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.
- City of Oakland: Feb 18th Summary of Lake Merritt Station Area Plan (PDF)
- City of Oakland: Redevelopment: Lake Merritt Station Area Project – packed with info, newsletter signup
Here’s how the meeting went.
Attendees: Mostly old and older people. Broken out into four simultaneous discussion groups.
- elderly Chinese
- English speakers and English speaking Chinese
- more elderly Chinese
- 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.
- 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.