Lake-Chinatown wasteland remediation meeting notes

3/5/11

Notes from Lake Merritt BART station & BART HQ neighborhood design charette

New Oaktown Backgrounder: The area between the lake and the SFBay estuary has always been in flux but for the past several decades has felt like a sad environment with nobody outside. The main park in the area is habited by homeless and transients, though sometimes with children and tai chi practicing elderly too. Developed by generations of people from all over, it was first Ohlone, then Spanish/Mexican Rancho, then Gold Rush and 1906 survivor spillover; afterward part Japantown, part Chinatown, then all Chinatown, then Chinatown with the Nimitz freeway ripping through its Western flank, then Chinatown with BART tubes and headquarters dropped into/ onto it. Chinatown has constantly improved itself, almost garnered an 82-story tower at 11th and Broadway (now six stories) in the 90s, has a sort-of nice privately owned public open space plaza (Renaissance), and that’s about it. Better than SF Chinatown (overly touristy, even fewer trees) but somehow, still could be better around Lake Merritt BART HQ+Station.

I’m hardly the first to make note of this.

Background documentation.

Here’s how the meeting went.

Attendees: Mostly old and older people. Broken out into four simultaneous discussion groups.

  1. elderly Chinese
  2. English speakers and English speaking Chinese
  3. more elderly Chinese
  4. elderly Vietnamese

Topics: Transport, Buildings, Public Space

General reasons for LMSAP: nobody walks around, area is underwhelming and hardly anyone is happy with it, area needs improvement.

TRANSPORT

Discussed:

  • Where to place crosswalks
  • Where to put bicycle parking
  • Streets are too wide

BUILDINGS & PUBLIC SPACES

Chinatown has no apparent center or internal downtown. Renaissance Plaza the main shopping mall is ostensibly the center, but is not that special.

Most (vocal) people who attended the meeting want 10 story buildings.

One attendee brought up the idea of the “compact city” which is being done in Germany and France. The focus is on living areas of good-sized towns, which I would add Oakland used to be comprised of several good-sized towns before becoming a suburban megalopolis with hollowed out, unused downtown. (Bladerunner.)

In the French model, usually there is a church defining the town center, with clusters of focused activity around.

The same attendee also brought up his viewpoint as  an outsider that Oakland Chinatown is relatively more pretty than SF Chinatown, which to him seems heavily commercial and without any beauty of natural environment.

Oakland’s main attractions in the area are the lake, Chinatown and the seaside area.  So if one were able to promenade or bike between the three, that would be great for tourists and residents alike.

At this point, it’s good to bring up the idea of the “geisha.” It’s a Hollywood image of Japan, and different groups of people have different images, or visions, of what Oakland is and should be.

One attendee thought the area felt similar to Motomachi in Yokohama near Tokyo. I agree with this as much as Yokohama is a very SF or Oakland/Alameda style city with port and great seaside ambience. To me Oakland Chinatown also feels similar to NYC Chinatown, though ours feels less resilient and vibrant due to the yawning car-ways and concrete deserts.

But back to the vision talk above: some groups of people felt that the towering Nimitz freeway was a good thing (people can “easily access” the area by car) but other people didn’t feel it was a good thing. You certainly know my opinion — nobody wants to walk around the car-infested main streets just outside Chinatown. Madison, Jackson, etc down to and including the old “world’s shortest highway” of 12th street by the lake, now under remediation.  The environment bounding Chinatown is authoritatively made for cars, not made for people walking or playing.

So in closing: Chinatown’s roads are too big for Chinatown. In my view they are ironically suffocating its potential, and the authorities (BART-MTC-CoO) will publish an April report on the meeting and the three sustainability topics brought up: built environment, public space and transport.

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4 responses to “Lake-Chinatown wasteland remediation meeting notes

  1. Thanks for the post. I woke up too late to go to this meeting and was interested in hearing about it.

    You lost me on the geisha bit. But I agree that Oakland has a staggeringly unnecessary number of freeways. It seems like the Nimitz is unnecessary past the port, and the 980 stub between the 580 and the 880 is redundant. As long as we’re playing simcity, You’d want to get the freeway to the airport, and then somehow connect it to 580, maybe up 98th or don’t worry about it and let people connect via 238 and leave another stub of Nimitz freeway going to the airport. Santa Barbara uses a freeway stub to good effect with hwy 217 which goes from the 101 to SB Airport and UCSB only.

    I’ll nominate the 4 block area between 7th and 9th, Franklin and Harrison as the “heart” of Oakland Chinatown. It’s the bustling small-store shopping area that gets the most foot traffic. Besides, I live here, so it must be important 😉

    The recent changes in the crosswalks in that major pedestrian area have improved the pedestrian friendliness. But the wide 4 lane streets are often double or triple parked on the sides that have small-business commerce as people jump into the small shops to make quick purchases, and large trucks make deliveries and pick up cardboard. On 8th street this means on the weekends there may be only one lane for actual traffic! It’s annoying, but somehow you can still drive through. The occasional police patrols have resulted in the double-parking people sending someone into the market and leaving someone in the car. This is all despite ample parking options – Renaissance has underground parking, a few other buildings also have parking available, and there are large cheap lots under the freeway.

    The area between Harrison and Laney College could use help. It would be great to extend even the vibrancy of Chinatown up to the Lake Merritt Station. It’s not that there aren’t businesses in that corridor, but mostly it’s schools and office-style businesses that don’t foster foot traffic. Maybe it’s a zoning issue? There are nice spaces in that area so there’s definitely potential, but it hasn’t reached a tipping point. There used to be a wholesale market (Tin Sing Co) on Jackson at 11th, but they ended up moving elsewhere and the building owners tore down the building and left it as an empty lot. Meh. Another market on 10th, Silver View, has been closed for a while for remodeling.

    Perhaps this will improve naturally with more people living in this area. There are two new large buildings going up on 7th street according to street signs, and there are ample opportunities to build taller. Throughout Chinatown, at least 60% of the buildings in that area are completely unremarkable (of no discernable historic interest, at any rate) 2-story affairs that could be replaced with taller buildings over time, but for now I don’t think it could be economically viable. There are several long term commercial vacancies and a less alarming level of residential vacancy. The newest condos in Chinatown, notably 8-Orchids, have struggled to sell their units, but so has everywhere else recently, right?

    That said, I love the idea of making it even more pedestrian-friendly. Maybe trying to develop an arcade between Lake Merritt and Jack London? Other than just trying to build higher to increase density, it would be great to see a greater diversity of businesses. It would be wonderful to see more variety even in the Chinese food, both in terms of regional cuisines and also restaurants that aren’t purely focused on delivering value. I wonder if we could support an expensive Chinese restaurant? Other things we’re missing- an electronics shop, an antiques store, a pet store, a bar (well, trappist is right across broadway), a karaoke place, a place for live music (again there’s probably a good option somewhere very close in Old Town).

    Another great direction to go would be supporting businesses having longer hours. Even in the heart of Chinatown, there are only a few restaurants open after dusk, and most aren’t open after 5pm which massively reduces the utility of living such a “walkable” area for me — when I come home from work the stores are all closed!

  2. Hey Devin, thanks for the well thought out suggestions! True that many spots are not open late.

    Here’s yelp search for Ctown places open Monday 8pm+ and yes it’s limited options…

    Open: Mon 11:30 am – 12 am
    1. Disco Volante
    Categories: Bars, American (New), Music Venues
    Neighborhood: Oakland Chinatown
    4.5 star rating
    35 reviews
    347 14th St
    Oakland, CA 94612
    (510) 663-0271
    Photo of LuX P.
    Disco Volante? I have to admit I was hesitant to go there because of the name. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good disco, I just generally don’t dig it. Don’t let the name fool you, no retro silk…
    [This place has really nice tapas -ed.]

    Open: Mon 7:30 am – 10 pm
    2. Gum Kuo Restaurant
    Category: Chinese
    Neighborhood: Oakland Chinatown
    4.0 star rating
    165 reviews
    388 9th St
    Oakland, CA 94607
    (510) 268-1288
    Photo of Lorrayne L.
    Good ol’ authentic homey Chinese food, that’s what this place is. Why authentic? Well, it’s one of those several places in Chinatown that has a butchery right up front in the shoppe window, and…
    [yep, lots of congee and bbqpork and open late. but not 5-star momofuku type food… -ed]

    Open: Mon 7 am – 4 am
    3. New Gold Medal Restaurant
    Category: Chinese
    Neighborhood: Oakland Chinatown
    4.0 star rating
    241 reviews
    389 8th St
    Oakland, CA 94607
    (510) 465-1940
    Photo of Chival N.
    I’ve been coming here since it was called Sun Hong Kong. With the new ownership, it’s not that different except that the food has gotten better. The Won Ton noodle soup is the same tasty fare but…
    [been here. it’s decent. -ed]

    Open: Mon 11 am – 12 am
    4. Yummy Guide
    Category: Chinese
    Neighborhood: Oakland Chinatown
    3.5 star rating
    104 reviews
    358 11th St
    Oakland, CA 94607
    (510) 251-0888
    Photo of Diana L.
    My roommates and I come here often for late night. Their entrees are pretty cheap and tasty. But usually we just get dessert. There’s always tables available, and always parking right outside at…
    [never been. -ed]

    Shan Dong is great but not for eating every night, and is also open sorta late.
    Yung Kee is also open quite late.

    Perhaps chinatown proper closes early because it’s largely family-run concerns, they target a demographic which mostly consists of mostly elderly Chinese residents of Chinatown (mainly shops during the day, whoever they are), and don’t want security hassles?

    It is strange that the place isn’t open late. I think it’s not enough population density, not enough “creative class” with nightlife budget, not cozy enough — those streets are freakin HUGE and dark late at night. Even the tiny little Ktown cluster is better. RenPlaza also has a library and nonprofit center which close early… there’s not enough going on there. Any economic “town” cluster within oakland should have self-contained within it at least mos t of the basics you mention – entertainment for all ages but especially those with disposable income and time for them; food and drink along the same lines; some elements of nature. In every upper crust area of any country in the world I’ve visited, there were often water fountains, lakes, ponds, nice sculptures and greenery (trees, landscaping)… things to see, a sense of place. Chinatown needs work on its sense of place… starting with the largest public asset it has, the areas currently labeled “city streets.”

  3. If it weren’t so overrun with car monsters, Chinatown would be an awesome hangout. I can imagine an arcade or something similar to NYC Broadway – huge public plaza with tables, etc.

  4. Pingback: Live: Street and bicycle improvements Lake Merrit BART/Chinatown | Retrofitting Oaktown

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