“Neighborhood Design Session” reveals Oakland’s Chinatown residents’ safety concerns

At the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, participants of the "neighborhood design session" are discussing ideas to resolve the issues in Chinatown.

At the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, participants of the "neighborhood design session" are discussing ideas to resolve the issues in Chinatown.

On Tuesday evening, about 120 people gathered at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center to attend a “neighborhood design session” held by the city. The session was a public meeting to discuss challenges in Oakland’s Chinatown and to generate ideas for the city’s “Downtown Oakland Specific Plan,” which will lay out a long-term vision for the area.

“There are three big ideas that we are working with as part of this plan,” said Gregory Hodge, a social change entrepreneur at Khepera Consulting, who is working with the city to create  the plan. Those three ideas are economic vitality, a skilled workforce and a healthy population, and places of connection, he said.

The plan, which is being developed in phases from 2015 to 2019, will result in recommendations and regulations regarding land use, design guidelines, affordable housing, economic development, arts and culture, recreation, transportation and infrastructure. “We are going to record all the feedback we get and review it,” said Luiza Leite, a project director at Dover Kohl & Partners, who works with the city on the plan. City officials will draft the plan by the end of this summer. It will be implemented in 2020, after going through an environmental impact review.

At the meeting, people who work at the consultant agencies that are partnering with the city presented three discussion topics: Growth and opportunity, streets and mobility, and arts and culture. According to the presentation, the downtown is a major and growing employment sector, comprising 40 percent of Oakland’s job growth between 2011 and 2016. However, there are some challenges for Asian residents, the consultants pointed out. Housing costs are rapidly rising, and 83 percent of the Asian residents in downtown are renters.

Moreover, Asian Americans in Oakland are more than 3 times as likely to be killed by motorists while walking than white residents. “There is a high concentration of collisions in Chinatown, especially along 7th, 8th, and 9th [Streets],” said Rob Rees, a principal at Fehr & Peers, who works with the city on the plan. A lot of trucks and goods move through Chinatown, and this makes the sidewalks narrow during deliveries. Many people double park in the area as well, which makes lanes more crowded and unsafe.

According to the presenters, there are also challenges regarding how to preserve Chinatown’s character in the midst of change, as the area develops and investments pour in.

The session was interpreted in Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean for participants who cannot understand English well.

At the session, the participants broke into 11 groups with about 10 people each and discussed ideas to resolve the issues they heard during the presentation. The participants were given 15 minutes for each topic to discuss questions with their group such as: “What housing policies will benefit Chinatown?” or “What transit improvements do you think are most important?” or “How can Chinatown’s unique cultural assets be preserved?”

William Gilchrist, director at the city’s planning and building department, encouraged the participants to think about what is “not being done for your community that you would like us to plan, consider, and address?” and “What are some of the valuable things, important things you have here, that you want to make sure we enhance and lift up?”

“It is an amazing opportunity we have now with the investment the money is coming in, with the opportunity to transform and enhance our community,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, representatives of each group presented their key ideas. Many senior participants who don’t speak English well expressed concerns about safety in Chinatown. “Number one, we want [the area to be] clean and safe,” said Juan Gong, an Oakland resident who represented a group of mostly Cantonese speakers. “We don’t want people to block the sidewalk.” He said that the people in his group requested “more police presence and more services for [the] elderly.”

Xu Zhang, a landscape designer at Dover Kohl & Partners, who works with the city, said that safety was the main concern for her group, who were mostly Mandarin speakers. “First, it’s about safety,” she said, presenting the results from the group. “Many of them want to go home now because they feel unsafe walking at night.” She said that the participants hoped to “narrow down driving lanes and shorten the distance of pedestrian crossings and to have more lightening.”

The participants also wanted more cultural visibility for Chinatown. “We were thinking that Oakland Chinatown desperately needs its own identity,” said Michelle Chan, a visual artist at Dragon School, a non-profit organization in Oakland. She pointed out that Oakland’s Chinatown doesn’t have a gateway showing a start and finish point, although many other Chinatowns have them. “I think this is extremely important to have more visibility for our culture via murals or sculptures or public art. We definitely need that,” Chan said.

“Everyone knows that Oakland is changing,” said Michelle Koo, a landscape architect who attended the session. She said that Oakland is changing for the better, but there is also a threat of people being pushed out of their houses or retail businesses as rents go up. “I think there is a huge sense of preservation of their life and improvement,” Koo said of the desires expressed by the people who attended the meeting. “So many things [that they discussed] were about cleaner and safer community. So, this is a way to voice their opinion.”

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