When Oakland Local recently picked the brains of five long-time Oaklanders, we didn’t just ask them to tell us about downtown Oakland’s challenges. We also wanted to know what opportunities they saw in the heart of the city. Here are some of assets they highlighted.
“If you’re looking at street access, if you’re looking at access to public transit, Oakland, because they made so many demands on people, has some bone structure that is compelling,” said developer Alan Dones, CEO of Strategic Urban Development Alliance.
Dones added, “One of the things that destroyed the fabric of downtown Oakland is now one of its biggest assets.” He remembers Broadway during seven years of excavation for BART tunnels. “It was not a very nice place to come. There was constant construction noise and dirt,” he said. “That went on for years right at a time that suburban sprawl was happening. It really dealt a blow to Oakland’s retail community that it didn’t recover from”–until now. “Here’s Oakland sitting right on a transit corridor,” which has made downtown attractive to millennials, according to Dones.
“People are wanting to live closer in now,” said AIA regional and urban design committee chair Matthew Taecker. “Urban places are not scary places. Once you get married and have kids, you don’t have to move out to the suburbs.” He noted, “Downtown Oakland’s central location within the region is a huge advantage. I think it’s one of the reasons uptown is starting to take off. Downtown Oakland may really be close to a tipping point in terms of being discovered and seeing a lot more people wanting to live down there.”
“It’s an exciting place to be because there’s a lot of different ethnicities and lot of shops and restaurants that reflect that diversity,” said Taecker.
“Oakland is both burdened and blessed with some really big needs that are unmet,” said Dones. “I think, as those needs are met, we have an opportunity to build in some of these principles of prosperity and equity. Oakland has a very very compelling story to tell.”
“You always hear it said: diversity is a big advantage,” added Dones. “It’s a place of cutting-edge, world-changing innovation that has taken place.” He sees Oakland as an “ecosystem” that had promoted important cultural and activist movements, “many of which shaped who we are today.” This is an asset, he said, “if we can find a way to package that and present it.”
“Oakland is still a place where you don’t have be earning six figures to live,” said Joel Ramos, regional planning director at Transform. “There are benefits that come with having a diversity of incomes in your community.”
“Not only do you have access to creativity on so many different levels, there’s a sustainability argument to be made as well,” said Ramon, noting that when the high cost of living excludes working-class people from living in a neighborhood, it forces workers into long commutes.
Income diversity and stable populations breed strong communities, where neighbors and shop workers develop long-term bonds, Ramos noted. “There’s some value that comes with that that you can’t put a price on,” he said. “Oakland is one of those places where you can still have that. Unless steps are taken to maintain that, you could lose that.”
“Even though there’s a long way to go in terms of the street design, a lot of the older buildings are intact and give Oakland a sense of character,” said Taecker. “Downtown has come a long way.”
“Oakland has a lot to work with,” said Dones, noting that his family has been involved in historic preservation. “What I try to do is approach it in a very sustainable way, so that you can bring the building to a level of practical use so that it’s economically sustainable.”
Noting that “much of our downtown” is on the national register of historic places, Naomi Schiff of the Oakland Heritage Alliance cited a movement to get a state tax credit for historic buildings. “You could get a 40 percent tax credit when you took the enormous risk of restoring your building. That’s real money.”
“Many years ago, someone said to me that, in a way, Oakland is fortunate,” said Chris Pattillo, chair of the Oakland Planning Commission. When people abandoned downtowns during the 1960s and 70s, “in many cities, developers bought those buildings, tore them down.” She observed, “The bones of the city are very strong.”
“Fortunately, Oakland was neglected,” she said. “We are left with a treasure trove of historic buildings — the pieces that you need to create this vibrant urban fabric that we all so desperately want.”
You can read what about downtown Oakland’s challenges in our companion story here.