Latham Square set to reopen two-way traffic

Latham Square at the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph Ave. will reinstate two-way traffic through the plaza.

Latham Square at the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph Ave. will reinstate two-way traffic through the plaza.

How can such a small plaza generate so much buzz? After a fierce debate, the city’s experiment in urban design appears destined for lowered aspirations since the City Council voted last week to restore two-way traffic to the square at Broadway and Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland.

Latham Square opened in August as a pilot project of the city of Oakland to create a pedestrian plaza at the intersection where Uptown meets Downtown. But just six weeks into the six-month pilot project, the city opened one lane to traffic and will now open the plaza back up to two-way traffic.

Situated beneath the Rotunda and Cathedral buildings, the v-shaped plaza features benches, chairs, landscaping and signs. According to a city staff report, eight to 15 people use the plaza at any given time during lunchtime or early afternoon hours. It has also been a popular site for events and concerts.

However, the project has been criticized from the beginning, with city staff taking much of the heat for not communicating with both the public and City Council.

“I think the city owes everybody an apology because no matter what we are going to end up doing the communication was very poorly handled,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

As it is currently designed, the plaza allows one lane of traffic from Telegraph Avenue.  The approved proposal will permanently expand the plaza from 2,500 square feet to 9,500 square feet, but also open up north and southbound traffic lanes on the 1500 block of Telegraph.

Advocates for increased dedicated public spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists are upset at the prospect of two-way traffic, arguing it will make the plaza substantially less safe.

“I don’t think we can really call this a usable, significant pedestrian plaza that is safe for pedestrians when you have two-way traffic next to it,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb, who along with Councilmember Kaplan abstained from voting for the plaza redesign.

“The most concerning aspect of this project and its process has been the strong desires of a few local businesses who fear loss of driving customers if Telegraph is closed to cars, even partially closed as a one-way street for one half block,” said Dave Campbell of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition. He hoped to show that bicyclists are actually some of the best customers.

Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who oversees the district that includes Latham Square, said local businesses and developers were concerned that traffic and lack of access would keep customers away.

“Given the revitalization of this corridor downtown and the contemplation of major retail development and the reconfiguration of the Sears building, I’m hearing from the developer that we need to abate traffic,” she said.

Kim Powers, representing a research-consulting firm in the area, expressed the sentiment of many local business owners. “We feel two way access improves dynamics of the area and flow of traffic,” he said.

Local business owner Travis Kuhl agreed. “Business is way down and we lost two more retail stores this week,” he said. “So obviously this project didn’t work.”

The project is funded by a $2.9 million state grant that requires it be completed by December 2014.

There will be a community meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 30 at the American Institute of Architects, East Bay to discuss future design elements and programming for Latham Square, including lighting, landscaping and seating options.

Damon Gallagher is one small business owner near the plaza who remains supportive of blocking off traffic entirely in Latham Square.  “This is a walking town,” he said. “This is a biking town.”

13 Comments

  1. Erik

    If Travis Kuhl thinks that six months of changed traffic at the intersection of Telegraph and Broadway is the reason that his business is down then he is not very smart.

    • Try six weeks, not six months. The pilot project was supposed to last for half a year, with data collected throughout to empirically determine the effect of the street reconfiguration. However it was abandoned after less than two months because… Well, just because, no reason yet given. Maybe some folks against the project realized that the data would be positive, and decided it would be easier to make their case with only anecdotes and hearsay.

      • I’ve heard so much whining about this plaza and NO action. If you wanted it closed to cars then grassroots-it… organize observers to count people/cars/bikes… canvas shoppers/business owners… and stop the drama. Prove your case, stop whining!

        • Matt, there was tons of grassroots outreach done on Latham Square by volunteers, but the data collected was all ignored by city staff as being from “those WOBO people”. Based on this data there was considerable support for keeping Latham Square open as a pedestrian space, but this was still dismissed out of hand in favor of the city’s flawed traffic analysis. How can you call this “whining”?

          If you didn’t see any action on Latham Square you need to get out more. What I saw were volunteers collecting surveys both online and in person, at tabling events and performances in the square, canvassing local businesses (not just the well-connected developers) to get their real opinions of what they thought of the project, and tons of people turning out at council meetings to voice their support of the project.

          The data collection with regards to car/bike/ped counts was the city’s job, but they fumbled that in order to justify cutting the pilot project short.

          • I’ll also add that the whole POINT of the 6 month pilot project was to collect data, so by cutting it short the city was essentially saying that they weren’t interested in finding out what the data-driven outcomes would be, as this was all overruled by the concerns of a few developers who couldn’t stand to even see the taxpayer-funded project all the way through to its conclusion.

            If the city had handled this project with a little more professionalism, fairness, and tact, I’m sure there would have been a lot less “whining”, as you call it.

  2. harvey

    That was a really short pilot project. Maybe the right people didn’t the coffee machine they wanted.

  3. eric

    Ridiculous. I work right next to Latham Square and when the project started I was thrilled. It improved the feel of the whole area immensely. It’s great for Oakland’s image because you see people relaxing and enjoying themselves.

    When they reopened the one lane of traffic several people commented how dangerous it was, because it was not made clear that cars would now be travelling through the formerly blocked off lane.

    I think if there’s busy two-way traffic the whole thing will not feel like a calm oasis anymore, just another grimy unused city park. And how on earth is there room to almost quadruple the square footage? Is that possibly a misprint?

    • I enjoyed the plaza on Sunday. The cars on Telegraph had no impact on my enjoyment of the plaza.

      • Joe

        Matt, are you being paid by the city to post here?

        • Joe, seriously? There’s no shortage of vocal people in this town want there to a conspiracy to explain why people don’t agree with them? NO, I’m not a puppet for city hall -I live in Downtown Oakland and I care deeply about its vitality. I have done the research on Latham Plaza and come to the conclusion closing Telegraph permanently to auto traffic would be at best a waste of resources and at worst a killer for the economic success of the immediate area. You close roads to cars when pedestrian use demands it, not because you prefer the road be closed to cars and hope pedestrian use will magically happen. There are tomes of research on this.

  4. Hank

    I’ve never seen those tree covered hills in the distance. Hmmm. Is that a recent occurrence? Sure looks nice…

  5. I hear there is a lot of history in this square. I would love some sort of interactive history lesson or something there. Personally the history of this city is what made me fall in love first 🙂 I’ve been taking pictures since I got here (click my name to see the site). Love this blog too, read it all the time.

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