Uptown named one of the “Great Places in America”
on October 2, 2014
The American Planning Association recognized Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood as one of the “Great Places in America” in a ceremony yesterday.
In the warm afternoon sun, APA Board of Directors member Kurt Christiansen and Hing H. Wong, president-elect of the organization’s California chapter, lauded the neighborhood’s homegrown artistry, entrepreneurialism and diversity. They also praised its revitalizing planning efforts, which have been 15 years in the making.
“As a teenager, I lived less than a mile from this location and have seen the transformation to what it has become now … a premier art and entertainment district,” Wong said before handing awards to Mayor Jean Quan and District 3 city councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney. Wong also praised Uptown for its historic buildings, transit options and housing, which provides for multiple income levels.
“We have come from very tough times and a national reputation that we didn’t really deserve,” Quan said, facing the opulent Fox Theater. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake turned Oakland into a ghost town, she said, as a Corona truck hauled its cargo into nearby eateries. Now ‘First Fridays,’ the sprawling monthly festival centered on Telegraph Avenue, draws some 20,000 attendees, she said. The mixture of bands and artists on the street with galleries and restaurants open all night create a scene that is both vaudevillian and picturesque, Quan said, like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras meets Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square.
Quan said the enduring commitment of art collectives and businesses has reignited this Art Deco downtown. It also took a bit of money. One city official called the Fox Theater – which cost $75 Million to restore, according to the APA – the “seed” that gave way to private investment and, ultimately, revitalization.
The APA recognizes 30 “Great Places” across the United States every year. A neighborhood, street or public space can win the award for being what the organization, a professional institute of city and regional planners, calls a “gold standard in terms of having a true sense of place, cultural and historical interest, community involvement, and a vision for tomorrow.” This year, for instance, awards were given to Congress Street in Portland, Maine; the Lincoln Trails Network in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Greater Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. The organization’s next annual meeting will be held at the Oakland Marriott in October 2015. Its theme will be “Rooted in Authenticity.”
The ceremony was held on Telegraph Avenue and 19th Street, between a vacant lot with giant sculptures and a garden of vines and pillars. The garden, transformed by planning and construction, was once an old gas station that leaked toxins into the groundwater, said City of Oakland project manager Jens Hillmer.
“You couldn’t do it without redevelopment,” Hillmer said of Uptown today.
Years ago Governor Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland, introduced the 10K Housing Initiative, which called for 10,000 new residents in downtown. But facing a deficit and recession years later, Brown dissolved California’s redevelopment agencies, which had funded projects like his own 10K initiative.
Since the city can no longer rely on these funds, Hillmer said, planners prepare Environmental Impact Reports for the areas that city officials want to revitalize, such as the Oakland Coliseum and Broadway-Valdez district. This lowers development costs for private investors, he said, who might spend millions of dollars and years in court due to EIRs.
Fortunately, the plans for the Uptown neighborhood were approved before redevelopment was dissolved, he said. Now there are some 200 families living in the Uptown’s affordable housing, Hillmer said, and the city is still able to meet the demand for new bars and restaurants through façade and tenant improvement programs. The Sears building on 1955 Broadway will soon be turned into a creative office space with ground floor retail, he said, and the parking garage two blocks down will be turned into parking, retail and housing. And the vacant lot with giant sculptures on 19th street may become a mixed-use housing project, he said, or hotel.
After accepting the award, a plaque with a wood frame, Quan held it with both hands and smiled broadly. “We think this is a symbol of a rising Oakland,” she said.
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