Connecting Oaktown’s Neighborhoods

“The neighborhoods are very split up, and I think the City planners should do something about making the neighborhoods feel more connect to one another.” -comment by PinoyOaklander over at ABO.

This isn’t a one-off comment. I’ve seen this thought thrown out there by V Smoothe and many others. My first pass answer is that not all of Oakland is developed. Meaning, fully developed, built up more than one story tall, or with more than one activity available. So of course there’s nothing to do or see when you walk between different districts. For example, traveling from downtown and Chinatown up north to Temescal and Berkeley, there is not very much in between.

Broadway’s auto “row” is more appropriately described as an auto “sewer” with a highway overpass (another “sewer”). There is nothing interesting to do there except dine at Shashamane or MUA at the south end (nights only), hang out in Mosswood Park in the middle, visit Kaiser for ailments, or hit Royal Cafe and the 24hour Long’s on the north end. (At that point, one would presumably walk over to Piedmont or Temescal for eats and giggles.)

Telegraph is another lifeless 4-lane expressway with freeway overpasses. Dark and dank. There’s nothing there except a Walgreens, beauty supply shops and the occasional canned goods & liquor store. On the south end RockPaperScissors and possibly Mama Buzz (too hipster) redeem the street, until one gets to Bibliomania and Flora and FOX Oakland. (all night-time pursuits except for B-mania which is only open during work hours.) There’s a Koreana grocery store and Korean pool hall as well, which is okay but not for everyone.

Secondly, most of Oakland consists of 1-story detached single family housing, or “Suburbia.” Not exactly zoned for mixed use, outdoor cafes on the Seine or North Beach. We can change this via the underground economy, of course.

 

The Challenge 

The challenge of connecting Oakland’s disparate pockets of vitality is worthy of discussion. How can the city be more connected? I think there are four major reasons for the current feelings of disconnectedness:

1- multiple freeways carve up the city into pieces;
2- development is centered in “micro villages” around transit stations, surrounded by ghastly underbuilt and low investment “ghetto” areas – or simply a sea of plain vanila 1-story single family houses;
3- cars dominate the streets; and
4- lack of good transit options besides infrequent AC Transit busses or widely-spaced, grade-separated BART.

So without ado, here’s my Vision for Improved Connectivity:

  • 1. The single most effective thing Oakland could do to spur good redevelopment would be to concentrate redevelopment dollars in areas which are already built up as transit thoroughfares: Broadway auto row into housing/office space and light industrial, the MacArthur Transit Village concept (is it still happening?), the West Oakland transit village area, Fruitvale (increase density). I believe CEDA and private developers (Roy Alper of Gate48 and Project Civiq fame in Temescal; Phil Tagami with his newly re-opened FOX Oakland theater) are already taking the lead here.
  • 2. Apply federal stimulus bill road paving funds (a paltry $5.4 million so far) toward a streetcar system for Broadway and International. Oakland must build up more public mass transit, instead of supporting more car mass transit with continual street repaving which it cannot afford now or later. Imagine a streetcar line on Broadway from CCA/Safeway trawling to downtown Oakland, and along International Ave down to 106th Ave in the “East 14th Business District” as Google calls it. That’s about a 10-mile trip.

Regarding cost on suggestion #2 — Phoenix’s new 20-mile light rail system was expected to cost $1.2 billion and is already exceeding ridership projections of 25k+ per day. Adding a system like this, very similar to SF’s MUNI T-line or F-line would be a boon to both Broadway, International and the lands within 1/2 mile of these streets.

Of course the question is, who will pay for it? I would argue that with commodity prices and labor costs way down, this is the best time Oakland will ever have to start such a project. The Mayor’s Office would need to lobby the state, feds and MTC for stimulus funding. Many people would suggest BRT instead. That’s probably what we’ll end up with, although BRT will be limited in a future without cheap – or even available – liquid transportation fuels.

Beyond this, the city can barter for goods and services needed to built the systems. That would be a good use of the type of tax relief City of Oakland gave Sears. (Which will probably go out of business this year.)

Yes, it is pie-in-the-sky, but this can be our future, not just Paris’s. It’s either this or continue relying on AC Transit busses, beat up old cars (nobody can afford new ones), beater bicycles and Crossroads’ shoes.

  • 3. The easiest solutions would be to widen sidewalks and close car lanes to traffic, a la Broadway in New York. Increase the amount of spaces zoned multi-use including commercial (for more ice cream shops and the like).

More expensive: Remove certain freeways and their overpasses from Oakland. This too would improve connectedness within Oakland — for instance between West Oakland, North Oakland, Rockridge and Temescal. No more shadowy areas without light, dumping zones for the lazy and greedy.

Even if we don’t use them for cars (whose drivers rarely shop in Oakland, and pollute our air) or remove them, we can convert these overhead concrete monstrosities to sky gardens, rec spaces and transit routes. (See map of Oakland’s freeway web.)

In a shaky town known for earthquakes, these will fall eventually anyway. Why not open up this space now? I-980 is especially egregious. Oakland doesn’t need two freeways. Close 580/880 or reduce their laneage.

 

  • 4. Diversify zoning. Allow for a small neighborhood business (bike repair shop, tiny neighborhood bar, veggie stand, mini bakery) every few blocks. These needn’t all be herded like cattle onto a small number of high-traffic thoroughfares. I saw this work very well in Japan, in addition to all the main street type developments. I saw it in Europe and China as well. Mixed zoning makes life fun.  (I added this one after 8pm today so you may have not seen it the first time.)

 

So there you have it. My ideas to improve Oakland’s connectivity are through increased density along transit corridors, better transit (rail on Bway and Tellie), and increasingly mixed use of spaces everywhere. 

Now take a look at improving connectivity in LA.

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9 responses to “Connecting Oaktown’s Neighborhoods

  1. Great post. A lot of the stuff you’ve got up there is a little too “big vision” to ever actually happen, but I’m glad there are people out there thinking big.

    I don’t really think that BRT is the lesser option that you make it out to be. Even with the reduction of fossil fuels in the future, there’s nothing to stop the buses from transfering over to fuel cell technology, electric engines, or overhead wires like some of the muni fleet currently does. The only disadvantage to BRT in my mind is the lesser status(as compared to light rail) it is afforded by those who don’t use public transit regularly.

    The key, and catalyst, to everything you’ve described is increasing density. Without more people per square foot, there won’t be enough demand or dollars for the type of services and stores that people would need to ever consider living without their cars. Without more people per square foot we won’t get the type of critical transit mass (both by car and through public transit) to spur a really comprehensive solution to our mass transit needs. Only when we’ve achieved such a shift in how people live with mass transit can we consider slimming down our freeways and roads to not dominate and split apart our neighborhoods. Otherwise you’ll get wrongheaded folk yelping like commenters on SFGate “take AWAY traffic lanes? Traffic’s too congested already!”

    Still, good stuff.

  2. I really like #2, a light rail/trolley to run down broadway to make it more “approachable”. That would certainly make the various neighborhoods feel more interconnected, rather than just have broadway be some major speed roadway to boogie to Rt 24 ASAP.

  3. Here’s a great starting point: get involved with the Upper Broadway Specific Plan, which is just kicking off now to plan the future of Broadway Auto Row. (Incidentally, please remember that lots of us live along that corridor, too—it’s not just a sewer! In fact, if you walk along it you’ll see that, slowly, businesses are popping up: Nonesuch Space Art Gallery and Kids in Motion are relative newcomers, for instance, and there’s a bike store, two martial arts studios, two gyms, the restaurants you noted, a grocery store, and miscellaneous other spots scattered amongst the car dealers.)

    I do love the idea of a trolley, though. Yeah, yeah, I know all the pros to BRT—especially the cost one—but I think this is one corridor where a streetcar or light rail could actually make sense as “destination transit”—something people come to ride, connecting to Piedmont Avenue, Telegraph, and Broadway—especially since neither BRT nor any other mode or rapid transit is likely to be feasible on College north of Pleasant Valley given the width and congestion of that corridor. You could link in a big transfer station as part of the Safeway redevelopment at Broadway and Pleasant Valley that would allow people to transfer to the 51 to head up College (bonus: you could split the 51 into one route from Alameda to DTO and another from the transfer station to Amtrak, with the two connected by light rail or streetcar—a bummer for people actually going the route in its entirety, but they’re in the minority and it would allow the two halves to function better, as well), Telegraph BRT in some form, and buses to Grand Lake and Children’s, improving access there from Berkeley and North Oakland, which is currently not so hot. Better yet, throw in a Transbay bus that could hop on the freeway at 51st! They have lots of space, and they do want to redevelop that site, so what better opportunity to get some community benefits?

  4. Chris- thanks for the feedback. After living overseas, I guess I just really acquired a taste for rail. I like it. And it runs forever – no rubber tires, asbestos brakes or other tubing to wear out. I think some of SF’s Market Street MUNI F-line streetcars are 60+ years old. Don’t try that with a NABI or Van Hool. 😉

    That said, I have ridden MUNI’s electric trolley buses a bunch and don’t mind them. They are somewhat jerkier than the streetcars though not as much as the fueled buses.

    I strongly agree with your main point about increased density. Land use and Transportation are so strongly linked, which is why I’m really glad to see that Ray LaHood in the federal DOT is reaching out to his colleauges at HUD:

    http://fastlane.dot.gov/2009/03/back-on-the-hill-pressing-for-livable-communities-.html

    That’s the impetus for the Congress for New Urbanism, Smart Growth America and bay area-based TransForm.

    And that’s why we need more projects like Civiq, Gate48, and so on. People will complain about not wanting their craftsman housing to be blighted (overshadowed) by taller buildings – well we can make concessions there. Otherwise, people need to start using condoms (including catholics), because most of our population growth is internal not from migration. The right not to starve should be stronger than the right to procreate irrationally. But you already know all this.

    I think over 51% of Americans are fed up with suburbia by now so we’re on the right track.

  5. All good ideas, and I too particularly like the light rail/trolley on Broadway. (How about we bring back the Key System? Hmm?) More transit, more high-density housing around the transit corridors. Of course, I live in one of those Craftsman houses… but I feel strongly that cities need to develop city type residences.

    And while you’re doing neighborhood businesses, how about HARDWARE STORES??

    • When I lived in Temescal, I borrowed tools from the Temescal Lending Library (attached to Temescal branch public library) a couple of times. People are lazy though and I think it’d be good to have one of those every 5-8 blocks. I guess that’d be your neighbors.

      I biked to ACE Ellis as well as faraway Home Depot. A public lending library seems like the best cheap bet.

  6. I’ve never been to Art’s (though we keep wondering about it too!) Some of the Korean places in that stretch are good, though I’d really call that Temescal once you cross West Mac. Drunken Fish is indeed still open, though not as good as it used to be. (The patio still rocks in the warm weather, though.) There are also a couple new spots: Soja, a new martial arts studio tucked next to Bay Area Bikes, which I hear good things about but have yet to explore, and Emerson Sports, a gym that moved down from where the Temescal Peet’s is now.

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