Specific Plan could transform Downtown Oakland

The 980 Freeway running through West Oakland is a "great gash" that was originally built to connect with a second Bay Bridge that never arrived, city planning consultant Victor Dover said Monday night at a public meeting to discuss Downtown Oakland's Specific Plan.

Dover's proposal: tear down 980 and replace it with a grand boulevard for walkers, cyclists and cars.

Removing 980 was one of the more radical and long-reaching ideas presented Monday as city planners and consultants presented options for the long-term development plan. The plan is wide-ranging, covering Downtown Oakland from Jack London Square in the south through Old Oakland and City Center, up to Uptown and Koreatown/Northgate.

The plan addresses city issues such as affordable housing, culture and arts, social equity, small businesses, neighborhoods, and transportation. In addition, the Downtown Specific Plan links with ongoing plans for West Oakland, Lake Merritt BART (Chinatown), and Broadway Valdez.

This is the first specific plan put together for Downtown Oakland.

Dover, of Dover, Kohl and Partners, presented aspects of the proposed plan to the public, along with Arti Harchekar of Opticos Design Inc. of Berkeley, who are working as sub-consultants.

The meeting was hosted by Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.

In their presentation, Dover and Harchekar ran through highlights of the plan for many Downtown Oakland neighborhoods:

Koreatown/Northgate could see increased development along Telegraph Ave and incremental in-fill developments. One priority is preserving a community of artists and makers in "KoNo," the planners said.

In the Lakeside and Gold Coast areas, constructing a range of building types, from single-family house to tower, could increase density.

At City Center, 15th Street could become a shared space for cars, bikes and pedestrians, while the area west of San Pablo could see a "great piazza," or open plaza, where San Pablo, Clay, and 17th Streets meet.

Plans for Jack London Square centered on creating more open spaces and better transit connections. The fate of Howard Terminal was one question, with plans for a ballpark, BART station, and open space presented. Webster Green could be turned into a linear park.

The plan to replace the 980 freeway with a boulevard and new buildings would have many benefits, which the Specific Plan encourages. It would connect West Oakland and downtown. It would make space for more development without tearing down existing buildings. It would make the area much more comfortable for cyclists and pedestrians, the presenters said.

The freeway represents a "huge amount of real estate that could be recovered," Dover said. Replacing an underused freeway with a bike and pedestrian-friendly boulevard is one way to "bring the streets back to the people," he said.

"It might take a generation or more to replace 980," Dover said, "but what if you did?"

For all the Specific Plan's transportation infrastructure, Dover said the planners have let go of the old model: thinking only of how to make it easier for cars to go faster. Instead, Dover said pedestrians, bikes, and transit riders must be the priority in "the coming era."

We experience a place best on two feet or on two wheels, Dover said, not through the windshield of a car. Even transit vehicles, like buses and BART trains, are basically platforms for pedestrians, he said.

"If you want a place to thrive economically, it has to be a place where people want to be," Dover said. "Those tend to be the ones designed around the needs of pedestrians."

Instead of figuring out how to move cars around as quickly as possible, Dover actually wants city traffic to move at slower speeds. Slower speeds don't just benefit walkers and cyclists, Dover said, but drivers too. Driving at slower speeds is much safer, he said, and city streets have their highest capacity when cars are doing about 27 miles per hour.

The Downtown Specific Plan, once it's adopted, will become a policy backbone for Oakland, Harchekar said. The plan will be discussed at public hearings and neighborhood group meetings through the fall of this year. After an environmental impact report is completed—taking roughly from August 2016 to August 2017—the plan could be adopted by the City Council by the end of 2017.

Neighborhood meetings on the Specific Plan will continue through 2016. For more information on the plan and local meetings, visit: Plan Downtown Oakland

This article was originally published on OaklandNorth.net