The area around Lake Merritt BART, including Chinatown and Laney College, could see taller buildings, a new park area and more pedestrian and bike-friendly streets in the next 25 years as part of a development effort presented on Saturday. The plan, four years in the making, was developed by the City of Oakland, BART, and the Peralta Community College District.
Representatives from each organization laid out their vision for the neighborhood in Laney College’s student center. An audience of more than fifty listened patiently as speakers presented a slide show, then offered feedback on the plan, which will be in the planning stages for at least another year.
The audience reflected the heavily Asian-American neighborhoods just southwest of Lake Merritt, which are the focus of the development effort. Live translation of the presentation was available to speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. Signs were available in English, Chinese and Vietnamese.
The plan is meant to shape policy for the city, BART, and Laney College in the neighborhood over the next quarter century. A draft of the plan reviews potential funding mechanisms—which include taxes, loans, grants and developer contributions—but does not assign specific dollar amounts to the proposals.
Hannah Lindelof, a consultant for the project, began Saturday’s presentation. She described the timeline of the plan, which has been in the works since 2008. The plan presented covers 315 acres near downtown, and Lindelof said that the development “radiates out from Lake Merritt BART.” According to a draft of the plan, about 12,000 people currently live within a half-mile of that BART station.
The project’s manager, Ed Manasse, spoke about bringing “intensive development” to the area, which he called “already a very dense neighborhood.” The city’s plan—a draft of which was made available this month—calls for 4,900 new housing units and 4,900 new jobs in the area over the next quarter century.
Manasse explained the proposed zoning changes to the area, which emphasize the 8th and 9th Street corridors and would allow for taller structures. Under the plan, buildings above and near Lake Merritt BART could reach 275 feet, or roughly 24 stories. Buildings on blocks between Webster and Franklin, near City Center, would have no height restrictions at all. Larger buildings would be required to have smaller facades on the street, with slender towers further from the street, which would “limit width and footprint of the tower,” Manasse said. Towers would be mixed-use, with retail, office and residential space.
The presentation also touched upon parks and public spaces. There’s little room for new parks in the area, Lindelof said, but residents routinely express a desire for more open space for activities like Tai Chi. According to the most recent draft of the plan, new parkland at the southern tip of Lake Merritt will provide four new acres of parks in the area. The city’s plan also calls for the development of a “Webster Street Green,” a stretch of public spaces between the I-800 freeway and the waterfront, connecting Chinatown and Jack London Square.
Other streets would be transformed, with some one-way streets being converted into two-ways. Manasse said that residents tell him that “a little congestions is OK” from two-way streets, as long as it slows people down and fosters a neighborhood feel. Other streets would lose a lane of traffic, making space for bike lanes and larger sidewalks. It’s all a part of what planners call “transit-oriented development,” efforts to encourage building and pedestrian and bike-friendly streets near hubs of public transportation like Lake Merritt BART and the bus rapid transit lines that will roll through in 2016.
A question-and-answer session followed the presentation. Residents, some speaking through translators, asked about affordable housing (a part of the plan, but currently unfunded), bike lanes (they will be implemented, but not in the core of Chinatown, Manasse said), and the name of the Lake Merritt BART station. Tina Diep, who works at Asian Health Services in Chinatown, said she’d like to see the station’s named changed to “Oakland Chinatown/Laney College.”
But resident Tran Dzung, interviewed through a translator, said she hopes the BART station’s current name sticks. Her elderly friends take BART to visit her, and a new station name would confuse them, she said.
John Rennels, Jr., a property developer with BART, said that the transit agency would “support having a name that’s reflective of the area.” He added that “It’s costly to change the name,” but said that changing the name when the Warm Springs station in Fremont opens in 2015 would save money, because by announcing the new names at the same time, BART would only have to change maps and materials once. “Timing is everything,” he said.
The Lake Merritt BART station itself is a key piece of the development effort—it’s the hub around which transit-oriented development is expected to happen. But the area above the underground station has an unclear future. Two developers pulled out of plans to build mixed-use projects on the land, forcing BART to put off a project until after the city’s plan is finalized, Rennels said. Manasse says details won’t become clear until future developers come in with proposals for the space, but that he would like to see more retail and open space above the station.
On Saturday morning, the crowd lingered after the presentation, reviewing information at six booths and sharing their opinions with officials. Safety was a frequently mentioned concern. Hai Yan Wu, who lives on Jackson Street, said that “everyone is scared to go out at night.” Attendees said that better lighting and more speed limit signs could improve safety in Chinatown.
Resident Yuqun Chen said she wanted to hear more about keeping streets clean. Garbage cans go uncollected by the city, she says, and street sweeping trucks don’t come by enough; she called the area “dirty.” Chen also expressed concerns about the pace of the proposed developments. “All those plans, the language is very good,” she said. “When’s it going to be active? When is it implemented?”