Recently, Oakland Local sought out five people with long histories in Oakland and asked them to share their thoughts about downtown Oakland’s planning challenges and opportunities. (Read the companion piece here.)
For our completely unscientific survey, we talked to a preservationist, an architect, a landscape architect, a developer and a planner. It is impossible to represent the immense diversity of Oakland’s population or even of the possibilities for downtown in the space we have for this article, so please take this as a small piece of a much bigger conversation.
Even among the five people who generously took the time to share their ideas with us, the range of different perspectives was impressive and, at times, surprising. Here are five challenges that came out of these conversations.
Frank Ogawa Plaza
“I don’t think it’s terrible, but I think it raises issues,” said Naomi Schiff, a member of the board of the Oakland Heritage Alliance and a local business owner who has lived in Oakland since 1974, of the plaza that sits at the heard of downtown and fronts City Hall.
“Closing the street was seen as essential for attracting investment,” said Matthew Taecker, chair of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) regional and urban design committee. “The consequence of that was that downtown lost a lot of its connectivity.”
“Occupy people were the only people that ever used that space,” Schiff said. The encampment’s presence in the plaza showed that, “all the politics aside, it’s an inviting space.”
Chris Pattillo, chair of the Oakland Planning Commission and president of PGA Design, was part of the initial design team that developed the master plan for Frank Ogawa Plaza. “To be really successful, any urban space needs three things: good design, maintenance and programming,” she said. “I think the overall design of Ogawa Plaza is a good design.”
“To have vibrant urban spaces, you have to work at it,” Pattillo noted. “You can’t sit back and wait for something magical to happen.”
Remembering a time when there were tables and chairs that invited workers to eat lunch in the sun, “It’s night and day how that space felt with all those in there,” she said.
“One obvious thing to do is to put a bike lane through there,” said Schiff. She thinks the location would be ideal for bicycle-oriented businesses and a bike parking facility, perhaps near the BART elevator.
“All of this is more important because this is our front door,” said Pattillo. “I think if all those things were corrected, and there’s no reason they can’t be, people would feel differently about Frank Ogawa Plaza.”
As a landscape architect, Chris Pattillo, not surprisingly, is bothered when city plants die. When one plant dies in a planted row, she said, “It’s like a kid with a missing tooth. It just spoils everything.”
Citing Broadway Auto Row, which was redesigned 15 years ago and is about to undergo another facelift, Pattillo noted, “The city makes an investment in a public improvement, but they don’t maintain it. Within very short order, shockingly short order, they have to rip it out and do it again.”
“On some level, I think the public is very aware. The message is, this isn’t important enough for us to take care of it,” according to Pattillo, who added that “big, wonderful trees” are “such an obvious indicator of success.”
“You look at that skyline,” said Alan Dones, Managing Partner & CEO of Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA), “That skyline has less than one percent equity ownership within the African-American community. Therein lies a fundamental problem that cascades down.”
“Property ownership is basic to being able to benefit economically,” said Dones, whose name has been floated recently in connection with potential development of the Sears building on Broadway at 20th, and whose website displays a vision for an Oakland Arts & Cultural District project that would remake Broadway from 19th to 34th Streets. Citing an “atrophy” of opportunities for people of color in Oakland, Dones wants more than redeveloped buildings and nice restaurants: “also develop it in a way that makes for a more diverse participation at the ownership level.” He added, “You have to build it into the DNA of the project.”
All residents, no matter what their income level or where they live, benefit from more equitable distribution of economic opportunity, said Dones.
Citing a statistic from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Dones said, “There is definitely some type of correlation between an ability to enjoy a job, an ability to have an economic future, and a propensity towards whatever kind of social psychology that causes you to go down a violent path.”
Taecker also stressed the need to build diversity into downtown housing development. “I think that’s a necessary corollary to building more housing downtown: it needs to be housing for all kinds of people. That’s what will give it vitality. It’s also what puts in place various stakeholders who will advocate for the downtown and for nicer urban environments downtown,” he said. “The upper-income housing can actually be the vehicle for building more low-income housing.”
“Oakland is still in a position where the powers that be remember an Oakland that was really struggling in the 70s and 80s, when we saw all that disinvestment in Oakland,” said Joel Ramos, regional planning director for TransForm. He noted that Oakland had tried and failed six years ago to pass an inclusionary housing ordinance that would have levied a fee on developers of market rate units to help fund affordable housing. “There was this concern that Oakland needs to do whatever it can to attract investment.”
Ramos thinks the time to revisit inclusionary housing is now. “Oakland is inevitably going to become attractive for investment, if nothing else because of its placement in the region,” he said. “Whether that is going to result in a growth that displaces the existing residents or not remains to be seen.”
Dones pointed out that Oakland is still recovering from the destructive effects of past federal interference in the city. “I experienced this firsthand: that people really don’t give enough thought to, in my opinion, the lingering impacts of the counterintelligence program that Oakland was ground zero for,” he said. He noted that it wasn’t just the Black Panthers – other community, educational and civil rights initiatives “were equally targeted for destruction.” He sees the perception that Oakland is a dangerous city as, at least in part, a legacy of the disinformation campaigns waged by the FBI, saying, “A lot of people don’t even realize what they are suffering from.”
“If you’re committed to more urban housing as being the leading edge of revitalization, you have to also be committed to creating great urban environments,” said Taecker, who has worked on transit-oriented design for the past 25 years. “The other thing it needs to deliver is being a great urban place that is pedestrian friendly.”
“The principal problem” with Oakland’s downtown grid of one-way streets, Taecker said, “is it gives fast-moving motorists priority over pedestrians. To revitalize urban areas, you need to give pedestrians priority.”
“Cities are inherently pretty conservative places,” he noted, which can make change difficult. “I will give a plug for good planning processes.” His best practice for bringing innovation to city streets is to gather all the stakeholders and “invite them to dream a bit.” He added, “Unfortunately, that kind of long-range planning is often seen by cities as a luxury.”
Ramos would add transit to his prescription for a great downtown Oakland. “I think that there need to be better local transit opportunities,” he said. “A lot of times, of course, this calls for reallocation of public space and that leads to a fight.” He cited Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which has a dedicated lane for buses to provide fast and reliable public transit.
“Transit and pedestrians are viewed as second-class compared to the car,” Ramos said, citing downtown San Francisco’s excellent local transit as a key factor in that city’s vitality. “There’s nothing else that San Francisco has that Oakland doesn’t.”
“The best investment is going to capitalize on the things that make Oakland unique,” Ramos noted. “The farmers market and Art Murmur: those are two events that are built around the pedestrian and they are thriving.”
“I think we need to be able to expand the density,” he added. “But it needs to happen in a way that is equitable.” Inequitable growth “will end up displacing the people that have made Oakland so attractive a place to begin with.”