matt,

    Stating that the prior design (which went unbuilt for 7 years) is an adequate solution is incorrect in my view. That design 1) widens Telegraph to 2 lanes southbound; (2) places the road through the middle of Latham Square and minimizes usable pedestrian space; (3) creates an enormous intersection that would dramatically increase delay for drivers and buses on Broadway (the signal cycle would double from 60s to 120s); and (4) provides no additional landscaping while removing the existing Telegraph median.

    While the temporary plaza does not provide new wheelchair ramps, all portions of the plaza are accessible and I have seen wheelchairs use the space on multiple occasions. As a temporary project, installing ramps was not possible. However, any permanent design (with or without traffic) will include ADA upgrades.

  11. J,

    I don’t know if we’re looking at the same design. Here’s a link…
    http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/pwa/documents/minutes/oak039482.pdf

    1) widens Telegraph to 2 lanes southbound;
    No, it keeps the same number of lanes and consolidates Telegraph into one roadway from the Y that is there today.

    (2) places the road through the middle of Latham Square and minimizes usable pedestrian space;
    There is no square there -there is an intersection of two major roadways. Again the design consolidates Telegraph from a Y to one roadway that connects it to Broadway. Overall pedestrian space is increased significantly.

    (3) creates an enormous intersection that would dramatically increase delay for drivers and buses on Broadway (the signal cycle would double from 60s
    to 120s);
    The intersection footprint is significantly reduced, so there should not be an increase in wait times. Where did you get your cycle time data?

    (4) provides no additional landscaping while removing the existing Telegraph median.
    No, it clearly adds pedestrian space, and would allow for new landscaping while removing a median that needlessly interrupts auto traffic on Broadway.

    Regarding equal access… no, not even remotely are all areas of the temporary plaza accessible. There are clearly three separations where no accommodation has been made. All that custom furniture and not one ramp to allow equal access? I expect this to be remedied in the final design. The fact the it happened is disconcerting and I’m let down by the lack of concern by the public.

    Now all this craziness that if we don’t block this intersection off or Uptown will flounder is pure BS. Take look at this very intersection when virtually no consideration to pedestrians were made and you can see it was still quite economically successful… the third largest retail district in the entire state.

    http://oaklandtribunearchives.tumblr.com/post/48917030046/broadway-and-telegraph-at-15h-street-circa-1956

    What changed is Downtown was bypassed by the freeways and a subterranean BART line. Right now we need all modes downtown until we get to critical mass of shoppers and residents that would naturally demand more of the public right of way. Doing it backwards gets you FHOP and San Pablo Ave. So I don’t support cutting Telegraph auto traffic from Broadway.

  12. Latham Square should be closed to cars. Remember what Latham Square was before it was renovated by the city. It was desolate and basically extended sidewalk. This project has the potential to reinvigorate this critical intersection. No one wants to eat lunch while cars are zipping by at 40 miles per hour. This is not FHOP or City Center. This is latham square, which is not enclosed unlike the other plazas. Closing off cars=more people coming=a tenant finally fills up the ground floor of the Cathedral Building=Uptown becomes even better. So take a deep breath and make Latham Square car-free. Disclosure: I rarely bike, and I drive frequently.

  13. I can see how they would need to respond to folks complaining; I think it is often the case that positive changes don’t get the same effort in feedback. I don’t think we can know how many people appreciated the traffic-free plaza, they didn’t register it with the city.

    For my part, I liked it being cut off. It made that block really nice, and more people were hanging out there. I actually walked out into the street, not realizing it had been reopened to traffic; fortunately I was half paying attention and no cars were nearby. I am going to miss the plaza if both lanes are reopened.

  14. I don’t think it was a positive change. It created another barrier for driving around downtown.

    I am not a bicyclist and I don’t want to be one. I have no reason to hang out downtown either.

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  16. “I am not a bicyclist and I don’t want to be one. I have no reason to hang out downtown either.”

    And the City should be making it easier for you to drive through downtown . . . why?

  17. The city is not “making it easier” for me to drive. The street was fine as it was before. If anything, the city should make it safer by making it less confusing and fewer obstacles.

    And if I’m to shop downtown or go to events downtown, parking and drivability are important.

  18. This discussion shows one place where Oaklanders can find common ground, despite divergent viewpoints: we care passionately about the future of Oakland. That, in itself, encourages me.

    Clarification on a couple of points:

    This is not an “op-ed” as one person suggested. Everything in the article was researched by me, using data provided by the city and interviews with city officials and other stakeholders, then vetted by my editor.

    The quote from the consultant report stating that closing the intersection will reduce traffic delay boils down to this: the other configuration studied in that report would have required the light at that intersection to be twice as long as other lights on Broadway, to allow pedestrians time to walk across a very wide, angled street. The report found that this would be more detrimental to traffic flow than simply re-routing traffic and creating a pedestrian space. You can view the report at http://www.scribd.com/doc/181503359/PRR-1025-Doc-1-PilotProjectTrafficStudy-11-4-13

    Another thing I want to note: this discussion is about removing cars from one block of downtown Oakland and causing traffic to take a slightly more circuitous route. What residents and the city need to decide is whether the benefits of new public space, both short term and long term, outweigh the inconvenience to traffic.

    Whatever happens, my understanding is that the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph will be reconfigured in some way, so those who think it’s fine the way it is will have to deal with some type of change.

    To look at all the studies and data from the city on the Latham Square pilot, go to http://records.oaklandnet.com/request/1025 and start at the bottom. The bottom 7 or 8 documents have the summary information.

  19. Long before there were people in metal boxes with wheels there were people on foot sharing the civilized space with others also walking, looking one another in the eye, greeting one another, undivided by masses of metal moving at high speed, making loud noises and spewing toxic gases.

    Many full-time inhabitants of metal boxes find life outside them to be frightening and difficult. It needn’t be so.

    Someday Americans, Californians, Oaklanders as a whole will discover that street life can be a good life, that clean air can be delicious and that peace and quiet are invigorating and joyful experiences. For those who dislike using their legs and feet, there are wheelchairs, some with nice, quite electric motors for those who don’t like using muscles. In fact, the bicycle does very nicely for many who prefer to minimize the use of their muscles.

  20. Matt,

    The information on signal timing comes from the January 2013 traffic study: http://www.scribd.com/doc/181503359/PRR-1025-Doc-1-PilotProjectTrafficStudy-11-4-13. See pages 7 and 8. The footprint is effectively larger, because it combines 15th, Broadway, and Telegraph into one signal (whereas before the left turn from Broadway to Telegraph was a separate intersection). The large, offset signal means more phases and hence a longer signal cycle.

    On the widening, I guess that is interpretation. It would go from 2 lanes northbound and 1 southbound, to 2 southbound and 1 northbound (3 total either way). It still seems unnecessary to increase the number of southbound lanes, but it might not technically be a widening.

    I don’t believe the prior design had any landscaping. All surfaces were paved in my understanding (although new trees were planted to replace the trees that were cut down). However, I could be wrong about that.

    With respect to accessibility, I agree with you in relationship to Latham Square when it was fully closed. This should have been addressed. However, with the southbound traffic open, I’m not sure where a ramp would go that would provide much benefit.

    J

  21. Why block it off to traffic entirely?

    Simply do as they do in Europe (I know, this isn’t Europe, but good ideas come from places other than the US):

    • Make the through traffic one narrow lane in each direction, w/ a 10 mph speed limit
    • Change the pavement to patterned cobblestone with very low curbs and a few speed bumps

    Simple changes like that have the intended effect of calming traffic, increasing safety, and giving every mode of transport equal access. Take a look at what simply putting in striped pavement did on Jefferson St in SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf: Cars now have to (and politely do) share the road with bikes and pedestrians.

    It’s really all about making sure the most dangerous vehicles don’t dictate the terms of the agreement when it comes to public right of way.

  22. Upright biker: absolutely.

    The problem is that in this country designing streets for sharing between motorized traffic and people on foot or bikes is almost never carried out effectively. Functional traffic calming means that every detail has to be properly implemented and our politicians and public works departments are not competent in this area.

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