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A woman dressed in black, a fedora on her head, smiles broadly on a downtown street, gesturing as a reporter listens with notebook and pen in hand.

Oaklanders share what they love about downtown and what needs to change

on April 10, 2024

On a recent Friday at the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market, one stall kept people lingering for longer than usual among the rows of vendors offering produce and food. At a table decorated with a large zoning map and a wooden outline of Oakland’s skyscrapers, those who stopped weren’t there to buy but to share their opinion about the state of downtown.

The Oaklandside is partnering with Oakland North and Oakland Lowdown to examine what’s working well and what isn’t for people in our urban center. Read more.

One market-goer talked about the need for more parking passes for people who live in Old Oakland. Another advocated for keeping Washington Street closed to traffic between 8th and 9th streets. Several discussed the need to support Oakland’s downtown restaurants and preserve its historic architecture. 

The conversations were part of a journalism collaboration between The Oaklandside, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Oakland North news site, and The Oakland Lowdown, a community journalism and art studio, exploring the state of downtown Oakland.

The community engagement in Old Oakland was one of several pop-ups hosted by The Lowdown and Oakland North to complement our reporting, which sought to elevate local perspectives about downtown.

To power the engagements, artist Chris Treggiari of The Lowdown constructed a wooden table framed by giant photos of downtown buildings as a way to catch the attention of passers-by, to whom we posed two questions: What would you like to preserve in Downtown Oakland? and What would you like to change?

A woman and a man chat over a table with a sign that says "preserve," while a reporter takes notes from a conversation with a woman to the right of the frame.
People discuss what they like to preserve in Downtown Oakland. (Walter David Marino)

People shared their responses by filling out small posters with their thoughts on downtown Oakland. The engagement team collected nearly 100 responses across the three venues: outside Oakland Lowdown’s studio on 14th and Harrison streets, and at the farmers’ markets in Jack London Square and Old Oakland.

What would you like to preserve in downtown Oakland?

The tables at our community pop-ups were also decorated with posters conveying information about the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, the city’s massive 20-year roadmap for economic growth and the development of downtown. The Oakland City Council is expected to vote on adopting the plan this spring.

Though the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan would change the inner workings and landscape of the downtown area through zoning and other rules, people who visited our engagements shared quite a few things they’d like to keep just the way they are.

The responses we collected about what people want to preserve about downtown Oakland spoke to the city’s diverse history and how it’s embedded in our local architecture, murals, and cultural centers. Some we spoke to advocated for older downtown buildings, like the Tribune Tower, to be preserved. 

“Preserve the landmarks and clean them up,” commented one. “Preserve our educational buildings. Preserve the diverse culture that makes Oakland awesome.”

For others, ongoing initiatives like the Black Arts Movement Business District, which aims to protect and invest in downtown’s Black-owned businesses, were a priority. The district area encompasses 14th Street and Oak Street downtown, stretching to Frontage Road in West Oakland. 

People also spoke about the richness of Chinatown: “Shout out to Chinatown for being the heart of downtown Oakland,” wrote one community member. 

Several people at the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market, held every Friday, talked about how much they love the weekly event. Khalilha Haynes, who lives and works downtown, said the market is part of her routine and “something I definitely want to stay the same and continue going to for many years to come.”

In addition to the farmers’ markets, many community members spoke of maintaining downtown Oakland’s diverse food scene, art galleries and installations, music venues, museums, and green spaces.

Others offered more general thoughts, such as preserving “the richness of the city and what it truly stands for” or “power to the people, unified,” as one resident wrote, adding a heart.  

What would you like to change in downtown Oakland?

Most of the comments we received, more than 50 in total, advocated for improving aspects of downtown. These responses centered largely around housing and public safety, with infrastructure, culture, and parks also being popular themes. 

Housing is one of the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan’s six focus areas along with mobility, culture, economic opportunity, land use, and community health. The plan would pave the way for 29,000 additional housing units in the area, of which 7,200 would be affordable, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The plan emphasizes building larger, more dense housing near transit.

People we spoke to at our community pop-ups shared a range of housing ideas. Some advocated specific housing policies, like, “I would like Oakland to build more densely so everyone can afford to live here.” Others were more passionate and general: “Everyone should be housed! Stop gentrifying,” wrote one. 

A woman's hands, right one holding a pink sharpie, are positioned above a sheet of paper that reads "fix the potholes, pick up the junk."
Residents share ideas about what to change in Downtown Oakland. (Walter David Marino)

One resident, a native of New York City, came to Oakland after retirement to live near his daughter. He recalled growing up in Brooklyn and seeing it transform from a mostly working-class borough into the more trendy and sought-after area it is today. He said he’d like to see downtown Oakland experience similar growth with greater investment in the area. 

Oaklanders also used the small, multicolored cards we provided to express their opinions on contentious issues like crime and safety downtown.

Public safety has been a hot-button issue for the city’s residents and elected officials, particularly over the past several years. As in many other U.S. cities, reported incidents of violent crime in Oakland rose during the pandemic and have remained high. Property crimes such as car break-ins and commercial burglaries also have increased since 2020. Mayor Sheng Thao made crime the focus of her State of the City address in October. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in February that 120 California Highway Patrols officers were being sent to Oakland and other parts of the East Bay to combat crime.

Residents we interviewed shared concerns about an uptick in crime in the city but also offered solutions. Some called for more policing: “More policing for property crime,” wrote one respondent. Others advocated for less: “Defund the police — fund housing, healthcare, school, culture/arts, literally anything else,” one person wrote, adding a smiley face at the end.

What’s next?

Next, The Oaklandside will co-host an informal community event with Oakland North and The Lowdown at 300 14th Street from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Thursday to highlight and discuss what we learned from the reporting. 

We welcome community members and others with a stake in downtown Oakland to join our reporters and editors who were involved in the project for an early evening of light refreshments and further discussion that can help to inform our future reporting about downtown Oakland. You may RSVP here.

This story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.

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  3. weyevi4638 on July 2, 2024 at 3:06 am

    The community engagement efforts by The Oaklandside, Oakland North, and The Oakland Lowdown to understand the perspectives of Oaklanders on the future of downtown are commendable. It’s refreshing to see journalists taking the time to connect directly with residents, rather than just sitting behind a computer screen like some omegle users. The insights gathered will surely help inform meaningful change for downtown Oakland.

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