Latham Square, a pilot pedestrian plaza at the foot of Telegraph Avenue, has become a lightning rod for controversy. The planned six-month pilot was truncated in early October with the reopening of the southbound lane of Telegraph to auto traffic, though the wider northbound side remains a pedestrian plaza. The city’s handling of the project was shown in a harsh light when the matter came up for review by the public works committee of the Oakland city council this week. The staff proposal would return two-way traffic to Telegraph with an expanded triangle of sidewalk forming a smaller plaza on the east side between Telegraph and Broadway. No other options were included in the staff report.
Chair Rebecca Kaplan began her remarks with “I just want to say, on a process perspective, I think the City of Oakland owes every stakeholder involved a huge apology.” She added, “The public was told we were going to do a six-month pilot of a full closure, at which point we would have had more data to make a rational decision about what to do after that. That was not done.”
After the committee had spent over an hour considering the future of Latham Square, assistant director of public works Michael Neary dropped a bombshell: if staff were to consider any plaza design other than the one in their report, it could trigger the need for an environmental review (CEQA).
Latham Square’s redesign is funded by a Proposition 1C grant that requires construction be completed by December 2014 or the city loses $2.9 million in grant funding. The time needed to complete a CEQA review of other traffic configurations could extend the design process beyond the project’s tight timeline.
“Since you’ve already CEQA cleared the full closure [of Telegraph], how could a one lane closure trigger more CEQA work?” asked Kaplan.
Neary said that “the full closure was done without CEQA because it was temporary.”
Following a moment of stunned silence, Kaplan asked, “So you were never planning to CEQA clear a full closure? Even though we authorized one?” After Neary confirmed this, Kaplan said, “I’m getting less and less impressed with the process around this project, if that’s possible.”
“This city has created a problem, both by bad public process and by poor communication.”
Twenty members of the public, including business owners, nearby residents, and bicycle/pedestrian advocates illustrated the divide in public opinion about the space. Seven supported the staff recommendation to allow two-way car traffic and two designers suggested a curbless design to create a flexible space that can be reconfigured to allow or exclude auto traffic, while ten spoke in favor of a completely car-free plaza.
Zach Wald spoke on behalf of Lynette McElhaney, whose district includes Latham Square. He cited a flawed process on the part of the city as a cause of polarization on the issue. “We have people on both sides of this issue who are well worth our consideration,” Wald said, adding that neither the business community nor residents and workers spoke with one voice. He endorsed the curbless flex-space proposal.
The four committee members were as divided as the public. Noel Gallo proposed approving the staff recommendation. Larry Reid also supported two-way traffic on Telegraph, with the caveat that a curbless design be considered.
Kaplan and Dan Kalb asked staff to consider other options for the plaza. “Two lanes [of car traffic] is not a real pedestrian friendly situation and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it is,” Kalb said. He noted that he had received “a couple hundred” comments on the issue from residents in the area, who were “virtually all” in favor of the full pedestrian plaza and from nearby businesses that fell on both sides of the issue.
“This city has created a problem, both by bad public process and by poor communication,” said Kaplan, who described signage in the pilot area as “atrocious.”
Reid and Gallo refused to support a motion to ask staff to report on additional options for the plaza. In the end, an abstention from Kaplan allowed the staff recommendation to move forward to the full council, with a request to include a curbless plaza option. “And I also recognize that if this goes up to council, the council can still change things at the council meeting,” she said, adding, “Hopefully we will not do a public process this poorly again.”
Update: At its December 19 meeting, the rules & legislation committee clarified that the Latham Square proposal technically died in the public works committee. Per the request of Patricia Kernighan and Libby Schaaf, Latham Square will come before the City Council on January 7 with all options that have been studied – from fully pedestrian plaza to two-way auto traffic – and their CEQA implications.
On December 20, Oakland Local heard back from Citywide Communications Director, Karen Boyd, with some clarifications and corrections:
Staff recommendation is NOT to end the project. Staff recommendation is to proceed with the project as modified through what we have learned from the pilot project: reduction of travel lanes from 3 to 2; enlarge the plaza from the original 2007 adopted plan; assure that the final design is one that preserves the maximum flexibility in future use of the space, including but not limited to multi-modal travel and temporary closure for events.
Staff will bring a report to the full Council for consideration on January 7, 2014 which will include three options:
1. Reduction of travel lanes from 3 to 2
2. Full closure
3. 1 lane southbound to Broadway
The Committee also requested that staff include for consideration the concept of no curbs in the design. Staff has not committed to a curb-less design but has committed to objectively considering it in the final design.
The driving concern in all this is the deadline by which we must expend the grant funds. All construction must be complete by December, 2014 for us to receive the grant money. This is an extremely aggressive schedule at this point, and we will need final design done by March at the latest in order to complete work by December.
We are adding to the resolution a suggestion that staff initiate studies of traffic circulation in the downtown area. The purpose of this would be to look at long-range changes (one-way streets to two-way, for example) we might consider that would eliminate some of the circulation constraints that made a complete closure of Telegraph problematic.
The supplemental report is available here. Latham Square comes before the city council on Jan. 7.