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Part of the Downtown Oakland Specific plan the Black Arts Movement & Business District may have a pocket plaza to host artists, musicians, and locals along with murals and customized bike lanes. Photo courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners.

At Downtown Oakland Specific Plan meeting, city planners talk job and housing creation

on October 3, 2019

Imagine downtown Oakland with parks wrapping around it and even more high rises. Maybe Interstate 980 is gone and has been replaced with a pedestrian-friendly boulevard. That’s all part of Oakland Planning and Building Department’s proposed vision for the next 20 years.

The proposal is called the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, and it’s over 300 pages long. In the document, the department’s staff grapple with the problems of an expanding downtown such as crowded transportation, not enough commercial real estate or affordable housing, and residents’ fears of losing cultural sites and parks. The plan covers Uptown and downtown Oakland from Jack London Square to Lake Merritt, but excludes Chinatown.

Under the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, the 880 underpass connecting downtown and Jack London Square could become an improved pedestrian corridor. Photo courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners. 

On Tuesday night, the department’s staff held a public meeting at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association’s downtown Oakland office, and included a panel presentation outlining the proposal, followed by a community forum. “The overall big picture is that we’re really trying to keep downtown the amazing resource that it is for Oakland,” said Joanna Winter, a city planner, to dozens of people wearing business casual attire. “So that includes a target of about 60,000 jobs, which is more than doubling what we have right now.”

Winter said that the draft plan takes an aggressive approach towards job and housing creation. She demonstrated a map of downtown showing all the potential commercial or residential sites, like empty lots at 19th Street and Telegraph, or parking lots near City Center.

What Frank Ogawa Plaza could look like if the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan is approved. Developments includes a separated bicycle track along 14th Street. Any historic buildings would be preserved. Photo courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners. 

“Private development, hopefully, will come in as soon as the plan is adopted,” said Ed Manasse, interim deputy director of the Planning and Building Department. He mentioned that one of their previous 20-year development plans was immediately successful. “The Broadway Valdez plan, for instance, was adopted in 2014, and within two years, we already doubled the number of housing units that we thought we’d get in 20 years.”

Manasse also emphasized that adding jobs to the downtown comes with increasing needs for housing and transportation. “The affordability crisis is a regional, state, and national problem,” said Manasse. “Over the last 10 years … we’ve produced anywhere from five to ten jobs for every housing unit created.”

“Here there’s way more demand than supply,” he continued.

Victory Court/Laney College could  be an area for housing and parks  including trails along the Estuary waterfront and Lake Merritt Channel. Photo courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners. 

Since beginning the project four years ago, the planning team has revised it and integrated numerous studies and community feedback into it. Unlike the professional and subdued tone of Tuesday’s meeting, Winter said that when the first draft launched, it wasn’t received warmly. “At our initial [public] meeting, there were a number of protesters who were very concerned that if downtown planning moved forward without taking equity into account, [then] the plan would just serve to hasten displacement,” said Winter.

Staffers from the department reworked their vision for over two years. The major changes came from their approach. They worked with a large team of equity consultants to address racial and economic disparities, such as young adults’ access to downtown, which they felt is necessary for job and educational opportunities.

“Some of youth felt like downtown wasn’t even their downtown,” Winter said, explaining how they had surveyed people ages 16 to 24. “In some cases, they have no literal connection [to downtown]. They have to change buses so many times, it doesn’t feel useful. They can’t access the services.”

Oakland Planning and Building Department's staff held a public meeting about what downtown could look at in the next 20 years. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
Oakland Planning and Building Department’s staff held a public meeting about what downtown could look at in the next 20 years. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

The analysis also found income and employment imbalances along racial lines.  The proposal states that in 2015, the average unemployment rate in downtown was more than twice that for Black and Hispanic populations than it was for white populations.  Similarly, in 2014 the median household income for the white population in downtown was nearly twice that of Latinx and Asian households, and more than twice the income of Black households.

After a thorough presentation that lasted around 40 minutes, the floor was open to the audience to voice concerns and ask questions. “Can you talk about some of the disagreements within the community that you’ve had to navigate?” asked a young white man in a plaid shirt.

“More than you can ever imagine,” Manasse quipped with a grin. The panel and audience chuckled, and Manasse continued. “There’s been lots of varying opinions on various transportation ideas, one way versus two way streets downtown. Bike lane—yes? No? Transit-only lanes verses proposals that reduce the amount of auto lanes and repurpose the right of way. Parking. Anything that reduces parking is very hotly debated,” he said, laughing again with the rest of the panel.

Another community member asked, “How does this tie into a plan for education? Where are people going to go to school? Where the teachers now live?”

“You hit the nail on the head for sure,” Manasse said, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Education planning and city planning are, unfortunately, not well coordinated.”

Manasse said that all developers pay an education fee to help fund schools and the needs of new residents, “but as far as how schools are run, organized, are placed, open or closed, we unfortunately don’t have a seat at the table.”

There will be several more public meetings for Oaklanders to give feedback on the plan this month. The department is accepting online feedback at plandowntownoakland@oaklandca.gov until October 22.

The city’s planning bureau, along with consultants and equity teams, will revise the plan and are expected to publish the final version next summer. 

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