Everyone knows the Council voted to restore 2-way traffic to Latham Square, right? So, what happened?
At its first meeting of 2014, Oakland city council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney called the Latham Square pilot process a “comedy of errors,” but still urged support for the staff recommendation to resume two-way car traffic on Telegraph Avenue. Despite what appeared to be initial support for a compromise solution, allowing southbound traffic on Telegraph and retaining a larger pedestrian space, a substitute motion by council member Dan Kalb failed and McElhaney’s motion to support the staff recommendation passed.
Referring to the “thoughtful” public discussion, Mayor Quan called this “one of the council’s best nights.”
Latham Square is unusual in the annals of “pilot” projects. “It’s only paint” is the planner’s mantra for implementing rapid changes that can be adjusted on the ground based on results. More often than not, the paint stays and permanent fixtures replace temporary street furniture. For examples of this, Oaklanders don’t need to look farther than San Francisco, which has slapped down a lot of green paint in the past few years. Most recently, the city responded to a spate of cyclist deaths on SOMA streets with pilot buffered bike lanes mere months after the incidents sparked protests. Parklets, which started as a renegade street reclamation during Parking Day, are perhaps the best example of the temporary-permanent space. Oakland’s two parklets – on West Grand in front of Farley’s and 40th by Manifesto Bicycles – have become neighborhood assets.
City staff are usually staunch supporters of their own pilots, weathering opposition to keep projects in place long enough for residents and merchants to experience the benefits of the new design. When Oakland staff turned against their own plan and cut the pilot short, the feeling of betrayal among project supporters was tangible.
Dan Kalb: “I think this plan put forward by the staff is not a compromise at all. It’s opening the whole thing up and possibly making it even less safe for pedestrians.”
So it’s no surprise that more than 30 people showed up to speak at the council meeting and twitter buzzed with comments during the discussion of Latham Square.
For both supporters and opponents of the pedestrian plaza, Latham Square has come to symbolize everything that is wrong with Oakland planning. To businesses and property owners who felt the traffic disruption harmed their bottom lines, this was another example of Oakland failing to support businesses. To pedestrian advocates and plaza fans, the abortive pilot and flawed public process showed Oakland making a u-turn into the past, just as it was about to join other major cities in creating a more walkable, bikable downtown.
Speakers on both sides of the issue referenced other cities: Portland, New York City, and Chicago all were mentioned as examples of what Oakland could aspire to or shouldn’t try to emulate. The discussion was clearly about more than land use issues on one block of downtown roadway. Oakland is wrestling with the question of how a modern city evolves in an era of climate change and reduced car use and how fast that change can happen.
Dave Campbell, Advocacy Director of EBBC who also lives a few blocks from Latham Square, asked council members to “take a moment to think about all the things we have done to make it easier for people to choose to drive to downtown Oakland. Think of all the freeways your predecessors approved … to get people to downtown Oakland. … Think about all the parking garages we have in downtown Oakland. Think about all the one way streets we have to get people in their cars through downtown Oakland.” Campbell said, “We have done so much to improve car access to downtown. If that were the key to successful retail, we would have it nailed.”
Planning commissioner Chris Pattillo spoke up for a return to two-way traffic on Telegraph because doesn’t want to add to the “frustrating” experience of driving in downtown Oakland. BART director Rebecca Satlzman came out to support a compromise plan for one lane of traffic (the current configuration) and to ask the council to address downtown circulation issues – a concern that was repeated by many.
The deciding factor appeared to be opposition from property owners and businesses in the neighborhood. Several residents and business owners from the Cathedral Building, for whom Latham Square is their “front yard,” voiced support for two-way car traffic. McElhaney, whose district includes Latham Square, cited opposition from the developer of the Sears building at 20th Street, who fears loss of financial backing for the project if car travel were limited on Telegraph Avenue.
Kalb was the strongest voice on the council in favor of the pedestrian plaza. After stating, “I’m generally one that is very supportive and thinks very highly of our city departments,” He listed a litany of failures and missteps: “We were told about a six-month pilot and it turned out to be, really, nine weeks. We’ve heard reports, documented reports, of staff going out of their way to organize opposition to the closure – and staff sometimes working at odds with other staff in other departments. Not a pretty picture. There have been public meetings almost held as an afterthought. One meeting was held on a popular religious holiday, the other with a day and a half notice. There was a survey – the survey is referenced in the staff report, but the results of the survey are not referenced in the staff report and the results of the survey were overwhelmingly in favor of closure. Whatever we do, pedestrian safety has to be paramount. It’s not clear to me whether this staff proposed design is the most pedestrian safe, pedestrian friendly design. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. I don’t think we can really call this a usable significant pedestrian plaza.” Noting the wealth of transit options in the area (two BART stations and many AC Transit bus lines), Kalb added, “This is the kind of place where you should be doing a true pedestrian plaza without a lot of car traffic.”
Oddly, the inevitability of a car-free Latham Plaza seems to be accepted by all sides. Several of the public speakers that supported a return to two-way car traffic wanted to see a “flex space” where cars could easily be excluded. Assistant director of public works Michael Neary said the design presented by staff would allow the space to transform into an exclusively pedestrian space in a few years, after downtown circulation issues are addressed. The AIA advocated for a curbless design that would make the transition seamless.
The process is not over: many design details of the plaza and adjoining parts of Broadway are still to be resolved. The AIA will host a public design meeting on January 30 from 6-8 pm in their office at 14th and Clay Streets.
You can read Oakland Local’s prior coverage of Latham Square here.