In the shadow of the gothic revival styled Cathedral Building on Telegraph Ave. and Broadway rests a painted street with seats, tables and young oak trees sprouting from wooden planters.
Latham Square is an experimental project in a space once entirely open to vehicle traffic, but it was transformed into a pedestrian plaza last August. The City of Oakland partnered with the Downtown Oakland Association and design studio Rebar to offer foot-travelers a place to sit and socialize.
The square is named after James H. Latham and his wife Henrietta Marshall Latham, early Oakland residents who founded the first local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Henrietta also authored one of the first vegetarian cookbooks in 1898. The Latham Square project added colorful tables and chairs next to a fountain dedicated in 1913 by the Lathams’ children with the support of the SPCA.
“I think it’s crucial for the health and vitality for a downtown urban center to have green spaces,” said Andrew Jones, district services manager for the Downtown Oakland Association. The community benefit district will maintain the plaza and manage the web site LathamSquare.org.
Oakland City Council approved the project last March and it was built with funds of “up to $200,000” from the Uptown Proposition 1C grant. The city also requested input via community meetings and surveys to get public opinion on the square.
“We put together a proposal to do a six-night concert series here,” said Cortt Dunlap, owner of Awaken Café. Folk-rock band Whiskerman will play a free show in the square on Oct. 26. Big brass band MJ’s Brass Boppers Band, Afro-beat musicians Say Bobby and folk-rock quartet Owl Paws are slated to perform in November.
The project is entering its second phase, which just re-opened Telegraph Avenue to one-way southbound traffic and will rearrange plaza elements in response to concerns about completely closing the square.
Oakland real estate developer Phil Tagami has an office in the neighboring Rotunda Building and said he’s concerned about traffic flow and safety.
“I’m very supportive of creative reuse of underutilized space, but I think we need to exercise a degree of caution when we’re affecting traffic circulation and public safety,” Tagami said. “Life safety responders need to access the area, now there’s a maze. People need to have a safe place to park and a way to get around with relative ease in being able to navigate the city.”
Small business incubator, Popuphood, also partnered with the project to bring retailers to the plaza. “I think all successful cities have these kind of communal spaces,” said Popuphood co-owner Alfonso Dominguez. “This is great just to revitalize not only the safety for downtown Oakland but to bring the community together.”
Jones agrees. “Employees, neighbors, tourists and others have a place to go and sit kind of out of the hustle and bustle and the over-stimulated Downtown.” he said.