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Specific Plan could transform Downtown Oakland

on February 2, 2016

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.

downtown oakland

The pink area shows the part of the Downtown Oakland included in this Specific Plan.

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.”

Victor B. Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners called I-980 a "great gash" cutting off West Oakland from Downtown.

Victor B. Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners called I-980 a “great gash” cutting off West Oakland from Downtown.

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



  1. […] city planning consultant presents a bold vision for Oakland, suggesting it tear down a freeway that represents a “great gash” through the city, and replace […]

  2. Rosie Diudley on February 3, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    I tried to attend this meeting because as an Oakland resident I am interested in how the plan can address our growing regional problem of equity and affordability. I was turned away at the door because the venue “had reached capacity.” I hear this isn’t the first time the plan’s workshops have been so well attended that they have turned people away. It’s not a typical problem most planning processes have, so good for Oakland for coming out. But I’m still pissed that I rearranged my schedule, took time away from my family, and got across town only to be turned away.

  3. Marsha Jackson on February 5, 2016 at 11:55 am

    980 freeway cost a lot to put up and will cost a lot to take down. Who benefits – the city planners and contractors. How is it that Europe can have functional buildings centuries old and we tear ours down every 30 – 50 years to rebuild some more crap to be torn down in 30-50 years? Lots of money being thrown around and not to be the community. Whose pocket are these city planners in? Why can’t something better for pedestrians and bicyclers be done without tearing a freeway down? That seems so unnecessarily drastic and EXPENSIVE.

    • Daniel on February 6, 2016 at 3:47 pm

      “Why can’t something better for pedestrians & cicyclers be done without tearing a freeway down?”

      Because freeways are what destroy cities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

      Our cities were built during the era of the car and as a result were shaped by the car. Europe’s cities were built long before the car and as a result there was more already built to resist how the car would influence their cities construction. We’re only now figuring out how to do it right. This is a step in the right direction

  4. V Stevens on February 5, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    All of Oakland’s freeways divide neighborhoods. Pedestrian overpasses are a great idea like the one over Hwy 13 to Montclair Village. The 980 freeway is quite busy during commute times, take a look! I used 980 for six years when I did not bike to my downtown Oakland job. BART is great, but the bus connections are not time efficient. I still use 980 several times a week going and coming from downtown when I’m not cycling. Should we have more cars on “road diets” in pedestrian areas moving slowly and belching out more exhaust so we can be safer drivers?
    If you put more drivers on surface roads, then we increase the accident rate with cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Take a look at SF to see how freeway removal has worked out: Embarcadero gridlock, Central freeway gridlock; pedestrian injuries after the 1989 earthquake up with more traffic on surface streets.

    • Daniel Johnson on February 9, 2016 at 7:48 am

      Adding lanes, roads, expressways are a problem because they fracture our urban environment and make our cities less walkable as we construct massive infrastructure to accommodate vehicles. We should be investing more in trains/light rail if we decide to build more of anything. We all must remember that the fundamental law of road congestion is: New roads will create new drivers, resulting in the intensity of traffic staying the same. It’s counter to what logic would tell you but this is highly studied and shown to be true. We need to make strides repairing the damage we have caused to our cities by tearing down these huge concrete arteries that preference environment killing (and inefficient) transportation, replace them with denser, pedestrian friendly streets which have a sense of community and walkability. We also need to spend more money on better public transportation. What Daniel said in response to the poster before was incredibly true. European cities are great because they were developed before the car existed, they were shaped around the scale of he human body and created a much more relatable sense of scale, humanity and community. America in large part was shaped by the automobile and thus we have massive amounts of sprawl which has created the need to “commute” under such often stressful conditions. Oakland planners are thinking ahead, they are trying to shape the city they want to be. Good for them.

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