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.

Oakland Local’s previous coverage of Latham Square.



13 Responses

  1. R2D2II

    Such a sad unnecessary waste not to communicate well or to support a good public process. Thus the project never does what it was intended to do and much time is spent in going over matters again and again. Oakland seems to do this sort of thing again and again.

    We so badly need some leadership from the Mayor and Council so we don’t continue in this mode forever. Happy to see that CM Kaplan gets it on this one.

  2. OaklandNative

    So a controversy was created.

    Considering the traffic impact, the safety issues, etc., I wonder if Latham Square could get CEQA approval.

    The problems far outweigh the benefit. Few people have been using it. More traffice would be impeded by it. Since it is in the middle of downtown, traffic should flow. Drivers should have clear access from Telegraph to Broadway–and without surprises.

    In addition, it does not have the full community’s support and was very divisive.

  3. R2D2II

    “The problems far outweigh the benefit.”

    That’s an opinion. To which you are welcome. Opinions matter, but mostly when they are informed by deep and wide experience.

    But it’s uninformed. The chief purpose of the project was to gather data over a predetermined period in order to assess benefits vs costs, etc. That’s called science. It has to do with gathering facts first, then making a decision.

    It’s also a matter of democracy. Democracy occurs when there is a public process, good communication and decisions made where both the well-informed and the uninformed can pitch in with their opinions.

    Your are welcome in a democracy to be uninformed and not to believe in democracy, but many people will not agree with you.

  4. OaklandNative

    My opinion is based on my being out in the area. I see relatively few people using it. I know many cars drove through it.

    Also, if you had ever driven down there at night, it can be awkward.

    I am comparing the number of cars who drove through to the people sitting in the square. Since I saw many people driving through, throughout the day, and I see few people out there, I assume more people are driving.

    So whose idea was it to put the square out there?

    Do you have the numbers/science to support your argument that the square was more beneficial? If so, please share them.


    PS, as far as your argument about the democratic process being used to support the square. Perhaps you should use a few facts in your science.

    I think this story suggests the democratic proves the square was a bad idea.

  5. R2D2II

    “I am comparing the number of cars who drove through to the people sitting in the square. Since I saw many people driving through, throughout the day, and I see few people out there, I assume more people are driving.”

    You are lacking a fundamental understanding of the problem. I want to suggest to you once again that you acquaint yourself with current thinking on economic revitalization of city centers and the writing of Jane Jacobs and Donald Appleyard. Briefly, when we design streets primarily to accomodate people in cars, we create an environment which is hostile to those who walk, shop and socialize on the street. If you have ever been to a city where there is real street life you will understand what this is all about. I am talking about Manhattan, parts of S.F., London, Paris, Florence, Amsterdam. Places with streets full of life, not just full of cars.

    There’s a big difference between anecdote and data. Anecdote is useful but mostly when used with data, or the evidence of many observations and behaviors over a wide time period.

    “Do you have the numbers/science to support your argument that the square was more beneficial? If so, please share them.”

    As I said Oakland may have lost out on the opportunity to garner data on Latham Square which could lead to an evidence-based long-term decision.

    Again, I would refer you to the contemporary literature on successful urban planning. When streets are designed primarily to accommodate people who are not in cars, business districts thrive. A primary case in point, which just came to mind, was downtown Palo Alto, which was absolutely dead economically in the early 1960s when I was a student there. In the decades since downtown has become a most attractive destination and an overwhelming economic success. They did it right.

    If you could get yourself to the library, you would have a lot of good stuff to discover. Your negativity and bias isn’t good for you or for the city you claim to be a native of.

  6. OaklandNative

    If Latham Square had been a good idea two things would have likely happened:

    1. People would immediately have taken advantage of it

    2. It would not be divisive–in fact, there would be significant community support and/or praise

    You did not mention who supported/proposed this project. Instead, you advocated some broad theories that may or may not apply to this specific site. In order to apply such theories, you also have to look at what factors don’t apply. That’s called critical thinking, try it. It’s not being “negative.”

    For example, in many European cities, squares were designed for people to congregate. They were designed centuries ago. I’ve been to ones in Prague, Venice, Barcelona, Santo Domingo. They are generally located in the center of the city and the city (including roads with traffic) were built around them.

    I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record when I point out your lack of reasoning/logic skills.

  7. OaklandNative

    In fact, Oakland already has City Center and the Frank Ogawa Plaza within a block or two (even Preservation Park isn’t too far).

  8. Tim

    “1. People would immediately have taken advantage of it

    2. It would not be divisive–in fact, there would be significant community support and/or praise”

    Neither of those are necessarily true. For obvious reasons, it could take a while for people to realize the plaza was there and available to pedestrians. It could take a while to develop programming to take advantage of the space. It could take a while for people to feel comfortable there. They killed it before it had a chance. And everywhere there are possible reductions in street space devoted to automobiles, it is controversial. Business owners are often under mistaken impressions about the percentage of their customers that arrive by car. That it is controversial is not a reason to kill it. And there has been significant community support and praise for keeping it closed – hence the “controversy.”

  9. OaklandNative

    Latham Square was there long enough for people to know about it. It was centrally-located enough for people to know (and complain about it).

    Who would you know advertised it to? The City had an opening event.

    Whose idea was it to place Latham Square there?

    Who is the target audience?

    You mentioned that people wanted a place to socialize. We have Frank Ogawa Plaza and City Center within two blocks.

    Too bad a CEQA study hadn’t been done for Latham Square.

  10. Jame

    The city did a terrible job with this project from end to end. First the pilot was mishandled. I didn’t even realize there was a pilot of anything going on until I read the signs that were posted on the nearby buildings. Second, the pilot was abbreviated, and did not have a chance to show full data. 3rd, as far as I can tell neither the businesses, residents or workers in the area were informed about the project and status at all.

    Even with all of the terrible process, each time I went by I saw more and more people using the plaza. And, as a highly unscientific evidence, the number of tweets from that location increased 100-fold during the abbreviated pilot. Obviously, you won’t tweet from a location unless you felt safe enough to linger for your message.

    The traffic impact on for this is pretty minimal, after a few weeks cars easily rerouted themselves around on alternate routes. In fact, there is no real reason to drive on that block, there are several alternate routes on the adjacent blocks.

    DTO is seriously lacking in public space, we should be able to spare half a block of street space to offer this to the community. Also, in many cities, after the creation of a more pedestrian friendly space, business actually increased significantly in the 6 months following the closure. We couldn’t even be bothered to give this trial the full amount of time or publicity to offer concrete evidence either way.

  11. OaklandNative

    That was a well-traveled thoroughfare.

    Whose idea was it? According to the comments here, no one knew about it. So would they miss it?

    Drivers adjusted to the inconvenience of having to go around the square, but we still grumbled, Still, it was too makeshift for such a prominent space in a city.

    A business person told me a group of business owners was getting together to come to the planning meeting and protest it.

    For those looking for a place to hang out downtown, Frank Ogawa Plaza and City Center are in the area. They are beautiful.

    It seems Latham Square was controversial. As such, it didn’t help Oakland.

  12. dto510

    Actually, that block of Telegraph was not well-traveled by cars. The City’s recommended proposal for the permanent design would significantly increase vehicle traffic over what was there before the pilot.

    Merchants in the immediate area appear to be more in favor of the plaza than against it. Only four nearby retail businesses took a stand against it, while four sent letters in support. Maybe assuming that all streets are traffic-choked and all businesses prefer drivers to walking shoppers isn’t the best way to look at public space downtown.

  13. OaklandNative

    We have to agree to disagree. That intersection was a regular pass-through for traffic coming to and going from 14th and Broadway. I used it regularly. There are often other cars on the street.

    You wrote only four retailers sent letters against and only four sent letters in support. Even using your numbers, that’s evenly split–and controversial. That doesn’t mean that merchants are in favor.

    Nor are merchants the only people of concern. Shoppers aren’t the only people who should be considered.


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